Wong Laundry: a new Chinatown
Wong Laundry, a 1908 building in Chinatown made from unreinforced masonry, could be facing demolition after sitting vacant since 1975: the new owners filed an early assistance application for demolition last week.
Hongcheng Zhao, the registered agent of Portland Chinatown Development 219 LLC, represents the new owners of Wong Laundry building, 219 N.W. Third Ave.
Zhao wrote a letter to the former owners, a couple who had been there for more than half a century with their family of three generations. They raised their children in the building.
"Because of the family history, they just couldn't let go — until we showed up," Zhao told the Business Tribune. "The couple was deeply moved by what we are doing for Chinatown, but long story short, we have a promise to the owners."
"We were trying to convince them we are the best ones to take over their property with the promise we are going to do whatever we can to preserve the heritage of Chinatown and the legacy of the Wong family," Zhao said. "At the same time, we are trying to do our best to revamp Chinatown, so that's why we are going to keep the look of the original beauty — it is going to be intact."
But because of the Chinatown location, obtaining a demolition permit for a building within a historic district could pose challenges — despite its unreinforced masonry and vacant state.
"Just one year ago, the older generation of Chinese were trying to leave Chinatown after seeing no ending of deterioration of the neighborhood, so everybody said no. After we stepped in last Spring, we brought a whole lot of new energy and new hope to Chinatown, we worked with all the traditional Chinese organizations in Chinatown and eventually everyone was convinced that we need to stay — we can turn it much better than it used to be," Zhao said. "Right now, we are coordinating efforts with all of Chinatown and we feel in the best position to make the Portland Chinatown the best Chinatown in the whole nation."
Nonprofit Restore Oregon listed Wong Laundry as a Most Endangered Place in 2014. The building has been experiencing demolition by neglect due to lack of financing.
"Restore Oregon would vigorously oppose demolition of the Wong Laundry building, but we are happy to support the owners in their exploration of ways it could be adaptively reused," Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, told the Business Tribune. "I sat on the Advisory Committee that established design guidelines for the district and we're excited about its prospects for both restoration of the existing historic building and compatible infill development on the open lots."
In the Type 4 demolition review process, this first early assistance application is voluntary. Next comes a required pre-application conference with the Historic Landmark Commission, who would offer their advice to the City Council, the ultimate approval or denial body.
"The approval criteria for approving demolition of a contributing resource is that it's on balance to meet the goals and policies of the comprehensive plan," said Hillary Adam, senior planner with the City of Portland. "It's a pretty high bar."
Adam said the drawing she saw for the proposed eight-story building was narrow, about 50 feet wide by 100 feet.
"A similar situation like this occurred where there was a relatively small contributing building that had been modified to a significant degree. It wasn't really in use and the applicant wanted to demolish it and build a relatively large, market-rate apartment building on that site," Adam said. "The City Council denied it, saying there wasn't enough of a public benefit they were proposing in its place. Unless this applicant were to propose something that offered some substantial public benefit, I think the same case could be made."
The new plan
"There are several things that Chinatown badly needs. One is more foot traffic, more people to come in," Zhao said. "Last night I was there for a meeting and I couldn't find a parking space. During the day, you don't see many people there except homeless people, and that's not right."
The first floor of the proposed replacement building is going to be business-oriented, to draw people to the neighborhood.
"We need more businesses for the neighborhoods, so that's why we are going to reserve the first floor for retail," Zhao said. "In particular, we are going to have the best restaurant for Chinese cuisine — not cheap, high-end, the best of the best from China."
The second floor will be for the community.
"We are going to keep a big open space for the community to use: you can do weddings, you can hold conferences, you can do social events, whatever," Zhao said. "We feel like this is a part of things we need to get back to the community."
Plans for the top six floors are residential.
"On the third floor up, we are going to build living space — either condos or apartments," Zhao said. "Why? Because it's for Chinatown, not only for business. We also need people to stay there, live there — that really makes a neighborhood a liveable place."
The City is currently in the process of drafting new rules for updating unreinforced masonry buildings with seismic retrofits.
"The proposed mandated seismic retrofitting standards are not yet final or approved," Moretti said. "I sit on the committee that is drafting the final recommendations and we are keenly aware that financial tools need to be provided to help owners address the cost of retrofitting."
Kirk Ranzetta is the chair of the Historic Landmarks Committee, which is involved in the land use review to provide a recommendation to the City Council.
"It is a balancing act," Ranzetta said. "We are advocating for Portland's historic architectural legacy, but we also recognize the life and safety problems that URMs pose."
If the seismic retrofitting mandate passes, owners would have 20 years to phase in the standards.
"There are not a lot of easy solutions to the URM issue," Ranzetta said. "In a general sense, the Commission's hope is to work with applicants to achieve seismic reliability while also identifying funding options to offset the often prohibitive costs of seismic retrofits, while also trying to retain as much historic fabric as possible."
"There's no way you can keep this building as it is, even if you do all the earthquake reinforcements," Zhao said. "That a particular requirement — yeah, it's half a million dollars."
Zhao said they had professionals come look at the impact of the work, but even with the new URM requirements, the building still wouldn't make it through an earthquake — although it wouldn't fall on pedestrians or nearby buildings, it likely wouldn't be salvageable afterward.
"That's why we feel like instead of us wasting money on that, we want our own and the first reason is our promise to the recent owners," Zhao said. "So I have a solution: we are going to work very closely with the city. I know it's going to be added work for us to develop this property, but we want it to seem right."
Zhao and his team have close contacts with many communities in Chinatown and around Portland, which helped them decide what would be welcomed by the community — and what should be excluded.
For example, the eight dragon statues the City commissioned for a Chinatown festival in 2006 (people don't forget) were offensive to the Chinese community.
"The dragon is supposed to represent a symbol of going up, but the artists rendered the dragon going down, and a stainless steel ring around the dragon's neck that chokes the dragon," Zhao said. "When I think about it, my heart hurts."
The meeting to discuss removing the dragon sculptures from Chinatown was held in the Jade District, along Southeast 82nd Street.
Zhao said now his team is ready to work on the district's master plan to revitalize Chinatown with the properties owned by Chinese people and organizations.
"We are working as one community, no matter what dialect we speak, what economic social status we have and what political burdens we carry," Zhao said. "Wong Laundry will help set the tone for such an effort."
Historically, Portland's Chinese have been pushed out of the Old Town Chinatown district downtown to the eastside Jade District along 82nd Avenue (the older generation) or to the westside Bethany (the younger generation who work in the Silicon Forest at Intel for example).
That's part of why Zhao chose the Wong Laundry building: it's a central place to meet as a community.
Zhao and thirteen partners cashed in together to buy the property from the Wong family, and no partner will hold more than a one-third share to keep it part of the community. With each partner added, family stakes increase, and Zhao estimates the Portland Chinatown Development 219 LLC brings more than 100 community members together in partial ownership.
"If we could replicate it, thousands of people could be very interested and invested right here," Zhao said. "We passed the message across the nation with an info hub on social media to Chicago, San Francisco, D.C., Houston and Philadelphia. Portland is the flagship to rebuild Chinatown."
Some of the partners have small property management experience with rentals or building their own house, and one is a civil engineer who worked on the early stage design, but none have significant property development or investment experience.
"The Chinese community is no longer what people perceived over the years," Zhao said. "We are changing."