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Renovation years in the making - and arguing - starts Sunday and may finish in 2009
by: L.E. Baskow, Yousif Jabbary of the 4th Ave. Smoke Shop (left) and Bob Repp of Atlasta Lock and Safe Co. disagree on the effect of the traffic changes on their businesses. Soon they’ll know for sure.

Even though they work just a few doors apart, Bob Repp and Yousif Jabbary disagree on how the transit mall renovation project will affect their downtown businesses.


TriMet will move all bus routes off the mall Sunday for two years while Fifth and Sixth avenues are torn up and rebuilt. Some of the routes will be relocated to Fourth Avenue, where a shiny new covered bus stop now sits outside Atlasta Lock and Safe Co., the business Repp owns at 510 S.W. Fourth Ave.

Standing in the small shop he has occupied for 17 years, Repp said he fears that frequent buses and crowds of riders will discourage customers and hurt his sales. Repp also believes the noise and fumes from the diesel buses will interfere with the enjoyment he gets from sitting in a chair on the sidewalk on sunny days.

'I'm not looking forward to the next two years,' Repp said.

A few doors to the south, Jabbary believes the coming bus riders will mean increased sales at the 4th Ave. Smoke Shop, the tobacco and convenience store he manages at 514 S.W. Fourth Ave.

'More people means more customers,' Jabbary said.

Two blocks to the west, Steve Rowe believes the scheduled construction will be so bad that he is closing his business, Cascade Cigar and Wine Inc., at 518 S.W. Sixth Ave., after Jan. 19.

'I figure there will be a 20 percent to 25 percent drop in business,' said Rowe, who decided against renewing his lease for five years because of the anticipated drop in revenue.

Although Rowe will still own a tobacco store at 9691 S.E. 82nd Ave., he is undecided about whether to open a second store again.

A few doors to the south of Rowe's downtown shop, Sarah Brandt can't decide whether the project will be good or bad for the restaurant where she works, the Island Joe Tropical Cafe at 538 S.W. Sixth Ave. According to Brandt, many construction workers who are toiling on the numerous projects around town already eat there.

At the same time, as the work has increased at the downtown Macy's block, formerly home to Meier and Frank, across the street, Brandt said that some regular customers have stopped coming in.

'We're just going to have to wait and see,' Brandt said.

The renovation project may be the biggest challenge downtown has faced since the mall was first built 25 years ago. Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams said the city and TriMet have made many plans to minimize disruptions to downtown residents, businesses and workers.

They include reopening Southwest Naito Parkway to traffic the day before the buses are relocated. The mall will also be rebuilt and reopened one block at a time instead of all at once, allowing for traffic flow and quicker replacement of parking near businesses.

Still, Adams knows that the project will mean years of inconvenience for many Portlanders.

'A certain level of disruption is to be expected. The key is for everyone to be adaptable,' he said.

Feds pay more than half

Downtown business leaders have pushed for the renovation project for many years.

Although the original mall was hailed as a model for transit use, it has not aged well. The large covered shelters frequently have served as havens for transients and drug dealers. Some of the road surfaces have deteriorated over time.

And the decision to remove automobiles from parts of the central mall is now seen as one that prompted some retailers to move out of the downtown area.

The renovation project aims not only to solve these problems, but to bring more people downtown by adding a new light-rail line on Fifth and Sixth avenues between Union Station and Portland State University.

The mall work is part of a larger, $557.4 million project - called the Interstate 205/Portland Mall MAX Light Rail Project - that will also add a new light-rail line between the Gateway Transit Center and Clackamas Town Center.

The Federal Transit Administration is expected to pay 60 percent of the total costs, approximately $334.4 million.

Since it was first proposed several years ago, the cost of the downtown project has substantially increased. Early reports estimated it at $165 million. Now it is predicted to cost $215 million.

Although it has received little press attention, the $50 million increase falls just $7 million short of the total cost of the Portland Aerial Tram, a local transportation project heavily criticized for its cost overruns.

The downtown portion of the project is being funded by a variety of sources. The city already has committed more than $28 million to the project, including $17 million in parking meter fees, $10 million from the Portland Development Commission and $1.3 million in Transportation System Development Charges.

Businesses will chip in

The council also has approved the creation of a Local Improvement District that will assess properties adjacent to the mall $21 million to help pay for the project.

Although most property owners in the district approved the assessment, Rowe said it contributed to his decision to close his tobacco store.

'Not only will my business go down, my landlord will increase my rent to pay for the work,' he said.

Adams is convinced the cost will be worth it, however. He believes the project has already helped attract $275 million in private investment in the downtown core, including the remodeling of the Macy's block and several new condominium projects.

Steve Trujillo, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said the people who live downtown hope Adams is right.

'At this point the consensus seems to be, yeah, something needed to be done, but this is going to be a pain,' Trujillo said.

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