Robert Freedman and Robert Holczer have spent years staring at a construction site in limbo.
Freedman, 66, is chairman of the Timbers at Towne Center Homeowners Association, and Holczer is a Timbers resident. Alongside their little community is a huge, unfinished building project that's been festering since 2008, they say. The three-story building shell is fenced off — barely — and the grass is mowed — inadequately — but the spot still attracts transients, vandals, litter, rodents and windblown dirt.
"We don't wash our windows because every two days they are dirty again," said Holczer, 83, whose living room view is the unfinished building.
Dirty windows are the least of Holczer's worries. He and his wife bought a condo in this West Hazel Dell neighborhood, sandwiched between Hazel Dell Avenue and Interstate 5, south of Target and north of Safeway, because there were "grandiose plans afoot," he said.
The older homes that make up much of the neighborhood were going to give way to more gleaming, upscale redevelopment such as the first phase of the Timbers project. Plus, the next phase was going to include a swimming pool, a clubhouse and additional parking for the whole Timbers community.
Both men moved here in 2006, when the Timbers was new. The project, 38 attached townhomes on tight private streets, was built by Morgan Broderick and Salmon Creek Development; those partners were also building the larger three-story building that would anchor the whole community with clubhouse and pool.
"None of it has happened," said Holczer. Instead, Timbers residents are confronting a long-term eyesore across the street and value-depressing problems at home. There's plenty of blame to go around, they say: ongoing economic doldrums have kept the project unfinished for years; banks are unmotivated either to maintain foreclosed properties or sell them off; county code is too lax; and an absentee owner doesn't maintain the property without warnings from county code enforcement.
If the Columbia River Crossing bridge ever gets built, Freedman figures, the resulting economic growth will drive up values of (supposedly) attractive, commuter-friendly properties such as this one, and lift the whole community. He and Holczer occasionally debate folks in their condo association who complain bitterly about weeds and nuisances — but who vote against anything that'll grow the local tax base, Freedman said.
Constant eyesore, single violation
The unfinished building at 602 N.E. 86th Street was begun by Broderick and Salmon Creek Development, which went bankrupt in 2008; the property was purchased by Albina Bank of Portland in 2009 and resold to Michael Parker of Battle Ground.
Parker was noted in The Columbian early this year for buying the former Koplan's Home Furnishings building in downtown Vancouver and moving his Web design firm, Gravitate, into the second floor. The purchase price was $1.36 million, according to county records; The Columbian was told the firm plans a $1 million renovation as well.
Meanwhile, back in Hazel Dell, Parker's unfinished building "has been an eyesore for years," Freedman said.
"It has turned into an absolute dump," said Holczer. "We have problems with feral cats, even rats. I know we cannot force the building to be finished, but can't the owner be forced to keep the area clean?" Sometimes, he said, prospective condo buyers come knocking but are chased away again "by the idea of living next to a garbage dump."
A complaint was made this summer about weeds and fire danger, and it took about a month for a crew to show up and mow the grass, Freedman said. A stroll around the place in mid-October revealed at least one spot where anybody could slip inside the padlocked gate.
Parker has been reminded to act via official notices several times across the years, according to county code enforcement supervisor Kevin Pridemore, but he's only ever been found in violation once. Pridemore put liens on the property this summer to make sure the grass got mowed.
There's nothing special about that, Pridemore said. Prodding a building owner by mail to get the grass mowed is pretty normal "for a lot of buildings in the county. It happens," he said.
Contacted by phone, Parker had good news: he's close to a financing deal to get the project finished. It'll be different than originally intended: instead of 26 condominiums, it'll be 45 apartments. Parker said the apartment market is especially hot right now.
"It will be beautiful, possibly more beautiful than what's already there, and it will be rentals," Parker said. "I don't want to say we're weeks away. But I feel pretty sure we're going to be turning dirt within six weeks."
Banks and that bridge
So there may be a happy ending on the way for the unfinished building on 86th Street. But Freedman and Holczer are still grappling with depressed property values at their own phase of the development; typical prices were $240,000 to $270,000 when they moved in, but the average now is "$150,000 or less," Freedman said.
A handful of foreclosed, vacant Timbers units can't be helping. The worst of these has attracted squatters, drug deals and regular police attention, according to Holczer. As recently as Oct. 17, a SWAT team was dispatched to the condos to search for evidence related to a recent murder.
Freedman and Holczer are furious that banks take so long to get foreclosures finished, and seem to have no real interest in reselling foreclosed units; meanwhile, they say, those banks neither maintain those units nor pay the homeowner association's regular maintenance dues. (Freedman's not even supposed to be chairing his condo board anymore — his term is up — but because banks don't show up to meetings, Freedman says the Timbers board can't muster a quorum and hold a legal election. Freedman remains acting chairman).
"Those are very hard cases," Pridemore said. "The banks really don't want the properties in the first place. Banks have to wade through a lot and there are all kinds of laws to protect the original property owners."
All of which is why Freedman thinks that bridge needs to get built. An invigorated local economy will mean a better business environment for banks, developers and homebuyers — and the end of an eyesore for residents like himself.
Parker agrees with that logic. "I am a big supporter of the bridge," he said. "It will be good for the whole I-5 corridor."