By Kris McDowell

These days we are seeing change in many areas of life and in many areas of our city. One area that may have flown under your radar is the development of the building at the corner of NE Glisan and 70th Ave.

The location is the former home of automotive shop Rocket Empire Machine (aka Engine Parts Network) and was purchased when the original owners made the decision to retire.

The project is a collaboration between Guerrilla Development and Sister City that is transforming the approximately 3,000 square foot building into a space that will house four restaurants and a taproom for Gigantic Brewing. Early on it was decided that the name Rocket Empire Machine (REM), too perfect to change, would remain.

Described as a “new affordable retail model powered by internal rent subsidy, investor hold-back and involvement from community groups,” REM is a pilot in line with Guerrilla’s goal to “acknowledge and alleviate the negative effects of commercial gentrification while fostering an environment for retail tenants to thrive and for community members to inclusively gather.”

If that sounds lofty and perhaps a little too good to be true, consider that Guerrilla is also the developer behind the Ocean and the Zipper. Located on NE 28th and Glisan St., and NE 28th and Sandy Blvd., respectively. Both properties house restaurant/bar tenants that share furnished indoor and/or outdoor seating areas, restrooms, bicycle parking and more.

In recent months, Guerrilla has informed the tenants at those locations that in light of the financial impact COVID-19 has had, rent is not being collected. It’s not a “don’t worry about paying us now” situation but, rather, a “don’t pay us” situation. The longevity of the tenants are of greater concern than the short term financial situation.

The Southeast Examiner had the opportunity to meet with Rocket Empire Machine project lead and principal of Sister City, Anna Mackay, and one of Rocket Empire Machine’s tenants, Gigantic Brewing Company’s Master Brewer Van Havig, at the site.

While touring the space, Mackay said the purchase from the retiring owners happened so quickly, a “cigarette was left burning in the ashtray.” Guerrilla then put 18-months of planning into the adaptive reuse of the Butler® Building (a pre-engineered metal building) before starting construction.

Walking through the nearly complete interior and exterior, it was easy to visualize Sea and River Sushi, Alleamin African Kitchen and Tierra del Sol busily making food for patrons sitting out on the generous patio in front of their spaces mingling with patrons enjoying beers from The Robot Room (Gigantic’s taproom) and baked creations from The Pie Spot.

To start, Gigantic will limit their offerings to bottled beer, designed to be picked up while people are picking up food from the restaurants. Eventually there will be draft beer, cider and wine as well as seating at their bar. In the meantime, it is anticipated that, due to limitations imposed due to COVID-19, most business for REM will be “grab and go” rather than “stay and enjoy.”

Gigantic’s Havig said they had been casually looking for a space for a second location to complement their SE brewery and taproom for about three years. They weren’t in a hurry, being more concerned about finding a place that was “the right fit.”

The ability to operate as a taproom only (with food being available from REM’s other tenants) will allow them to do what they do well – serve up carefully crafted beer and build a community with their customers.

Of all of Havig’s accomplishments, it is the community they have built that he is most proud of because “it’s about the people, not the beer.”

An early July opening is anticipated for Pie Spot, for whom this will be a second location. Their first brick and motor opened in the Ocean February 2013, a progression of what started as selling at farmers markets and street fairs in 2009, upgrading to a vintage food cart in October, 2013.

Tierra del Sol, offering authentic Mexican-Oaxacan style food, will likely be one of the first to open. They debuted at the King Farmers Market in 2013 and opened their food cart in 2015, residing at the Portland Mercado food cart pod in Foster-Powell.

Alleamin African Kitchen, cooking up fresh Somalian sauces and food, and Sea and River Sushi will round out the food offerings at this micro-restaurant development.

In addition to offering lower barrier-to-entry pricing, REM offers tenants an often-overlooked benefit by providing the spaces with pre-installed range and dishwasher hood, plumbing stub-outs for sinks and an allowance for basic range and sinks.

Guerrilla Development feels the it is the responsibility of real estate developers to find ways to drive change and support “native retailers” (those determined to remain in their neighborhoods through regeneration).

They hope their work will add to the anecdotal reports showing that helping these businesses retain their leases through the first several years of gentrification leads to a doubling of net income.

The trajectory of a rocket? No, but a hope that is as bright as the stars that shine on a clear night.

Photo of REM exterior by Kris McDowell