What’s Happening to Portland’s Auto Row?

By Megan McMorris

As new businesses start to refurbish old auto body shops along Montavilla’s NE Glisan, the neighborhood is entering a tipping point. Where it goes from here is up to the community.

“Is it 2008 yet?” The bumper sticker is affixed to an old Volvo awaiting its turn for wrench-time at Alamo Automotive. While looking at the collection of cars outside the shop, all in various states of disrepair, it’s easy to travel in time to 20 years ago when it first opened. 

Still, all you need to do is look next door where a new location of Gigantic Brewing is busily preparing to open to realize that it is, in fact, the year 2020.

The corner of NE 69th and Glisan best displays the juxtaposition between old and new on Portland’s informally known “Auto Row.” 

Among this stretch of Montavilla along NE Glisan, there are nearly a dozen working auto repair garages, yet an equal amount of empty building carcasses slowly coming to life. 

A German bakery, cycling shop, salon, catering company and pizza parlor are among the new developments in recent years, all utilizing the existing structures (mechanic shops or otherwise) rather than do a tear-down-and-build.

For Dennis Dillon, who operates Alamo Automotive out of a Texaco gas station built in 1927, this makes all the difference in how the neighborhood will move forward. 

“I like that they are trying to keep the flavor of the neighborhood,” he gestures at the new Gigantic Brewing building next door. “Otherwise, you lose the look of the neighborhood and it begins to look like any other street. 

Photo by Megan McMorris

“NE Glisan has always been a slow-paced, industrial street, but it’s needed a bit of renovation in recent years. Yet you don’t want to have what has happened in other neighborhoods, where they just tear down buildings and replace them with ugly structures that look all the same. Instead, they are retaining the feel of the neighborhood and I’m all for that.” 

While the auto industry itself is changing – “…there are fewer and fewer younger people who are learning the trade and technology is changing the industry,” says Dillon, 64 (who plans to retire next year). He credits their longevity in part to the tight-knit community among other body-shop owners. 

“We support each other and are always referring business to each other,” Dillon says, pointing toward other area shops. “We don’t look at each other as competition and I think that’s helped us all thrive throughout the changes.” 

Down the street on 73rd, a mechanic of a different sort has the same thought in mind. Opening his TriTech Bike shop a year ago – part gym, part bike shop, part community center, he is equally dedicated to helping pro racers as he is the community schoolchildren. 

“I grew up in this neighborhood and I remember my dad bringing his car to the shop across the street,” says Dylan Carrico, 29, who operates out of the former Beaupre Autoworks shop. 

“An auto-body shop is a perfect space to build a business, because you can retrofit it for your needs – it’s like working with a blank slate. But the building is only a part of it. I’m dedicated to this community, no matter if you ride bikes or not.” 

It appears that he walks the talk too. At the nearby tavern, this reporter overhead two old-timers raving about Carrico’s efforts to locate bike parts for them.

This attitude, Carrico says, is what will make or break how the street moves forward. 

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s part of my job to know the coffee barista, the bartender, the other business owners down the street, the people who live in the neighborhood and to keep my money in the community. I hope other business owners are equally dedicated to this notion, because it will be interesting to see what develops in the next few years for sure.”

What About Stark Street?

On the corner of SE 76th and Stark, across from Mr. Plywood building materials store, the Beets auto-body shop awaits a different fate than its brethren on NE Glisan. 

A sign in the window announces its impending demolition, and all eyes in the neighborhood are trained on this space, which stands at the end of the iconic “Main Street” of Montavilla, filled with upscale shops and restaurants sandwiched between longtime blue-collar businesses. 

As far as main commercial streets go, NE Glisan has typically been the gritty underdog compared to its flashier sister two blocks over, but by all indications, those roles may be reversing. 

Several established businesses including Country Cat restaurant and Townshend’s Tea have recently shuttered their doors, and what develops at 76th and Stark may foretell the street’s future. 

“What’s Next for Montavilla’s Main Street?” will be in the March issue of The Southeast Examiner. 

What’s Happening to Portland’s Auto Row?

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