The Portland Development Commission is close to launching its Commercial District Improvement Pilot Program along Northeast Halsey Street. So far, PDC has identified a small pool of businesses—about 11 or 12—most of them located between Northeast 106th and 112th Avenues.
PDC is still waiting for about six or seven of those businesses to finish the application process to secure a slot in the program. PDC offers each business owner up to $10,000 to perform creative improvements on their stores. “Once we’ve identified the businesses, we’re going through an application process where we need to have the business and property owner all agree to work with us,” said Susan Kuhn, senior project manager at PDC. “We’re still working on the last few of those businesses. We’re pinpointing a number of businesses and approaching them and waiting for them to respond.”
She said the selection process has taken longer than PDC anticipated because of technical details that must be worked out.
Kuhn said the pilot project differs from the PDC’s long-standing Storefront Improvement program.
That distinction is “in the way we’re approaching the exterior improvements,” she said. “We’re looking at it through more of a merchandising or a visual connection with the business. What’s going to make those businesses more visible, what’s going to bring customers to stop and say, ‘That’s something I hadn’t noticed before, that looks interesting. I want to go into that business.’”
Instead of just viewing the building itself, the pilot program examines details, such as lighting, paint color, and signage. PDC has hired Seanette Corkill, owner of retail design firm FrontdoorBack, as design consultant. Corkill will help each business choose creative designs to fit their particular style.
After the pilot program is completed, PDC hopes similar projects will be replicated in Gateway and other areas of the city. “It won’t be exactly like this one, but we’re just hoping that there are pieces of this that we can continue on with, just to improve the programs that we offer,” Kuhn said.
PDC’s Storefront Improvement program has been on going for many years and is funded by the agency’s budget each year. At this point, the commercial pilot project temporarily replaces the Storefront Improvement program, Kuhn said.
Business owners likely will still be able to be funded through the Storefront Improvement program in the future, but the PDC staff will know more “when we get farther into this and we know how this is going to play out,” Kuhn said. “We’re not sure if we’re going back to the prior Storefront Program or a hybrid.”
In addition, Kuhn said she hopes by December or earlier that PDC staffers will know well how the pilot program is working, especially after they’ve worked closely with a few of the business owners who’ve received the pilot program grants.
Asked if Harjinder Chand, owner of the proposed Namaste restaurant at 10306 N.E. Halsey St., would be one of the businesses selected for the pilot program, Kuhn replied, “We’ve talked to him; we’re working through some details. If things work out, we’d like him to be part of the program.”
Chand has already been promised a Development Opportunities Services grant, or DOS, for up to $12,000 for a feasibility study, as well as a Storefront Improvement Grant and a Green Features grant (see “Namaste to Gateway” MCM August 2015). DOS is a separate grant program, Kuhn said. “We work with the businesses to do more than one program,” she said. “They are separate entities and not always combined. They can sometimes be provided singly.”
The usual procedure involves the business owner completing the DOS portion of the grant, including a feasibility study that helps determine the next step in the process for the business or property owner, which this year might include taking part in the pilot project.
Kuhn said PDC is aware of PBOT’s requirement that Chand improve 100 feet on his site, including widening the sidewalk to 12 feet, moving a utility pole and improving the storm water system. All PBOT’s mandates are separate from PDC’s grant process, Kuhn said. “We’re doing what we can to provide information and see where we could help,” she said, adding that such aid might include technical assistance and possibly funding.
Noting that PDC has limited funds to pour into the pilot project, Kuhn said they are targeting businesses that will have the most impact within a small geographic area.
Once the pilot program is completed and the impact of the program clear, PDC will likely move to other geographic areas along the Halsey-Weidler corridor from Northeast 102nd to 112th avenues.
Is the city practicing reverse discrimination, showing favoritism?
Steve Lynch, who owns Cole’s Complex, the commercial building across 103rd from the Namaste site with entrances at 10240 N.E. Halsey St. and 10231 N.E. Clackamas St., is disappointed he was turned down for the pilot program and has been continually delayed in receiving a Storefront Improvement grant.
Lynch said PDC emailed him July 13 saying he had been approved for a $32,000 Storefront Improvement grant and possibly for a $10,000 grant through the pilot project. PDC emailed him back July 15 acknowledging an error, saying currently only 10 projects were included within the pilot project and once a draft model was developed, he could move forward with his Storefront Improvement Grant later in the year.
Lynch said he doesn’t think he will receive the Storefront Improvement Grant any time soon. “This will go on for two years, I guarantee it,” he said.
Kuhn said Lynch’s receiving the email advising him he had received a grant followed by a subsequent email denying him one “was a miscommunication.”
Once the pilot program is completed, PDC will return to Lynch to offer assistance for his building, Kuhn said. “He’ll have the opportunity to have some improvements to his building, as other buildings will have, when we figure out what’s best,” Kuhn said. “Part of the delay is we’re working with small businesses, and they are trying to run their businesses and this is their busy time of year. We don’t want to put more burdens on them. We want to help them with improvements, but we have to move on their time lines, also.”
