From ‘wonderful’ to ‘war zone’: Portland’s reputation transformation

West

Violent protests and an increasing number of houseless people are pushing Portland to its limits amid the pandemic

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Everywhere you look, the City of Roses has become the city of trash and filth.

Portland may be slowly emerging from the pandemic but the downtown district is fenced off, boarded up and dying. The city’s homeless problem has worsened. Violent protests have damaged the heart of the city and continue to destroy its reputation. And the mayor and other leaders seem overwhelmed, ineffective and ill-equipped to stop it.

“I was raised in Portland, Oregon, so to me, I think of the old Portland,” said Los Angeles resident Molly. “I know now it’s changed tremendously and there’s a lot of trouble up there but I remember when it was a wonderful place to live.”

In the past year, peaceful protests have been hijacked by violence, city landmarks have been defaced and torn down and uncontrolled vandalism has forced the closure of businesses.

“It was just a little disappointing to see how unkempt the city was and the homelessness was in a bad way,” said Eileen who was visiting from Florida. “It was worse than I thought it was going to be.”

“It’s just not a place that I would feel comfortable putting my family on a plane and flying into Portland, Oregon now,” said Kevin from Nashville. “We would choose other cities.”

Tents in the Portland area, March 25, 2021. (KOIN)

“It’s pretty sad what’s become of downtown — the filth. There’s no reason to go down there anymore,” said April. “We used to go spend a day and shop and eat. It’s just that I wouldn’t feel safe down there anymore.”

What has happened to Portland? Can we reclaim the city and not only restore its reputation but improve it? One thing is certain: wounds this deep will take a long time to heal.

Alex Hofberg had spent 30 years building his business, Watchworks, in downtown Portland. He invested and believed in the city. But his business was recently robbed and the looters got away with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise.

Hofberg and his wife rushed to the store. Police officers were nearby, dealing with what Alex said appeared to be intruders at a Target. Hofberg’s wife decided to ask the officers for help.

“As I’m puzzling whether to go in, she gets out of the car and tries to persuade some police officers to assist and check the premises for us which they politely declined to do. So I went in alone,” he said.

After wading through broken glass and smashed jewelry cases, Hofberg learned that at least $400,000 in watches and other items were gone — along with his faith in Portland and what it stands for.

“This will take a long time to heal,” said Hofberg. “It’s not going to come back very quickly.”

The couple boarded up the shop and left downtown along with many other businesses.

Tear gas fills the air during protests, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Portland, Ore. The protests, which began over the killing of George Floyd, often result frequent clashes between protesters and law enforcement. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)

Cameron’s Books & Magazines had survived 80 years in downtown Portland despite financial struggles, then the pandemic. But it was the nightly violent protests that pushed things over the edge.

“Much of the civil unrest starts and ends here,” said owner Crystal Zingsheim. “Everyone sees the bookstore as the backdrop of Murderville USA and pretty much we’re just left to keep peace on our own.”

Small businesses and shops aren’t the only places hit hard by the nocturnal vandals. Last month, a group of people smashed windows at two downtown churches and vandalized the Oregon Historical Society for a second time.

“Not only were we vandalized in this incident but so was a nearby church which is very active in helping the homeless and the fact that they would break windows there and break our windows leaves you questioning what the message is — if there is a message,” said Kerry Tymchuk, the executive director of the Oregon Historical Society.

Signs advertising buildings for lease can be found all over the downtown district. Many buildings are covered in plywood.

“People don’t want to come downtown, they don’t feel safe and even moreover the small shops and the little guys — the local folks — are really getting hurt by this and the protests and the damage there. It’s just killing downtown Portland,” said commercial real estate broker Doug Bean.

Bean has been managing and leasing commercial office space for more than 40 years in Portland.

“I’m not optimistic about the future of the downtown core without a change of how we handle the protests and how we handle the filth and the graffiti,” he said. “We need to make people feel safe to want to come to the central business district.”

The central business district — the heart of the city — is empty. Portland’s downtown commercial vacancy rate has reached a staggering 17.5% and is projected to keep climbing.

“This is as vacant as downtown Portland has been,” said Bean.

Businesses in downtown Portland re-install boards over their windows after a series of riots and unlawful assemblies, April 21, 2021 (KOIN)

Adam Bean works for his father’s company. He doesn’t like what the numbers mean, especially for investors. Portland relies upon outside money to fuel construction, growth and the economy.

