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The pitch to officials overseeing the Portland Expo Center revived a plan first discussed more than a year ago.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND EXPO CENTER/BRUCE FORSTER - Portland and Metro officials are proposing a managed parking facility for homeless people at the Portland Expo Center.A proposal to turn part of the Portland Expo Center into a managed parking facility for homeless people living in vehicles will likely face an uphill battle.

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson and Portland city commissioners Dan Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty convened a special meeting Monday, April 18, with the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission (MERC) to discuss the proposal.

The commission, which is made up of seven Metro Council-appointed members, is tasked with ensuring the financial stability of the Expo Center and two other Metro-owned venues — the Oregon Convention Center and Portland'5 Center for the Arts.

After Metro and Portland officials outlined how the facility could function, MERC commissioners raised several concerns, including those about the availability of support resources for occupants and potential impacts to the surrounding area and other uses of the venue.

"It is very important to me that we make sure that we are doing all that we can to keep the area economically prosperous, safe for all," said MERC chair Karis Stoudamire-Phillips. "We do have, you know, concerns, and I feel that we'll be able to have that conversation. This is the beginning of conversations."

The 53-acre Expo Center sits just west of Interstate 5 on North Marine Drive, which runs parallel to the Columbia River. The site includes large parking lots and five exhibit halls, which host more than 100 events annually, according to Metro. The Expo Center has also recently served as a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site.

Amid an ongoing regional housing and homelessness crisis, Portland and Metro officials said Monday the proposed facility could reduce a large number of people living in their vehicles who are parked in public spaces. The issue is particularly prevalent in North Portland, Metro officials say.

"One of the top constituent concerns we hear is related to RV parking throughout the city," said Hardesty, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, in a letter to MERC ahead of the meeting Monday.

The safe parking facility would be similar to the Safe Rest Villages planned for six locations in Portland, said Chariti Montez, manager of the program for Ryan's office. The program will include a managed parking facility in North Portland's Sunderland neighborhood.

"This is not permanent housing," Ryan said, adding that people would be connected to mental health and addiction resources at the facility, with the goal of transitioning to permanent housing. "We need these onramps" to permanent housing.

Officials are proposing to operate the Expo Center facility for 18 to 21 months. It would be staffed 24/7 by a shelter operator and include bathrooms, showers, common spaces, and laundry and trash services, Montez said.

Some people who would be eligible to use the facility have RVs that are immobile, she said, adding that their team is working with PBOT to come up with a plan to either tow vehicles to the site or repair them. 

Metro officials have identified three areas along North Force Avenue in the southwestern portion of the Expo Center that could be used for the facility.

But challenges exist in each area.

Some challenges aren't new. Peterson and Ryan first discussed using the Expo Center as a managed safe parking location more than a year ago. Costs associated with the project led Portland officials to explore other locations. One sticking point was related to the cost of paving a lot, as Portland city code requires, the Willamette Week reported.

Two areas under the new proposal — the upper and lower portions of "upper lot 6" — would require paving. Metro officials say the lower portion doesn't have access to electricity and would require other significant improvements such as leveling and vegetation removal. The upper portion is used for long-term materials storage and sometimes parking.

The most suitable area, called "upper lot 5," is already paved and has electricity, but it's used for staging of large events at the Expo Center and overflow parking.

Kristin Dennis, chief of staff to the Metro Council, said Metro has contracts for future events at the expo center that include the use of upper lot 5. Metro officials say they ruled out other Expo Center areas because they would require canceling contracts.

Stoudamire-Phillips asked how officials would deal with any immobile vehicles at the site when the facility closed. She was also concerned about how officials would ensure no stolen vehicles came to the site.

Commissioner John Erickson asked whether people at the facility would have access to vehicle maintenance resources, adding that he knows RVs take a lot of maintenance.

Commissioner Deidra Krys-Rusoff voiced concerns about potential drug use at the facility and the safety of Expo Center visitors.

While the facility would be low-barrier, meaning sobriety and other restrictive policies wouldn't be conditions of use, people would have to go through a service provider referral process and agree to standards of conduct, said Jake Dornblaser, community engagement coordinator for the Safe Rest Village program.

Krys-Rusoff also said she was concerned that the facility would attract unsanctioned camping near the Expo Center.

"One of the things that I would want to see before we would enter into any kind of serious discussion would be that there would be a dedicated service that would come in and help clear those folks to a more amenable location," she said.

Commissioner Dañel Malán said "good neighbor agreements," which are established between shelter operators and nearby businesses and residents, haven't always been upheld to people's satisfaction in Portland.

Ryan validated commissioners' concerns and emphasized the severity of the homelessness crisis.

"The impact of the humanitarian crisis on our streets is one of our biggest challenges," he said. "We're innovating, it's messy."

The meeting ended with commissioners asking for Portland and Metro officials to provide additional answers to questions about their concerns after the meeting.

Metro staff need direction from MERC to develop cost estimates, according to the meeting memo. They have already started exploring ways to reduce potential capital costs, however.

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