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Hoping For a Strike
Old Town/Chinatown team plan to transform historic structure

By Wendy Culverwell (Portland Business Journal)

Grand Central Bowl is being restored to its historic luster and being remade as a hipster destination. For a squat old building, the former Grand Central Bowl attracted more than its share of admirers when it went up for sale in 2005.

Mark Edlen, of Gerding Edlen Development Co., caught a whiff of the potential historic value behind the building’s exterior of corrugated metal and cement blocks. He imagined what it might be like to remake the Central Eastside landmark at 839 S.E. Belmont St.

Edlen ended up passing on the opportunity, leaving the field open to John Plew and his colleagues at Concept Entertainment Group, proprietors of a string of successful restaurants and nightclubs in Old Town/Chinatown.

Plew formed Foresight Development and Real Estate to buy the old building, and assembled a redevelopment team consisting of Horst Architecture, R&H Construction and KeyBank.

Next month, Foresight and company will show the world why Grand Central was worth the trouble. The team will hold a ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of an $11 million effort to put the "grand" back in Grand Central. The price tag includes the $3 million purchase price.

With major building construction nearing an end, tenants soon will start outfitting their individual spaces. The building will house an upscale restaurant and bowling lounge, a hipster barbershop, a coffee shop and a pizza-by-the-slice joint, among others. About 70 percent of the available space has been spoken for.

The project revealed Grand Central for the lovely piece of Portland architecture it once was, replete with hundreds of transom windows, a stucco exterior and castle-like towers on each corner.

The building has a storied history.

Grand Central opened as a public market in October 1929, just in time for the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression. It had basement parking and a cavernous interior lit by massive skylights and transom windows along all four walls.

The full-block building became a bowling alley in the late 1950s when the sport gained popularity. Operators began Grand Central Bowl with 16 lanes and later expanded to 28.

The 1970s brought the addition of a metal and cement exterior, meant to cover the windows and give the aging building a new look to compete with the crop of new bowling alleys being built around the city.

By the time modern developers came along, no one knew for sure what was concealed behind the false exterior.

But Plew, and Edlen before him, both suspected it was something special.

Edlen said photos of the old market showed incredible potential. Though he didn’t take on the project, he’s anxious to see how it turned out.

"I just think it’s so cool to bring back old buildings like that," he said.

Plew and Foresight arranged to include Grand Central on the National Register of Historic Buildings, and set out to return the market-cum-bowling alley back into a market that happens to have a bowling alley.

Demolition crews peeled off the exterior to reveal 465 wooden transom windows, which were saved as part of the building’s history.

The windows remain, though 65 had to be rebuilt and all 465 were outfitted with energy-efficient glass. In the battle between energy efficiency and historic preservation, efficiency carried the day, Plew said.

Plew has created many restaurants and clubs but never led a development on the scale of Grand Central.

He said his biggest challenge was to get people to see beyond the building’s bowling alley, to see its potential to bring retail and entertainment to one of Portland’s most interesting districts.

"It’s not a bowling alley. It’s really a retail development in an urban setting," he said, standing from the roof, which affords a front-row view to downtown Portland.

One of the biggest and earliest supporters was its neighbor to the west, KeyBank. Foresight and KeyBank worked out an agreement to share parking in the vacated street that separates them. The bank showed even more support when it bought Foresight’s construction loan, and then, the historic tax credits associated with the project.

The renovated building includes a full block of free parking in the basement and about 42,000 square feet for retail.

Plew’s company, Concept Entertainment Group, will operate Strike Restaurant and Bowling Lounge, constructed in 22,000 square feet centered on 12 lanes. The "eatertainment" venue is expected to open this fall. Plew describes it as a stylish place for adults to gather, bowl, play pool, lounge by fireplaces, sip cocktails and eat.

Think cocktails and appetizers instead of buckets of beer and blah pizza, he said.

"It’s OK to have fun if you’re an adult," he said.

Plew said he’s not worried about attracting customers to the eastside neighborhood, where neighbors range from industrial businesses to restaurants.

"The entertainment people will lead a neighborhood, like we did in Old Town/Chinatown," he said.

The popularity of two eastside fixtures, Clarklewis restaurant on Southeast Water Avenue and the Doug Fir Lounge on East Burnside, confirm the area’s destination potential. The 45,000 vehicles whizzing past each day on Southeast Morrison Street every day won’t hurt, he added.

Two growing Portland businesses have signed on for space: Sparky’s Pizza and Bishops Barbershop. The building is leasing for $25 to $30 a square foot, which is very strong for the market.

The Grand Central project doesn’t involve financial support from the Portland Development Commission, but it has the redevelopment agency’s support, said Kia Selley, a PDC project manager.

The old bowling alley closed in late 2004 and was boarded up, which hurt the neighborhood and its businesses.

"Not only did Concept take the property from being an abandoned, vacant building, they refurbished it in a historic way," she said.

And Edlen, whose firm has major projects under construction from Southern California to Seattle, confesses he still has a sweet spot for the Central Eastside.

"If I were 25 and starting over, I’d probably make a beeline," he said.

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