Downtown clean and safe - moving the needle
Despite the controversy over whether homeless people are bad for downtown businesses, a recently released annual survey found employment is up in the urban core and most retailers say they feel safe.
A growing percentage says cleanliness is a problem that needs to be addressed, however.
The annual survey was conducted and released by Downtown Clean & Safe, an affiliate of the Portland Business Alliance that works to improve downtown livability. Among other things, the survey found downtown employment increased by 2 percent between 2015 and 2016.
The 2016 Downtown Business Census & Survey also found wages in the downtown area increased 6 percent and the number of downtown businesses increased 4 percent.
"The continued growth in jobs and wages is great news for downtown Portland," said Peter Andrews, chair of the Downtown Clean & Safe board and a broker at Melvin Mark Companies. "Similar to past years, we saw employment increase in the technology sector, a booming industry in Portland."
Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and other business owners have recently complained that their employees have been harrassed by homeless people. Boyle even threatened to move his company's Sorel office out of downtown, prompting Mayor Ted Wheeler to designate a high-pedestrian zone around it — commonly called a no-sit zone. That prompted a protest in front of Columbia Sportswear's nearby flagship store on Saturday.
But when asked about safety in downtown, 95 percent of respondents said they feel downtown is safe. Despite that, Andrews praised Wheeler for his response.
"While this progress indicates that employment in downtown is thriving, we continue to work on Portland's livability issues. It is encouraging that Mayor Wheeler is addressing these concerns by announcing the city will implement additional tools to impact Portland's livability issues, such as high-pedestrian zones and expanded police walking patrols," Andrews said.
At the same time, when asked about cleanliness downtown, half of respondents said it needs improvement. The need for improved cleanliness has increased from 29 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2016.
Andrews said the Clean & Safe program is responding to those concerns.
"The Clean & Safe board recently made a number of investments to immediately address downtown cleanliness, including a 30 percent increase in staffing for mobile cleaning units, which are staffed by formerly homeless individuals contracted through Central City Concern's employment programs. Also, by summer 2018, we will have installed more garbage cans downtown, with the city providing more frequent collection. We look forward to continuing our work with the mayor and other elected leaders to ensure downtown is welcoming for business owners, employees and visitors alike," Andrews said.
The Business Tribune talked to some people working in downtown businesses recently. All related downtown's safety and cleanliness issues exclusively to homeless people, public substance abusers and "street kids."
Suzanne Losch owns Urban Fauna at 939 S.W. 10th Avenue. "Portland has failed. I used to feel Portland was one of the cleanest cities. Not anymore."
Most of the mess she saw was related to campers congregating around the freeways and their ramps.
"It's just dirty all over, it's just trash," she said of her commute from Scappoose. "I remember coming in from the airport and seeing all this trash on the side of the road, especially by Lloyd Center, and you think tourists are seeing all this garbage? It just looks horrible."
Losch said she doesn't see it as much downtown. In terms of safety, she is worried. She has lost business to people who won't bring their pets in for grooming or day care from the suburbs because they think it is dangerous. And Losch can see their point. "It's usually street people. My brother was walking with his five-year-old son and my brother got punched in the face for no reason. I had a customer get off the MAX and was hit in the head, she came in here to recover. No warning, no provocation."
Losch came from San Francisco 25 years ago and has had Urban Fauna in this location for six years. Her car has been broken into four times in the supervised lot behind the store, and all her staff have had theirs broken into. "I see it all from in here. People start disrobing in the street when they get high. I saw one woman take her top off and she had a big knife hanging off her."
She said she had no idea what drugs they were on but there were "needles everywhere."
That point was echoed by a downtown bike store manager who preferred not to be identified.
He said he had filled out Downtown Clean and Safe's business owner surveys for four years but skipped the last one, as they appeared to be making no difference.
"I haven't seen a reduction in graffiti or crime or transient activity, in fact it's gotten worse. It's just for them to have some numbers to say their vendors downtown are disappointed, but it doesn't help me. What's the point of having a survey if there's no change? I can't see it and I'm here every day. "
Safety has not gotten better in the five years he has been at the store. The amount of police activity has stayed the same. "We see rampant drug use in the bus stops or sitting out on the street, we see petty theft, people getting hassled as they're walking to the food carts, people yelling at them, primarily in front of the library area."
He sees the Clean and Safe people cleaning up frequently, but he is bothered by the number of needles, caps and shattered syringes. "We'll see folks getting drunk out here until they can't stand up, it's a regular thing. You can't arrest them but certainly it's affecting people wanting to be downtown and shopping."
