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Grand Central Ready for Area 'to explode'

By Tom Hallman Jr. (The Oregonian)

Developers have had no trouble finding tenants for the Grand Central Building, now undergoing the final touches in a $4 million remodel.

"I had four inquiries yesterday," says John Plew of Foresight, the Portland development and real estate company that bought the 37,600-square-foot building and adjacent parking lot for $3.9 million in 2005. "I could fill it up tomorrow with the national guys, but I don’t want to."

The building, once the home of the old 24-hour Grand Central Bowl, will still have bowling lanes. But now there will be an upscale bar, restaurant and billiards room, too, plus 12 storefronts ringing the outside. Developers reduced the number of lanes from 28 to 12 and plan to use the old wood in the overlooking bar.

Plew says the restaurant and bowling alley will open in November. Other tenants will move into the building -- listed on the National Historic Register -- later in the year and in the first quarter of 2008.

Plew says the block-size location in a hot part of Southeast, between Morrison and Belmont, allows the group to be selective about who gets to call the building home.

"We want local and regional businesses that are distinctive to the city and the region," he says. "We want an urban feel. We’re not looking to make it something you’d find in the suburbs."

The parking lot and underground parking garage make the building an easy destination for customers, Plew says. Daily car counts of 35,000 on Belmont and 50,000 on Morrison are attractive to retailers; Plew says major retailers look for at least 15,000.

"A pizza shop is taking a spot on Belmont," Plew says. "He wants to capture customers coming home. A coffee shop is going to take a spot on Morrison. They want to get the business in the morning when people are coming to work."

Tenant rates will run $23 to $30 a square foot, he says, compared with rates at other projects in the area of $12 to $23.

"We’re 18 blocks from the river," Plew says. "This is an amazing corridor all the way up to 39th street and over to Hawthorne Boulevard. The area has been cleaned up, and high-end restaurants are moving into the district. That’s always a first sign of change. We want to be there first."

Plew could be accused of hyperbole, but he and his partners have a reputation of seeing possibilities long before the market catches up.

"We started investing in Old Town when no one believed in it," he says. "We thought it had a chance to turn into Portland’s version of Bourbon Street. Look what happened. We’re not into flipping properties. We’ve been in Old Town since 1985. We find properties we feel good about and stick with them."

Partner Dan Lenzen oversees sister company Concept Entertainment, owner of several area restaurants and bars, including Gypsy Restaurant & Lounge in Northwest, the Barracuda Nightclub in Old Town and the Lotus Cardroom & Cafe in a Southwest area once known as a hangout for prostitutes and drug dealers.

"Our forte is finding underdeveloped properties and making them shine," Lenzen says. "This is going to be one of those projects. The Central Eastside is ready to explode."

Soon-to-be tenant Todd Sparks owns Sparky’s Pizza, a small local chain. "This is an underdeveloped area that’s changing," Sparks says, standing in the middle of a construction zone in the center of the building. "We want to be a part of it."

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