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Developer's plan for old hotel could force action as homeless group sues to block fines

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A developer is asking the city to remove the camp so he can convert a former hotel into a youth hostel and restaurant.As far as Old Town property owner Michael Wright is concerned, fellow Old Town property owner David Gold is bluffing.

City officials also hint that they think the same.

The stakes are high. In the balance is the future of two of the most visible properties in downtown.

Wright is co-owner of the corner lot at Northwest Fourth Avenue and West Burnside Street, now home to the Right 2 Dream Too homeless encampment. Gold has been working with city officials for two years to turn the abandoned Grove Hotel on West Burnside Street into an international youth hostel. The Grove sits directly across Fourth Avenue from Right 2 Dream Too.

Two weeks ago, Gold told the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood association that unless the city removes Right 2 Dream Too he will abandon his plan for the youth hostel complex — a plan to which the Portland Development Commission has already committed more than $2 million. Gold says the development will not be financially feasible unless he can put a restaurant on the ground floor, and no restaurant will rent the space that faces the homeless camp.

Right 2 Dream Too has amassed fines since its camp, which opened in October 2011, was declared in violation of city code. Gold sent a letter to neighboring businesses asking that they complain to the Portland Bureau of Development Services about Right 2 Dream Too, essentially putting pressure on the bureau to take stronger action than its monthly $1,200 fines, only a small amount of which have been paid by the homeless group camping in the neighborhood.

Gold even made it easy: one of the attachments he distributed requires only a signature and a name before faxing. His campaign has been successful. More than 40 of the ready-made complaints were faxed into the bureau in the week after Gold sent his request.

And yet, PDC officials say their agreement with Gold — sale of the building at a discounted $550,000 and $2.64 million in PDC loans to help Gold develop the property — remains in place. Discussions with him are also continuing without a hitch, according to Stephen Shain, PDC’s urban renewal manager. Shain expects the deal to close within the next month.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Since its closure, the Grove Hotel has stood empty in Old Town. PDC officials are hoping a project that will include a hostel and restaurant can help spur development in the area near West Burnside Street and Northwest Fourth Avenue.“How he has represented this to us is he is moving forward to close on this property,” Shain says. “We are in conversations with him on a regular basis.”

Gold declined to be interviewed for this story.

Right 2 Dream Too’s reaction to the push to have the homeless campers removed or relocated isn’t likely to speed things up. Last week, the nonprofit filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court challenging the city’s claim that the group is in violation of city code. That makes the possibility of a quick resolution to the Right 2 Dream Too property controversy even less likely.

‘It’s about money’

Portland attorney Mark Kramer, who is representing Right 2 Dream Too for free, says the Bureau of Development Services erred when it decided the encampment needed to meet the zoning standards of a recreational campground. In fact, city code does not contain rules governing an urban homeless site. Bureau officials adopted last year state recreational campground rules that they say Right 2 Dream Too must meet.

Kramer says Right 2 Dream Too more closely resembles Dignity Village, a homeless community endorsed by the city near Portland International Airport. Dignity Village is considered transitional housing accommodations.

As far as Kramer is concerned, the battle for the Right 2 Dream Too property isn’t really about zoning or homeless rights. “It’s about money,” he says. “I think it’s pretty obvious that there are competing interests.”

Right 2 Dream Too’s interest, Kramer says, is to provide affordable housing for the homeless. “That’s competing with development interests that want this to be an emerging and expanding part of the Pearl District,” he says.

“I don’t think people should be forced out when they’re good neighbors, and Right 2 Dream Too is a good neighbor. If Right 2 Dream Too were located at 76th and Sandy we’d probably be in an entirely different situation.”

In fact, Right 2 Dream Too has earned praise from many in Old Town/Chinatown as a good neighbor. Even Northwest Entertainment District police have said the campers help them identify late-night troublemakers.

But the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association added its voice to the complaints about the camp because members object to its location next to the Chinatown Gate. In addition, the Portland Business Alliance recently sent a letter to city officials asking for removal or relocation of Right 2 Dream Too.

Even though both Gold and members of Right 2 Dream Too have said they want the same thing — moving Right 2 Dream Too to another site — it appears little progress has been made in working toward that goal.

Right 2 Dream Too spokesman Ibrahim Mubarek says the lawsuit came after fruitless meetings with City Commissioner Dan Saltzman about potential alternate sites for the group.

“We figured the best thing was to sue them and maybe they’d come to the table,” Mubarek says.

Saltzman declined to be interviewed for this story because of the litigation.

Wright, co-owner of the property that is being leased (basically for free) to Right 2 Dream Too, says Gold’s effort to generate complaints appears to have triggered more Bureau of Development Services inspections at the site, and that BDS inspectors recently questioned the size of one of the camp’s tents.

“I think they’re trying to administer as much pressure as they can,” Wright says.

Still, he’s convinced that Gold is bluffing about pulling out of the hostel development as long as Right 2 Dream Too remains across the street.

“I think there’s too much money on the table to be made for it to be anything other than that,” Wright says.

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