Battle over Chinatown
Hoping to lease space for beds for the homeless in the Tuck Lung building in Chinatown, the Joint Office of Homeless Services was shot down.
While the County decided not to approve 100 homeless beds in the Tuck Lung building, located at 140 N.W. Fourth Ave., it said it wouldn't rule out Chinatown as a potential site for the necessary services during the housing crisis.
Chinatown is already the acting center of Portland's homeless service delivery system as the site of shelters, social service providers and low-income housing as well as unhoused Portlanders every night. Historically, the relationship to homelessness is part of the fabric of the neighborhood — but shouldn't be all of it, according to other stakeholders.
This poses challenges to the fabric of the neighborhood in its businesses, residents, educational and cultural organizations who are revitalizing and bringing balance to the neighborhood.
Members of the Old Town Chinatown community have been calling for more balance in the neighborhood for decades, and the proposal to put 100 beds in the Tuck Lung building struck up the controversy once again.
The Tuck Lung building was first constructed in 1867 as the first Chinese temple, or "joss house," in Chinatown. It's name was the Duck Loung & Co. building, which by 1870 housed 31 businesses including a Chinese grocery store, one of the oldest grocery stores and restaurants in Portland until it closed in the 1980s.
Since the 1980 closure, the property was unoccupied and fell into disrepair until White Oak Construction fixed up the top floor, about 9,500 square feet, for CRC Health in 2016. The renovations were approved through the City's Historical Design Review.
The Tuck Lung building is now owned by John Beardsley's (of the Beardsley Group) Fountain Village Development, which also owns and operates a portfolio of historic buildings downtown.
"He (John Beardsley) made some waves in the neighborhood when he leased the top floor of the building to a methadone clinic in 2015," said Sarah Stevenson, executive director of Innovative Housing Inc. and board member of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association (OTCCA).
"Current discussions are about the ground floor and basement."
The most recent previous owners are Albert and Vivian Wong.
"After the new owner leased the space to the methadone health service center, the Wong couple regretted passing the property to the wrong hands," said Hongcheng Zhao, Chinatown community advocate and a building owner in the neighborhood. "I will work with the community and the organizations in Chinatown for all the options we have. I am in contact with the stakeholders in Chinatown on this."
Fountain Village Development filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 bankruptcy during the downturn in 2009 and sold off a lot of its holding in the neighborhood: Blagen Block, New Market Theater and the briefly held Merchant Building, to name a few.
Beardsley still owns the Western Rooms and another building on the corner of Second and Burnside, and bought Tuck Lung in the last two years.
The Beardsley Group could not be reached for comment, but another retired Portland developer and former colleague of John Beardsley's told the Business Tribune that Beardsley's "MO was to buy buildings on the cheap and do as little to them as he could. That resulted in financial problems when his tenants didn't agree ... he has had several financial issues so may have closed his business."
History of conflict
Since the 1980s, Old Town has been fraught with street drinking, public urination and people sleeping in doorways, to which some businesses allegedly responded by installing sprinkler systems.
The relationship between social services and business development in Old Town hasn't changed much today, with disorderly streets leaving businesses without street traffic or paying customers.
The Clark-Shiels agreement was developed between Don Clark, director of Central City Concern in the '80s, and Roger Shiels, who represented Old Town businesses. It recognized the economic development agenda of the business community as having value, and recognized the right of social services to exist alongside them in the neighborhood.
Commonly called the No Net Gain agreement, it expressed a clear preference for permanent housing over shelter beds; placed a cap on shelter beds and single room occupancies (SROs) developed in the neighborhood; supported preservation of existing SRO hotels; supported services already in the area but expressed desire not to add to that inventory without demonstrating a compelling neighborhood need; and articulated an early priority for geographic dispersal of services.
The federal civil rights law called its legality into question, so the City incorporated its provisions into City zoning amendments that protect against over-concentration and expand possible locations for services.
The amendments made it easier to site services in commercial districts, promoting geographical dispersal between the east and west sides of the city. According to the OTCCA, these efforts and the balance they hoped to achieve were later upset when several key shelters were closed, leaving Portland's only remaining publicly funded shelter in Old Town Chinatown and in close proximity to several private, church-sponsored shelters.
When Mayor Hales declared a State of Emergency for Homelessness its effect in part suspended basic protections against further concentration of services that are embodied in Portland's zoning code. This concerned OTCCA members, but the City and County worked to locate shelters in many other parts of Portland rather than further concentrating them in Chinatown.
Adding more services to Chinatown would violate the No Net Gain agreement the City has in place with the neighborhood for decades, according to the OTCCA, who wrote a letter to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services Marc Jolin, and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
"The Community Association remains concerned about the siting of any additional homeless shelters in this neighborhood because of the concentration that already exists here, of both public and privately funded shelters and homeless services," Stevenson said. "While the Community Association remains a committed partner to the City and County as they address Portland's housing crisis, we also remain committed to No Net Gain and feel that further concentration of services and people with extremely high needs in such a small geographic area is not healthy for the individuals needing services, or the broader neighborhood."
The OTCCA's letter was signed by its board members, which include business owners in the area such as Cal Skate Skateboards, The Society Hotel, Northwest Health Foundation, Tube and Fortune, Cycle Portland, Venture Hospitality, the Roseland Theater, Naito Development and the owner of the Gevurtz Menashe Fleischner Mayer building.
"We fear that it is often too easy a solution to locate additional services in our neighborhood rather than dispersing them throughout the City," the letter said. "We urge you to embrace the No Net Gain principles embodied in the Clark-Shiels Agreement and site additional shelters and services outside of this already saturated neighborhood."
The OTCCA members understand the housing crisis state of emergency and applaud the County's work bringing new shelters online over the past year.
"We ... would respectfully ask that you not further concentrate homeless services in this neighborhood. We continue to oppose the concentration of new shelters and significant homeless services in Old Town," the letter said. "Continuing to concentrate homeless services in Old Town will undermine the goals of our Five Year Action Plan and the City's efforts to help us revitalize this culturally rich and historically significant district."
Targeting central city
County Chair Deborah Kafoury told the Business Tribune the County decided not to move forward with the 100 beds in the Tuck Lung building after speaking with the OTCCA last week.
"We talked about the Tuck Lung building and they told me about the important role it will play in the revitalization of the central city, and we also talked about the need for an additional 100 shelter beds somewhere in the central city," Kafoury said. "I'm hopeful that our conversation spurred some creativity and some energy on the part of those who were present to help us identify a location for those additional 100 beds."
The Tuck Lung building is located along Northwest 4th Avenue, less than two blocks from the Chinatown Gate that opens the district to West Burnside Street. The iconic location and historic Chinese style changed the County's mind about installing services.
"We would not rule out using a location in Chinatown, but anywhere in downtown Portland's central city, close-in right there is what we're looking at," Kafoury said. "It's not specific to Chinatown, it's specific to the Central City. There are people who are experiencing homelessness in the Central City and having them sleep in doorways and parking lots is not really helpful for anyone — businesses, neighborhoods or the individuals living there."
She emphasized setting up a 24-hour place where people could have access to services without waiting in a queue every morning and night to go in, and that's a large part of balancing services with business in the neighborhood.
"Getting people inside and getting people access to services, mental health services, and counseling is going to be better for the businesses and permanent residents, and for the individuals living on the streets," Kafoury said. "This is a continuing conversation we're having with people all over the County, and we look forward to continuing to have conversations. Everybody's going to have to play a part."