“The media coverage of Portland with civil unrest and the pandemic unfortunately scared a lot of these folks away and that means less money getting brought into the city,” he said.

Portland’s reputation has fallen dramatically among investors, lenders and developers. The 2021 Urban Land Institutes report on trends in real estate shows Portland was the third most desirable real estate market in the U.S. in 2017; this year it dropped to 66th out of 80 cities surveyed. Oregon economist Tom Potiowsky said he “could not think of another example of an area that has so quickly fallen into disfavor.”

During the pandemic, Portland’s homeless population has exploded onto city streets and into neighborhoods. The scale of the issue continues to grow, along with piles of garbage and graffiti, reaching epidemic proportions.

Imagine you’ve just picked up visitors at Portland International Airport. You get in the car to take a ride downtown. As you drive west down I-84, you see dozens of tents line both sides of the freeway. It only gets worse after you cross the Morrison Bridge into downtown.

But perhaps the most shocking scenes are found along I-5 just north of Portland. What is visible from the freeway reveals just a glimpse of the human tragedy and the debris littering the landscape.

The full extent of the problem can be seen from above. Garbage litters the ground as far as the eye can see in places where people live among trash. It’s the result of a homeless crisis that has spiraled out of control.

Jim Etzel, the CEO of Sport Oregon, helps bring major sporting events and games to Portland. What those decision-makers see when they visit Portland matters.

“You can’t hide it all and let’s face it, it’s a humanitarian problem,” Etzel said. “But it’s real and it affects people’s decisions on placing events here.”

Portland was in the running for the NCAA women’s Final Four, which would have brought in millions of dollars for the local economy. Etzel’s pitch for Portland’s bid couldn’t ignore the city’s reputation.

“We punched it in the face in our presentation and just addressed it head-on,” Etzel said. “They claim it wasn’t a big topic in the decision factor but it had to be weighing there — it didn’t help us.”

Tents in Portland, Feb. 8, 2021. (KOIN)

In the end, Tampa was awarded the 2025 game and Phoenix won the big for 2026.

“It’s the last thing you want to open your presentation with and you don’t want to bury it in the back but it shouldn’t even be on the tape — but it was,” Etzel said.

Mike Daley, the area manager of Pollin Hotels and board chair of Travel Portland, said the coronavirus and the protests are to blame for turning Portland into one of the two worst hotel markets in the country.

“Certainly, the pandemic was the overriding issue,” he said. “Then the civil unrest that went on for over 100 days gave us a bit of a black eye across the country.”

Downtown Portland needs life support, residents don’t feel safe, a humanitarian crisis is playing out on the streets and trash is literally piling up. It’s worth asking: is Portland over?

Economist Bill Conerly ignited a firestorm last January when his article “Death of a City” appeared in Forbes Magazine. Conerly’s pointed words about what has happened to Portland struck a nerve.

“They said ‘yes, somebody is now saying what we’ve been thinking’ but there was also a layer of people who were very angry that I criticized the city,” he said. “There were hostile, profane — almost threatening — voicemails and emails so it riled up a lot of people.”

Conerly believes the city needs an attitude adjustment.

“I think that for Portland not to be over there needs to be a change in the attitudes among the broad community of leaders,” he said.

The city’s mayor hasn’t given up hope.

“No, I don’t believe Portland is dying. I think we’ve gone through a very, very difficult period. We still have a lot of challenges ahead of us but this isn’t the time to fold up the tent and walk away,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler.

As for the roadways lined by homeless camps, Wheeler said the situation is heartbreaking.

“It breaks my heart not as the mayor but as somebody who was born and raised here, who has lived my whole life here. Those right-of-ways are an embarrassment to all of us, it’s an affront to our sensibilities as Oregonians,” he said.

Bob McElroy, the director of a successful homeless program in San Diego called Alpha Project, believes Portland’s failed efforts to solve the homelessness situation come down to ethics.

“In Portland, you have confused compassion with tolerance. It’s not compassionate to allow people to shoot up drugs or live in filth on a sidewalk because you want to be tolerant,” McElroy said.

“You know, there is a very fine line between compassion and enabling,” Wheeler responded. “It’s really hard for well-meaning, moral people in the city of Portland and progressives to come to the conclusion that sometimes the best love that you can give someone is tough love.”

So is Portland over? It’s only over if we let it be over and do nothing.

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