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Neighbors and fans of beloved garden center balk, want owners to provide community benefits

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - The Southeast Powell location will close, but five other locations around the city remain open. Southeast Powell Boulevard is seeing a lot of changes.

Beloved local bowling alley AMF Pro 300 saw its last open bowl Sept. 17, and will make way for a Target store.

Now, 61-year-old local garden shop Dennis' 7 Dees Garden Center, 6025 S.E. Powell Blvd., will be wiped out for a massive, three-story 900-unit self-storage facility.

The owners, 3 Dees Holdings LLC, is in the process of selling the land to Texas investment company Leon Capital Group. The $7.4 million self-storage facility would span 1.56 acres.

Some neighbors have criticized of the development, saying the storage unit would stick out like a sore thumb along bustling Southeast Powell Boulevard, which is lined mainly with storefront businesses, restaurants and schools.

A business decision

At the store last week, much of the nursery's plants and garden tools had been cleared out already while it holds a moving sale until an undisclosed date this month. The store still held classes for the community and planned one for the weekend. Employees were offered other positions in the company.

Dennis' 7 Dees is a four-generation family-run operation, having celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. While there now are five other locations throughout the metro area, Southeast Powell was its first.

President and owner David Snodgrass said the location was doing well, but Leon Capital Group approached them "out of the blue" with an offer that was too good to refuse.

"We weren't looking to sell, but we had a business that made us a great offer, and so it made us really stop and think about our business plan. So we decided the timing was right," Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass has had his eyes on growth — an article about the business in the Capital Press last year wrote that he envisions the 7 Dees as a $50 million company, and had put the family empire on a four-year plan to meet that goal.

Snodgrass said "box stores," like Fred Meyer and Home Depot, have expanding garden centers that are boosting competition. He said 7 Dees has been eyeing the booming suburbs of Beaverton and Hillsboro as a better spot for future business. He said there were no other offers for the Powell location.

Regarding the buyer he decided to sell to, Snodgrass said: "Really it's not our role to decide what kind of a building or what kind of business can operate in different areas. I think when it's all said and done, I think people might relax about the business and the use."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Dennis' 7 Dees Garden Center on Southeast Powell Boulevard is still open as it sells the last of its stock.

'It's a tough case'

Some neighbors aren't about to relax for a storage unit, though.

"It's really a lot. It's big," said John Carr, South Tabor Neighborhood Association land use chair, about the proposed storage facility. "The neighborhood sentiment has generally been, it's disorienting. To go from something that's so neighborhood friendly. It's a walkable, almost parklike setting of a plant nursery and a retail destination for the neighborhood. To go from that all the way to a large built storage locker, it's jarring."

Since it's a storage facility, few jobs are likely to be generated, though Leon Capital Group representitives didn't respond to requests to comment or confirm.

"Our community is a residential neighborhood. Powell is lined with schools and is not an industrial area. It should not be approved for commercial industrial use such as this, said neighborhood resident Amy Spears. "Our community needs another retail establishment that creates jobs or affordable housing. Not something that will benefit only one person."

The area has another storage facility in construction near the Fubonn Shopping Center on Southeast 82nd Avenue.

The South Tabor and Foster Powell neighborhood associations have been engaged during the land-use review process, and have sent a lengthy letter to the city. Residents submitted more than 30 comments to the Bureau of Development Services.

The city agency is paying particularly close attention to this case before approving it.

At first officials weren't even sure if a self-storage facility could go in that lot, zoned for general commercial use.

"It's a tough case, one that the city is taking seriously," said Cassandra Ballew, with land-use services at BDS and point person for the case. "We have a couple facilities like this in and around town that are being reviewed, and this one, when it came in, we first looked at the use to see if it's allowed in the zone." She said it is indeed allowed, but poses a challenge in getting the purpose of the zone achieved because "by nature, (storage facilities are) an inactive use."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - The 7 Dees business is on its fourth generation of family ownership, but owners decided to sell the Southeast Portland location to a Texas company that is planning a massive storage facility.

A rise in self-storage facilities

According to writing on Leon Capital Group's website, the demand for self-storage units has increased greatly over the past 10 years. Their website states that although there's a need, few facilities actually have been built.

"This dearth of new construction has benefited existing facilities which have seen occupancy and rent numbers at or near all-time highs. This has caused many industry veterans to proclaim that the next 5-7 years in the self-storage industry could be the greatest development opportunity the industry has ever seen," it reads.

Though the group is based out of Texas, it only has three storage facilities there — and five in the permitting/design phase in the greater Portland area, including Vancouver, Gresham, Milwaukie and near Portland International Airport, according to a map on their website.

The city confirmed an increase.

"I have two under my belt. Another planner has one. So we are seeing a little bit of an increase in them. I don't want to speculate without research about what's causing that, (but) I think we can all kind of speculate on increase in units and rise of population of Portland," Ballew said.

Because of the increase, the city is taking another look at its self-storage design guidelines. The current code allows it to take a look at design review for commercial zones, for things like aesthetics and other qualities going in to a development. But the storage design guidelines are a little different.

"The self-storage design guidelines are from a different era and a little less beefy. So we're doing the best we can with the code that's allotted to us," Ballew said. "They don't necessarily address many of the issues that the community is raising."

This included heightened security, lighting and other issues. Portland Maps shows a higher rate of property crimes, especially theft, than the city average for that location.

"It's on our radar to figure out how to address these issues, especially when facilities are going into neighborhoods like this on commercially zoned streets, which are slated to be major transit-pedestrian thoroughfares, and slated to receive a lot of growth in the city," Ballew said. "We don't want to see them taken over by facilities that won't meet the purpose in terms of active use, pedestrian-friendly frontages."

The neighborhood has requested that the storage facility include additional uses on its ground floor, including a "flexible community space" and small office spaces.

The city has sent the developer comments from the neighborhood and "highly recommended" that they address them, including additional concerns from the Bureau of Environmental Services.

The developer hasn't yet responded to comments. There is still an appeal process that neighbors could go through.

"It's not really a benefit to the neighborhood, but if it's going to happen, it needs to bring some benefit," Carr said.

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