Hawthorne Vacancies – New Normal or Not

By Gabriel Frayne Jr.

The bustling allure of Hawthorne Boulevard is any realtor’s dream. A local commercial realtor describes it in a brochure this way: “One of Portland’s oldest and most beloved neighborhoods, Hawthorne is often called a ‘true Main Street.’ Members of the community are avid supporters of their retailers and take great pride in their bohemian locale.”

In recent months, however, more than a few residents of SE may be wondering whether that characterization will survive the tides of change.

Take a walk up Hawthorne from Grand Ave. to Mt. Tabor and the first 20 blocks or so present a pastiche of modest older apartment buildings, small pubs and restaurants, a hardware store, and various other amenities of a thriving urban neighborhood.

Farther up the street, one finds a somewhat different scene: several boarded up buildings splattered with graffiti; a long-empty storefront with cracked glass panes where a gourmet food market once served the neighborhood; and a small shop with a “For Lease” sign in the window.

On the east side of César E. Chávez Blvd., a head shop named Headlandia sits empty. Two blocks farther up on the south side of the street, a commercial space that once housed an art supply store has not had a tenant for over a year. Is all this the routine Hawthorne scene, or is it something out of the ordinary?

“It is out of the ordinary,” answered Gregg Harris, the co-president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association, when the question was put to him. Harris, owns Roosevelt’s Terrariums at the corner of Hawthorne and SE 44th, and believes there are two forces at work that may be adversely affecting business here.

“One is homelessness and a lot of street people… that’s creating a lot of frustration. Businesses are frustrated by the impotence of city government to enforce reasonable laws.” (Harris is quick to distinguish between what he sees as true homelessness and “travelers.” He himself was homeless for some years in his youth and has hired local homeless to work in his shop.)

“And then you’ve got the unreinforced masonry building issues,” Harris continues, which he claims is giving rise to a new form of red-lining in that banks are reluctant to lend to URM owners who will now be required to do expensive seismic upgrades under the resolution approved by the City Council on June 13.

A URM map posted by the Bureau of Development Services indicates at least two dozen such buildings lining Hawthorne, and Harris believes that this is likely a factor in several of the recent vacancies. He characterizes the proposed new code as “an earthquake in slow motion.”

Of course, it is hard to pin down any one factor that causes a business to close or move. Take, for example, Pastaworks, the high-end food market that once occupied the building at 3735 Hawthorne. Two years ago Pastaworks moved to a new location at NE Sandy and 24th in what is now called Providore Fine Foods.

According to co-owner Katie Wellman, “Pastaworks on Hawthorne moved because we were at the end of our lease, and we wanted the business to be more centrally located between Northeast and Southeast.”

Although the former location is listed as a URM, that issue did not enter into the decision, says Wellman. She adds “Our decision to move was not affected by the growing homeless scenario on the street, though we did find the number of squatters in front of the store at times challenging to deal with.”

One a recent Saturday morning a few dozen volunteers were hard at work picking up trash and scrubbing graffiti from building facades along Hawthorne during the annual neighborhood clean-up.

A volunteer named Lee, trash bag in one hand, notes that “When I first came to Portland [30 years ago] I took note of how clean the streets looked, but not so much anymore.”

Asked why there appear to be more vacancies on Hawthorne in recent months, he noted that “shops are saying their rents were raised,” and that he is concerned about “travelers,” who have become more aggressive than previously.

Farther down the street, Paul Watts is busy giving directions to volunteers applying powerful cleansers to graffiti. Watts, the owner of Graffiti Removal Services whose business slogan is “the fight against urban blight,” says Portland has become “open season for taggers” due to social media and lack of enforcement; a situation particularly evident on Hawthorne since a patrol officer was reassigned several months ago.

Watts acknowledges there is a legitimate niche for wall art which adorns a number of Hawthorne buildings, but, as he puts it, “the difference between art and graffiti is permission.”

“There needs to be zero tolerance for graffiti,” says Harris, “because a little bit of graffiti attracts more graffiti.”

Despite these concerns, statistics published by Portland Police Bureau indicate that there has been little, if any, increase in vandalism complaints in both the Sunnyside and Richmond neighborhoods over the past year, though this does not necessarily address a longer term trend.

As far as the longer term trend goes, Lee the volunteer, who is now retired,  had this to say: “We were thinking about moving someplace else, maybe Boise, but nah, we love it here.”

Hawthorne Vacancies – New Normal or Not

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