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Portland’s Old Town on cusp of a revival

By Ryan Frank (The Oregonian)

Since time began in Portland, Old Town has been that rough patch in the crook of downtown where the Willamette River makes its northwest turn. It’s been home for the rowdy men of the forest and shipyards and, in recent years, drug pushers who’ve kept their street corner grip even through downtown Portland’s renaissance.

But the churn of change --the kind that can transform an entire neighborhood --is starting to shake Old Town’s century-old brick.

With prodding from Portland’s urban-renewal agency, the Portland Development Commission, developers have seen beyond Old Town’s stigma of crime and urban decay. The result, all sides hope, will be that rare big-city neighborhood that the poor, middle-income and rich call home.

Workers are pounding away on the "Made in Oregon" building to spruce it up for future University of Oregon students. Following the Ducks, Mercy Corps last week got the city’s OK to move its headquarters and learning center into the neighborhood.

And the Bill Naito Co., fresh from resolving years of bickering within the larger Naito family, is ready to reshape a string of Old Town properties into condos, apartments, a boutique hotel, an alternative health center.

Old Town’s old-timers have seen promising signs flame out before, and this version has a long way to go to meet reality. But even they say this time looks different.

"I think we are starting to see the start of some real change," said Paul Verhoeven, Saturday Market’s manager.

A new beginning

Old Town’s recent action started where a decade-long Naito family fight ended.

After developer Bill Naito died in 1996, his brother Sam and the children of both men couldn’t agree on much about the family business, including their key Old Town properties.

For nearly 10 years, their real estate sat fallow as their dispute raged and the neighborhood sputtered along with them. Investors steered into the Pearl District, which hems in Old Town to the west, and left the neighborhood to crack dealers and social service groups that serve the homeless and drug addicts.

But after a 2005 resolution, one side of the Naito family operating as Bill Naito Co. set out to reinvest in their real estate.

Then the University of Oregon came calling.

The university wanted to move into the Naitos’ White Stag building where the "Made in Oregon" deer flies.

The university was searching for a new Portland campus in a historic building and in a part of town that needed a boost, said developer Art DeMuro, who helped the school search. DeMuro bought the White Stag building, and UO signed a lease in May 2006.

News of UO’s move caused others to give Old Town a look. "They made it legitimate for others to come in," said Richard Harris, executive director at Central City Concern, an Old Town nonprofit that serves the poor.

Then Mercy Corps followed.

Like UO, the humanitarian organization wanted to be an urban pioneer and spark an area that needed help. (The group is now in Portland just south of downtown.) Neal Keny-Guyer, the group’s chief executive officer, also wanted to be in a historic building.

Old Town fit both requirements. "I just love the neighborhood and the feel of it," he said.

Last week, the city’s urban renewal agency agreed to help Mercy Corps rehab the Skidmore Fountain Building and build a new one next door on land owned by the Bill Naito Co.

After UO and Mercy Corps, Old Town caught the buzz that fuels any neighborhood revival.

That’s when the Bill Naito Co. followed Mercy Corps.

Hope snowballs

UO and Mercy Corps’ moves will bring students and workers to Old Town and, they hope, push out crime. Their decisions made the Bill Naito Co. feel safe sinking even more money into its Old Town real estate, said Lou Elliott, who manages the company’s properties.

By early 2009, the company hopes to rebuild a block on Naito Parkway as the new home for Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine and 55 high-end condos.

Following that, the Bill Naito Co. plans four other Old Town projects over the next five years. In some projects, it hopes to restore a historic alley system into something similar to Seattle’s Post Alley.

From there, developer David Gold has plans for new creative offices in blocks that border the Naito projects.

Some wring their hands about what progress means for the people who’ve always called Old Town home.

Gentrification in other parts of town has pushed out the less fortunate. But Harris of Central City Concern isn’t worried.

Most of Old Town’s social service groups hold the power because they own their land.

"We’re not leaving," Harris says.

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