Saving Downtown

Photo: Jasaon E. Kaplan
A Portland downtown street with boarded-up storefronts

A grassroots group aims to save small businesses in Portland’s city center from financial ruin.

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Jim Mark, CEO of real estate developer Melvin Mark, walks around downtown Portland most days of the week, and is more familiar than most with the property damage that has occurred over the past several months stemming from the Black Lives Matter protests.  

He has become frustrated with what he perceives as the inaction of elected officials to try to prevent criminal defacement of property, such as broken windows and graffiti, which has led businesses to board up their windows and storefronts.

This frustration led Mark, along with Vanessa Sturgeon, CEO of real estate firm TMT Development, to form a group — the Rose City Downtown Collective — to help small businesses clean up their storefronts.

BoardedUp RestaurantA boarded-up downtown Portland restaurant  Photo: Jason E Kaplan

“What was really frustrating was we were trying to have conversations about the difficulties our small businesses were having during the unrest, and it seemed there wasn’t any reaction from the top leaders, including the governor and the Multnomah County chair,” says Mark.

Rose City Downtown Collective has quickly grown to 300 members. Sturgeon says the increase in members happened quickly and “without a lot of effort.”

“Now that we have rolled out our plan, we are getting a lot of requests from people to sign on,” says Sturgeon.  

The real estate developer, who has tenants in downtown Portland, says she started the group to give a voice to small businesses, such as retailers and restaurants, whose concerns, she says, have gone unheard.

ArtisticPortlandBoardedUpBusinesses have had to completely board up their storefronts to avoid damage  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

“We reached out to smaller businesses that didn’t have the same kind of access to City Hall that we usually enjoy as real estate developers, so that City Hall was seeing this from lots of different angles,” says Sturgeon.

The events that led up to the vandalism and boarded-up storefronts, which now characterize downtown, are complex. The leaders of the new group are at pains to point out that they are not against the peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, who have demonstrated nightly for the past several months for racial justice following the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer. The killing sparked protests against systemic racism across the country. Portland’s protests were the longest-lasting in the nation.   

Joining the peaceful protesters were a group of rioters who vandalized downtown properties. Mark says the impact of the damage was made worse by the Multnomah County district attorney’s decision not to prosecute crimes that resulted in damage of less than $1,000. The costs of repairs have been difficult to bear for small businesses that are struggling to stay in business because of the pandemic-driven downturn, and dozens of restaurants and retailers have closed.

AppleStoreBoardedUpBlack Lives Matter murals on the boarded-up storefront of the Apple store in Portland’s city center   Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

The Multnomah County district attorney’s office clarified that it will consider dismissing a criminal case against somone who causes damage to a business if they pay restitution or “engage in some sort of community healing through restorative justice,” says Brent Weisberg, communications director for the attorney’s office.

“We continue to work with local law enforcement to investigate, review and prosecute cases that result in property damage or physical injury,” says Weisberg.

Like in many city centers, the pandemic has contributed to deteriorating business conditions in downtown Portland. With most office workers staying at home during the pandemic, foot traffic has declined dramatically, putting consumer-facing businesses under strain.  

It has also created a kind of vacuum into which criminal damage of property has worsened and people fear for their safety. Mark says some of his tenants have been assaulted and that these assaults have gone unpunished.

“We still have issues where our tenants are being accosted on a regular basis. We have had employees in the parking garage accosted. We have had to fight to have those crimes prosecuted,” says Mark. “People need to feel safe walking to and from their car.”

The economic malaise caused by the pandemic has also increased the number of homeless people camping on downtown streets. The Old Town district has been particularly affected, with pedestrians reporting that sidewalks have become impassable and unsanitary.  

The main aim of the Rose City Downtown Collective is to connect businesses that have been vandalized with funds, resources, and volunteers who can help repair damages, paint over graffiti and take boarding off windows.   The group has formed a GoFundMe site to raise money for businesses that cannot afford to repair damage.

ROSSDressForLessBoardedUpA ROSS Dress For Less in downtown Portland   Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

The collective will also connect businesses to city, state and county officials who have a plan to help downtown, says Sturgeon. She says she is hopeful that recently elected council members will do more to help downtown.

“We are pleased with the direction we think the new city council is going to go. They are an energetic group who have a passion for Portland, and we are looking forward to working with them.”

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