He worries about how much PSU students are getting hassled by street kids in the Park Blocks.
"And if I call the police non-emergency lines, I get 'We're too busy, it'll take two hours... But there's only so many police and they have to prioritize the calls."
He says he is not sure if it has hurt his business. "My business is down but that's a national trend in this industry, I don't know if it has to do with people feeling safe down here." He says bike retail is down because the Baby Boomer generation, a big demographic, are ageing out, and the younger bike consumers have other sports such as paddling, and running and then there is competition from online shopping. "Plus, bike shop density in Portland is three times higher than there rest of the country. But I have 10 people working for me and I want them to feel safe. When I don't feel safe myself walking to get some tacos, it makes me nervous."
"With the protests, when you see trucks with riot police and tear gas going down the street—that's it I'm done. I sent my people home early," he said.
Mental health issues
Lydell Cole, assistant manager at Bait, a sneaker and designer toy store at 811 S.W. Broadway, told the Business Tribune, "I feel the streets are clean but not as safe as they used to be. We've had some crazy people come in here. I know a couple of other places have had the same issues, people walking in just out of their mind."
Dealing with them can be difficult.
"Some are easy to get out, then there are the ones who are just out of their minds, they're not right in their heads. It could be drugs, it could be mental. There's just some people around here that shouldn't be on the street."
Cole says he is wary walking the streets downtown, but wary only of street people. "I've seen people threatening people for no reason, and it's by a street person. So, I think they need to focus on that a bit more."
At the St. Honoré Bakery at 501 S.W. Broadway, customer service manager Emily Jeziorski said she felt safety was less of a concern than cleanliness on their block. "It's not so much what I'm seeing but what I'm smelling. In the summertime, especially it smells really badly of urine throughout the entire city." And she doesn't mean dog pee. "There's some street cleaning that needs to be done."
"I've been in the food service since I was 16. I'm trying to give customers a good experience." She moved here from upstate New York a year and a half ago.
If there is someone causing trouble, Jeziorski deals with it. "I don't scare easily. I recently had Clean and Safe add us to more of their sweeps. Since its gotten colder people are lingering more. I try not to be heartless but I do have a business to run."
This is a good block, and with the bank across Southwest Washington Street, she sees more police patrols. "I've never felt unsafe. I just make sure everyone has a good `experience."
Bike messenger Tim Keller is downtown 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. "It's got its rough spots for cleanliness. Downtown is not the prettiest place on earth. You get a little bit more towards the river, that's when it starts popping up a bit. A lot of junkies, a lot of methadone. They leave piles all over the places. The needles are pretty spooky."
What about safety?
"As a man, it doesn't seem too bad. But I do see a lot of overzealous people in the homeless community, people who want to start screaming. If you're not used to it, it can be frightening. But I don't see a lot of attacks, just a lot of puffing up, people trying to get them out of their space."
He thinks nervous suburbanites should worry less. "I think they don't know how to react. It's a lot of mental health. Without the proper outreach people are going to act out, without the correct medication. If you're not from here and you visit it's definitely jarring."
Key findings of the survey
Employment in the downtown area grew from 97,281 to 99,031 jobs between 2015 and 2016.
Total wages increased from $6,843,920,476 to $7,251,758,831 6 from 2015 to 2016.
Businesses in downtown increased from 4,770 to 4,958 between 2015 and 2016.
Sectors with the most notable employee increases include Finance and Insurance, Professional Scientific and Technical Services, as well as Educational Services, and Accommodation and Food Services.
Sectors with the most notable increase in the number of businesses downtown include Information, as well as Professional Scientific and Technical Services.
Top factors influencing businesses locating or staying in downtown include: 1) central location; 2) proximity to other businesses; and 3) access to public transportation.
Areas identified that need to be addressed include 1) transients, 2) panhandlers, and 3) parking.
The number of people taking public transportation continues to drop, while driving alone is rising; currently 53 percent of downtown workers drive.
The number of bike commuters remains unchanged from 2015 at 5 percent.
The Downtown Clean & Safe District conducts the Business Census & Survey each year, surveying employers within the I-405/I-5 loop. The district partners with Prosper Portland on employment data provided by the state of Oregon. Other survey data is collected using mailed questionnaires, personal follow-up and block-by-block canvassing to obtain a statistically
significant survey sample. Survey data was gathered from October 2015 to October 2016.
You can read the most recent and previous surveys at: http://cleanandsafepdx.com/research/business-census-survey.html
JIM REDDEN & JOSEPH GALLIVAN