TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Organizers of the James Beard Public Market at the western foot of the Morrison Bridge say the cloverleaf exit ramps need to be modified to improve pedestrian safety and make the market succeed. But the project could require millions of dollars in new money. Developers hoping to build a downtown high-rise atop the future James Beard Public Market closed a deal to buy the site Dec. 21 — within hours of the death of Ron Paul, a visionary restaurateur who championed the market for 16 years.

Named for the legendary chef and Portland native, the James Beard Public Market is slated to be a food and drink emporium akin to Seattle’s Pike Place Market or Vancouver’s Granville Island, at the western foot of the Morrison Bridge.

Paul stepped down last summer from directing the market project to undergo cancer treatment at Oregon Health & Science University. His good friend, Mayor Charlie Hales, said Paul was discharged early from a bone marrow transplant after his white blood cell count shot up to a healthy level, but later developed an infection that led to his death.

Fred Granum, hired to take the reins of the James Beard Public Market nonprofit in late September, said Paul’s death should redouble supporters’ efforts to raise money.

“He never gave up; I don’t think we will either,” said Dan Petrusich, Melvin Mark Development Co. president, who is in partnership with the nonprofit to develop a mixed-use high-rise above more than 90 food and drink stalls.

A partnership including members of the Mark family bought the site for $10.4 million from Multnomah County, Petrusich said. “This is a great milestone for us because now we do have site control,” he said.

The market has the potential to become an iconic Portland visitors attraction, but it’s a complicated endeavor on a complicated site, and progress has been slow. Site purchase came three and a half years after the Mark company first struck a deal to buy the site from the county.

If all goes well, backers now say groundbreaking won’t occur until at least 2018.

A year ago, market organizers enlisted the services of Snohetta, a world-class design firm based in Oslo, Norway. After a more thorough look at potential designs, organizers decided they need to seek changes in the exit ramps off the Morrison Bridge, which compromise pedestrian safety and access. The market is projected to be located partly under the ramps.

Petrusich and others would prefer the ramps get redesigned, with the northbound ramp connecting to Stark Street and the southern ramp connecting to Morrison Street.

That figures to be a multimillion-dollar fix, Petrusich said, but traffic studies must be conducted to determine the best solution and true costs.

Though work on the market continues on several fronts, fundraising is in the “quiet phase,” Granum said. Without modifying the ramps to improve pedestrian safety, “I cannot see that it would be feasible,” he said of the market project.

But Hales personally led a stakeholders group over the summer to consider the ramp dilemma, and is confident a solution will be forthcoming.

“There’s a design fix that’s affordable and really makes that project work,” Hales said. Paul had championed the project while serving as chief of staff to Hales when he was a city commissioner.

No single entity will be asked to shoulder the entire cost of realigning the ramps, Hales said. It’ll be more like a “10-layer cake,” he said, with money contributed by various parties, such as the Portland Development Commission.

Though fixing the ramps will make the James Beard Public Market more viable, it’s also a boon to the city’s effort to open up access to the waterfront, Granum said.

“Nobody is saying ‘no’ to realigning the ramps,” he said. The main questions are what fixes to do and who will pay for it. Now that the Mark partnership has control of the site, Petrusich said, “the next step is to correct the infrastructure that we need to fix down there.”

But the longer the fix takes, the greater the risk that backers fail to take advantage of Portland’s current real estate boom.

“It takes tenacity” to develop complicated downtown projects like this one, Petrusich said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

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