New views for Chinatown
Homelessness adjacent to businesses.
Historical buildings too precious to demolish, but too seismically unsound to keep as they are.
A full block of surface parking too in-demand to develop, where it's agreed a vibrant development is critically needed.
These are a few of the grinding controversies facing modern development in Old Town Chinatown, a complicated neighborhood for land use where there are a mix of social services and business development initiatives, a variety of household incomes, and challenges presented by old brick materials in a protected historical district.
To help lead the way, the Old Town Chinatown Community Association (OTCCA) Land Use Committee has named Will Naito and Peter Englander as its new co-chairs. Helen Ying was re-elected as chair of the committee.
Land Use is one of many committees — like Design Review and Historic Landmarks — that prospective developers must pitch their projects before during the City of Portland's permit process. But instead of being a committee attached to a specific City Bureau, Land Use committees are organized by neighborhood and district. The way it is structured, there is no formal land use committee outside of the membership of the community association — in this case, OTCCA.
Peter Englander has been involved in Chinatown since 2005 as a public official and joined the OTCCA in 2017. Before that, he was director of Prosper Portland back when it was the Portland Development Commission.
"I've had a long interest in understanding land use, development, transportation and all factors regarding the continued volition of the neighborhood," Englander told the Tribune.
Will Naito has been a board member on the OTCCA for two years, and is a member of Prosper Portland's Budget Advisory Committee. His day job is working in commercial real estate development at Naito Development.
"This seemed like another opportunity where the community may be able to benefit from some of my professional expertise," Naito told the Tribune.
The neighborhood has a 50-50 mix of residents living below and above the median income, which is unusual in most neighborhoods. But a goal of Mayor Ted Wheeler's is to provide a mix of affordability living close to downtown. That, however, among other conflicting aspects of the neighborhood, proves to be challenging.
Priorities and parking
Both Naito and Englander said they want to continue the priorities of Chinatown's five-year plan, and then extend that for another five years.
"Those priorities include housing — making sure that the kind of development we have in the neighborhood is utilizing the variety of resources that the neighborhood has including cultural resources, as well as financial resources currently available in the neighborhood," Englander said.
Other priorities include preserving the context of historic properties.
"Land use plays a substantial role in overall economic development, which includes more people living here, more people working here, more people visiting the neighborhood and enjoying it," Englander said. "It includes a more robust retail sector in the neighborhood than it currently has."
Parking has been an issue since it is highly in demand.
"Any time we build anything, it takes away surface parking, and that adds to the demand still in this neighborhood," Englander said. "It's a neighborhood with one of the fastest-rising parking rates in the city."
He wants to provide more transparency about the Land Use committee to those in the neighborhood, and those who want to build in the neighborhood.
"Land Use is a very complex matter. The more we can provide information, help educate folks about the various issues we've talked about so far, and talk through it with them in an informed way, is really important," Englander said. "(Chinatown) has some of the most complex land uses in the city given all the different things we have there: all the cultural assets we have, the garden, the legacy center, the historical Japanese-American plaza ... certainly all the social services, shelters, transitional housing, and the amount of market-rate housing coming around and annuities accrued over the last 10 years, the flow of businesses moving in ... but crime adds to street culture and street wear on the neighborhood."
There are a number of higher education facilities in the neighborhood as well, including the University of Oregon's White Stag building, the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
"It's a highly-debated topic city-wide. In the neighborhood, we have a great amount of visitors coming into the neighborhood both in terms of cultural interest and education interest," Englander said. "They can't all take public transportation — we'd love it if they did, or bike, because it's one of the most accessible neighborhoods in the city with the streetcar, two MAX lines, the transit mall — it's a pretty easy place to get to, but there's still a pretty high demand for parking when you've got folks coming from all over the region."
Chinatown has seen a few false starts on certain development projects, such as Block 33, which recently went before the City Council and was approved for additional heights so the project could move forward on what's now surface parking.
"We're very supportive of the current development scheme for Block 33," Naito said. "We understand while the project is under construction, the neighborhood will lose that full block of parking, but the community association has always felt the benefits of having a catalytic development project on that block outstrips the negative impacts from losing that surface parking — although the project hasn't been fully designed yet, we're very hopeful it will include some shared parking component, probably below-grade, that will maintain a certain number of parking spots for visitors to the neighborhood."
Naito's family company also recently redevelopment developed the Grove Hotel at Fourth and Burnside adjacent to the Chinatown gate, so he has personal experience on the other side. The Grove Hotel, 421 S.W. Burnside, is slated for completion this summer under the Hoxton Hotel brand after being sold to London-based Ennismore International last November.
"Of the variety of different issues that made it challenging, first and foremost was the physical condition of the structure of the building itself, and also the layout — it's a very unusual building in that it's a full block wide, but only 30 feet deep," Naito said. "That's a function of the widening of Burnside in 1930. The City came in and condemned those properties and in the case of our property, demolished the first 20 feet of the building."
It went from being an efficient and typical 50x200 floorplan to being a very long and narrow building of 50x100. That's why the hotel ended up having the addition of a nine-story tower behind the historical frontage along Burnside.
"Doing something of that height on that small of a floorplan presents its own challenges: in order to erect a tower crane on the project, we had to cut a hole in the existing building and erect the tower crane inside the building, which is somewhat unusual for construction projects," Naito said. "Also, we're specifically sensitive to the neighborhood's historic designation and tried to come up with a quality design that was also compatible with the historic neighborhood character."
Since Chinatown is a historical district, it's very hard to get approval for demolitions even for buildings not on the national registry. But since many of the historical buildings are also made of bricks — or unreinforced masonry (URM) — there are new, expensive seismic requirements coming online for the owners of those buildings, as well.
"It's certainly a challenging area of Portland to do development in because there are all these constraints — we were very fortunate with The Grove to be able to thread the needle on it," Naito said. "I know other property owners where the combination of a historic district and the existing URM building is just proving to be an insurmountable challenge for them."
To rehabilitate buildings — such as The Society Hotel —and bring them up to new seismic code without demolishing it can cost upwards of $1 million, but doesn't negatively impact the historical feel of the neighborhood.
"They're very much a part of our neighborhood, they always have been and I think that's what gives the neighborhood this extraordinary character," Englander said. "There are imbalances that exist today, they exist everywhere, but these kinds of challenges are amplified in Old Town."
Musolf Manor, for example, was rehabilitated by Innovative Housing, Inc. — as were the Modern Rich Apartments and the Erickson Fritz Apartments also in Old Town.
"The very vibrant mix of uses and people and activity in the neighborhood gives it a unique character in the city, and people recognize that and appreciate it and want to be a part of it," Naito said. "I think that as we move forward in land use, it's always about making sure that all the uses in the neighborhood are in balance ... retail uses certainly are a part of that, and the neighborhood has always had social services and will always have them. I don't see business uses and social services as being incompatible with each other."
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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