By Gabe Frayne
It was a fitting denouement to the year 2020: The Rocking Frog café at the corner of Belmont St. and SE 25th Ave., a mainstay of SE Portland’s music and poetry scene, closed its doors permanently in December.
“This one hurts,” wrote a local resident on Reddit. “There are small places like this that make this city feel good to be here… By the time we see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ Portland won’t be anything like it was.”
There have been other casualties as well. The youth hostel on SE Hawthorne Blvd., built in 1909, and its signature cob bench will soon give way to a five-story, 61-unit apartment block.
The building housing the Red Light Clothing Exchange at SE 36th Ave. on Hawthorne Blvd. is up for sale, and one employee says he believes it’s “absolutely” possible that it could be sold to a developer and demolished.
Not least, the celebrated Pok Pok restaurant on SE Division St., folded nearly a year ago.
Up and down Belmont, Hawthorne, Division and south on César E. Chávez Blvd., “for sale” and “for lease” signs proliferate.
A lingering premonition from the early days of the shutdown now begs the question: will billion-dollar, out-of-state corporations buy up and potentially demolish Portland’s devalued small-retail buildings in the post-pandemic recovery?
At this point the answer is…not necessarily. As it happens, the sale of the Rocking Frog was planned before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary.
Most of the commercial properties for sale at this time will probably remain intact, and although the youth hostel took an “absolute direct hit” from the pandemic, in the words of Bill Levesque, president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association, the toll on other businesses may have roots in longer-term trends.
“A year ago there was almost a terror just in terms of what all was going to be happening over the next six months to a year,” Levesque recalled. Now, however, “businesses are talking about the future.”
Local real estate broker Jordan Fezler, who represents the owner of a one-story, four-tenant building at SE 47th and Belmont St., says there is little chance the property will be redeveloped and expects the current leases to be renewed after the sale.
Fezler acknowledged that commercial real estate values have declined in the past year, but says there is still a niche for “small, community oriented, Amazon-proof retail.”
Though there may be cause for optimism as far as restoring inner SE’s small, community-oriented retail mix to its former vibrancy, the situation for Portland as a whole is decidedly less cheerful.
Earlier this year a report from the Urban Land Institute ranked Portland 66th out of 80 US cities in terms of investor desirability. As recently as 2017 it was ranked third.
“Portland was a darling among the investors and in a very short period of time fell from grace,” said PSU professor emeritus and former state economist Tom Potiowsky.
The negative publicity over last September’s wildfires and the repeated trashing of commercial properties – including a wide swath of Hawthorne during Thanksgiving week by protesters – have been significant factors here in addition to the pandemic, Potiowsky maintained.
“I think Portland will bounce back once these things are alleviated,” he added.
Potiowsky emphasizes that he sees Portland’s predicament as short-term, not structural, unlike rust-belt cities as Detroit or Buffalo that have been declining for decades.
“It’s only been a little more than a year. That doesn’t generally cause huge transformational or structural changes,” he said.
Indeed, a strong housing market suggests that at least home buyers still consider Portland a desirable place to invest their money. According to realestateagentpdx.com, the median home price here increased by 13.3 percent in 2020, higher than the national average.
With lower commercial real estate prices, will this potential increase in consumer demand presage a new surge of gentrification and transform inner SE’s landscape in the manner of, say, SE Division?
Again, there is no evidence yet of this happening. According to data provided by the Bureau of Development Services, there were 25 demolitions of commercial buildings in SE between March 2019 and March 2020, and 23 in the same time period between 2020 and 2021 (“commercial building” includes any residence of three or more units).
Perhaps a more hopeful omen for the nascent economic recovery is a plan in the works for the long-abandoned Gordon Fireplace building at 3300 NE Broadway.
The heavily-tagged and vandalized former aircraft factory, more evocative of the South Bronx than Portland, will soon undergo a major facelift developed by InterUrban Development of Seattle.
The plan calls for 8,000 square feet of ground floor retail with office space on the upper floors, as well as new brick siding on the building’s original pilasters.
Nonetheless, what works for an abandoned industrial building situated beside a freeway may not necessarily be a model for the urban villages of SE Portland.
Photo by Gabe Frayne