Lynch’s building was built in 1958, although ownership has changed hands over the years. Lynch said he has applied for the storefront grant money every year for several years, but he has always been turned down.
Lynch said he had looked up the public records of the business owners in the Gateway area who had received the grants from PDC. “A majority [of the recipients] are non-Americans, are non-white, and I’m not being racist,” Lynch said. “It seems a lot of foreigners are receiving this money versus a guy living his whole life paying into the system. My curiosity is why somebody who just moved into the neighborhood gets all this money when you have 15 businesses [that rent from Lynch] who can’t get anything. Maybe they are U.S. citizens. I am not prejudiced. But all I know is I worked two jobs to do what I’m trying to do.”
Speaking of the owner of the proposed Namaste restaurant, Lynch said, “I have nothing against this guy. I hope he does well. All I want are equal rights. If they’re going to do that for him, then do that for me.”
Lynch explained that several of his tenants are ethnic minorities. He only asks his tenants that they run a legal business and all pass background checks. “So I’m a minority in my own building, but I’m friends with all my tenants,” Lynch said. “They’ve all been in my home and I’ve been in most of theirs. So I’m just looking out to make sure they’re taken care of.”
Responding to Lynch’s charge that PDC grants are giving mainly to immigrants and minority business owners, Anne Mangan, public relations coordinator for PDC, said part of PDC’s strategic plan is in keeping with one of the city’s goals: “to reach out to more underrepresented populations [so that they can] take advantage of our programs. So wealth creation and diversity of services and broadening the reach of our programs are certainly goals of PDC.”
Kuhn also responded to Lynch’s claim that Namaste restaurant was selected over older businesses that have existed for a long time along the Halsey corridor. Kuhn pointed out that many PDC Storefront Improvement grants have been awarded to long-established businesses along the corridor over the past five to seven years. “Namaste is at a key site,” Kuhn said. “He [Chand] approached us, and it helps the corridor. It helps the visibility of all the businesses [on the corridor] … and he’s providing a restaurant, a gift shop and a grocery store.”
Lynch said he applied for the grant because his building is outdated. It needs new windows and a new facade in the front, he said. “They’re trying to revitalize the Gateway district and make it pretty … and I don’t know of a longer standing tenant than United Finance and Gateway Pro-Am,” he said. “They’ve been here for years and years. There’s no marijuana business, there’s nothing shady. They are all legitimate businesses. Moreover, I don’t have the money to do it. I mean, why should I do it on my own if there’s money out there to help me?”
Deny the city access to their new natural area
Lynch contends PDC will never carry through on its promise to approve him for a grant. He says that this is because five years ago, he angered city officials when he denied them and Metro use of his private road as a public entrance to the Wilkes Creek Natural Area at Northeast 153rd and Klickitat Street, which is next door to his home.
The city and Metro plan to develop the reserve into a park. Lynch removed the city’s utility and residential easements into the property. He said they were hauling heavy equipment and machinery in and out of the 20-acre former farmland after they acquired it in 2011, wrecking the road. “So the only easement the city has to enter that property is to maintain the roads,” Lynch said. “So if they’re doing a planting or having meetings, they cannot come onto my property. I don’t let them come on. I harass them.”
Subsequently the city created a new access point into the property.
Lynch claimed PDC told him he was not eligible for the pilot program because his commercial building is located west of Northeast 103rd Avenue, but it noted that other property owners were candidates for a pilot program grant whose buildings were west of that street.
Lynch said he could accept not receiving the $10,000 grant if the requirements are based on the location of his building, “But if other businesses are getting it that are west, then that’s discrimination,” he said.
Lynch questioned why three grants were awarded to Chand, including the DOS grant of $12,000 for a feasibility study. Lynch is also upset that no one from the city told him about some of the grants that Chand received, such as the feasibility study and the Green Features grant. “My problem is, how do you find out about these other grants?” Lynch asked. “They didn’t tell me anything about these feasibilities studies or this, that and the other.”
Mangan said business and property owners hear about PDC’s grant programs in various ways. “We do a lot of outreach in terms of talking to businesses, and at the same time businesses may hear by word of mouth that we’re a resource,” Mangan said. “It works both ways.”
PDC said they also reach out to the public through newspapers and notices mailed to businesses. “We have a pretty extensive email list of many thousands of people who’ve asked to receive information about what we’re doing,” Mangan said. “We don’t have any control over what people read or receive.”
Kuhn added that PDC has also publicized their grant programs by attending fairs put on by the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association, as well as the Gateway Area Business Association. Staffers also regularly attending GABA meetings and speak about PDC’s grant programs, she said.
Lynch ticked off the variety of tenants who lease space in his two-story building, including Gateway Pro-Am athletic apparel supply store; Safe Transportation; United Finance; Northwest Medical; Budget Signs; Hip Hop Soulsation Academy dance studio; Goya Association, a youth mentoring nonprofit; and Lynch’s own office, Pro-Cure Bait Scents. “I’m here to stay,” Lynch said. “I put my own hard-earned money into this building to improve it for my tenants with no relief from the state or the city.”
For information about PDC’s pilot program, contact Susan Kuhn at email@example.com or call her at 503-823-8406.