Circling the Street

Photos by | Jason Kaplan

Development challenges put squeeze on iconic salvage business.

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On a busy street in North Portland sits an eye-catching building emblematic of the city’s pioneering support of recycling and reuse in the building-materials sector.

Designed by well-known community organizer and architect Mark Lakeman, the façade of the ReBuilding Center on North Mississippi Avenue features salvaged doors, windows and moldings.

It is a colorful representation of the used building materials sold at discounted prices inside the store’s 53,000-square-foot warehouse.

One of the first consumer-salvage retailers in town, the Rebuilding Center helped catalyze economic development along the Mississippi corridor. Seventeen years after the store opened, the street is buzzing with boutiques, breweries, hip eateries like Por Que No and Blue Star Donuts, and numerous newly built residential units.

But there is a downside to the growth.

Sales at the ReBuilding Center have been flat for the past five years, and executive director Stephen Reichard, who joined the nonprofit in July 2015, expects the business to either lose money or break even this year.

Competition from other firms in Portland that sell salvaged wood is part of the problem. But the center’s main challenge is a prosaic problem stemming from the uptick in real estate development: a lack of parking.

“It is increasingly difficult to park in the neighborhood. There has been a measurable drop in sales,” Reichard says.

Many businesses complain about parking, of course, but it is a particularly serious issue for the nonprofit; excepting the die-hard move by biker, it is impossible for customers to transport most of the store’s materials, which include salvaged bathtubs, chairs, tables, without a vehicle.

Only limited parking is available on site.

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As he struggles with urban density, Reichard is looking at ways to stay relevant in an increasingly competitive retail market.

Diversifying the nonprofit’s income streams is at the top of his priority list, and one of his strategies is to increase philanthropic support to 10% of revenue, up from 6% to 7% last year.

The nonprofit recently received a grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to create an online sales and inventory system so that the business can broaden its reach to customers outside of Portland.

The Center is also rebranding away from being simply a building-materials reuse store to cementing its mission as a vehicle for strengthening the community in which it is located. To that end Reichard is looking at increasing educational classes, such as carpentry workshops for children and adults.

And together with a number of like-minded organizations in the reuse space, the ReBuilding Center is seeking funding to study the feasibility of a “reuse mall,” a one-stop drop-and-shop location.

Such a venue might include a large maker space, as well as space for manufacturing. The center would also serve as a vehicle for driving equity, Reichard says.

As he works internally to diversify income and services, city regulations are helping shore up the business. A new Portland ordinance requires homes built before 1916 to be deconstructed and materials salvaged rather than simply demolishing the homes.

“It is increasingly difficult to park in the neighborhood. There has been a measurable drop in sales.”

Now a regulatory solution to the nonprofit’s parking-induced woes may be on the way — “may” being the operative word.

A couple of years ago, the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Centers + Corridors Parking Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee recommended a residential parking permit program for city centers and corridors.

The committee created a “parking tool kit” in March 2016, which recommends strategies, such as parking-permit programs, paid parking and ways to create new parking supply.

But despite committee members spending more than a year to create the tool kit at a cost to taxpayers, the city council has not voted on implementation.

Committee members, along with several neighborhood groups, have in the past few months written to Mayor Ted Wheeler and city commissioners urging them to vote on implementing parking-management strategies.

“It is critical to allow communities to take action to manage on-street parking before another round of widespread development without on-site parking takes place,” wrote Anthony Jordan in a recent letter to city officials. Jordan is the founder of Portlanders for Parking Reform, a local advocacy group.

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Slow moving council members are not the only obstacle. A lack of unified voice from the business community could further delay solutions. Kay Newell, owner of Sunlan Lighting, located on the Mississippi Avenue corridor, opposes metered parking in her neighborhood, despite having lost thousands of dollars in sales over the past year because of the lack of parking.

“Free parking is a big draw,” Newell says. Other businesses, including the Northeast Broadway Business Association, are against parking management strategies put forth by PBOT’s advisory committee.

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A saving grace for the ReBuilding Center is that it owns the store’s premises, an acre and a half of property stretching a whole block between North Fremont street and North Beech street. It is extremely “valuable” real estate, Reichard says.

Owning the property means the center is insulated from another knock-off effect of gentrification — rent hikes. But Reichard has no plans to sell out.

Cities grow, cities change, but infrastructure and regulations are often slow to catch up. The neighborhood development the Center helped spur is now contributing to its financial challenges. And for this nonprofit, the solutions can’t come fast enough.

“The No. 1 issue is parking. It is growing worse,” says Reichard.

Editor’s note:  An earlier version of this article appeared online last month. This story appears in the September issue of Oregon Business magazine.