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June 24, 2021

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Downtown in distress: Portland’s core is unsafe and uninviting, residents say in new poll, threatening city’s recovery

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Residents describe downtown as `idestroyed,^i `itrashed,^i `iriots^i and `isad." Persistent vandalism, accumulating trash and homelessness have soured attitudes about Portland's economic, cultural and transportation hub.
Residents describe downtown as `idestroyed,^i `itrashed,^i `iriots^i and `isad." Persistent vandalism, accumulating trash and homelessness have soured attitudes about Portland's economic, cultural and transportation hub. Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — Residents across the metro area say downtown Portland has become dirty, unsafe and uninviting and many anticipate visiting the city’s core less often after the pandemic than they did before.

Those are the worrisome findings of a new poll of 600 people — half who live within Portland’s city limits — commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Asked for their perceptions of downtown, respondents frequently used words like “destroyed,” “trashed,” “riots” and “sad.” Many cited homelessness as a particular issue, and said there is an urgent need for the city to find housing and support people living on the street.

Those results suggest deep pessimism about downtown Portland, the city’s economic, cultural and transportation hub. They also could pose severe obstacles to the city’s recovery from the pandemic recession. Economists say the city must take action on the significant issues plaguing downtown before they’ll be able to change that perception.

Every downtown in the nation faces serious challenges in the wake of the pandemic, which emptied out offices, led to a massive drop in tourism and produced an unprecedented spike in layoffs.

But Portland’s issues are particularly acute.

As downtown workers retreated to work from home at the start of the pandemic last year, the city’s core registered a sharp rise in outdoor camping — especially in Old Town Chinatown, just across West Burnside Street from Portland’s main office district. The surge in campers reflected many factors, including spiraling housing costs, chronic mental health and addiction issues, and the decision to follow a federal directive not to clear campsites or move homeless people into crowded shelters for fear of exposing them to COVID-19.

The city became a national symbol of unrest last summer during large, raucous protests over civil rights after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. The Trump administration’s combative response ratcheted up the pressure, creating a battlefield as federal law enforcement and a varied group of protesters clashed around downtown. Protests continued for more than 100 nights, with the confrontations producing scores of injuries and one fatal shooting.

Large protests ended during the summer, but in the months since the city has been unable to stop small groups of vandals from sporadically attacking businesses and civic organizations at night, which has led many downtown businesses to continue to keep plywood over their windows.

“I love Portland, generally speaking,” said Matthew Forsyth, a 65-year-old Southwest Portland resident who participated in the poll. “It’s just that downtown right now, it feels like it needs to be revitalized and it doesn’t feel safe.”

Downtown is central to Portland’s identity and image, long touted as the livable, walkable heart of the city. In this month’s poll, 85% said downtown was important, or very important, to the city’s economy.

More than 100,000 people worked downtown prior to the pandemic, 1 in 20 of all jobs in the entire state. That includes white-collar office workers, entry-level service jobs and many jobs in city, state and federal offices.

But most downtown workers have been working remotely since the start of the pandemic and it’s not clear when employers will bring large numbers of workers back to the office. Many bars and restaurants are closed as well, as are the theaters and concert venues that made downtown a cultural hub before the pandemic.

In the poll, though, respondents indicated that reopening downtown’s attractions may not be enough to revive the city’s core.

Downtown simply doesn’t feel safe right now, said Portland resident and poll respondent Myrna Brown. People are desperate, she said, and the city let things get out of hand over the last year. Trash, graffiti and downtown’s violent reputation are keeping her family away.

Brown said that before the pandemic she frequently visited downtown, soaking in the sights and festivals with her 13-year-old son.

“He’s very afraid to go downtown now,” said Brown, who lives in the outer Southeast Portland neighborhood of Powellhurst-Gilbert. “He loved to go down just to the waterfront and walk around. He loved to go to Saturday Market. These are things that cannot happen anymore.”

Most of all, Brown said Portland has failed its homeless residents.

The city has become too expensive to live in, she said, and doesn’t have enough basic amenities like toilets, handwashing stations and trashcans so homeless Portlanders can care for themselves. She said the city has moved far too slowly, for far too long, to address critical needs and she’s not optimistic the crisis will resolve itself anytime soon.

“I don’t think it’s going to improve on its own,” said Brown, 59. “I think it’s going to need a lot of help.”

“I DIDN’T FEEL SAFE DOWNTOWN ANYMORE”

Brown’s perspective mirrors that of many of the 600 people in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark counties who took the survey conducted by DHM Research earlier this month. The Oregonian/OregonLive commissioned the poll to assess perceptions of downtown from those who live and work in the metro area. The survey defined downtown as the area west of the Willamette River from Portland State University to Old Town Chinatown and the Pearl District, including Providence Park.

In contrast to the anarchist caricature depicted on Fox News, the poll suggests Portlanders have a nuanced understanding of the community’s issues. Notably, 83% of those living in the city limits say they feel safe in their own neighborhoods. Among all poll respondents, 86% said they felt safe in their own neighborhoods.

And respondents have very specific ideas of how Portland could address the crisis downtown: cleaning up the streets, reducing crime and reopening bars, restaurants and other attractions.

Yet the poll also suggests a fundamental deterioration in residents’ perceptions of downtown, and respondents indicated the city has suffered a black eye that may be difficult to erase:

The poll had an overall margin of error of 4%. Results were adjusted to reflect the view across the metro area. ( Read poll questions and answers here.)

Tosha Morgan-Platt, a Northeast Portland resident who agreed with the poll results, began working for a company that manages downtown parking lots in July 2019. The job required Morgan-Platt, 42, to walk through downtown daily to visit her company’s parking lots.

She said she felt safe during her first eight months on the job, but that changed when she returned to work last September after being temporarily laid off due to the pandemic.

Morgan-Platt said she immediately noticed the increase in homelessness downtown, including the number of people experiencing mental health crises. She said she grew concerned for her safety after a person asked her for money and then chased her down the street when she refused. She said her work began scheduling only male employees for evening shifts because most female workers didn’t feel comfortable downtown at night.

In April, Morgan-Platt left her job to begin working in a ghost kitchen, a space where cooks make delivery-only food for multiple brands.

“I didn’t feel safe downtown anymore,” Morgan-Platt said. “Now, I don’t go downtown unless I have to.”

A January survey by the Portland Business Alliance found business owners had similar concerns, with a majority of them saying downtown is unsafe. However, merchants said COVID-19 — not safety or homelessness – was the biggest issue impacting their own businesses. That survey was conducted during Oregon’s darkest days of the pandemic, when deaths reached an all-time high and Gov. Kate Brown blocked indoor dining in Multnomah County and other parts of the state.

While relatively few downtown businesses closed permanently last year, a handful have announced plans to close in the last few weeks and some have said they will have tough decisions to make when their leases come up. Goldmark Jewelers, optometrist Golden Optical and Cameron’s Books and Magazines are closing their downtown locations permanently, and all said deteriorating conditions downtown played a role in their exits.

Reports of vandalism, burglaries and arson were up sharply last year in downtown Portland, crimes that in many cases stemmed from nightly protests. Arson is down considerably this spring, as the protests have faded, but burglaries and vandalism remain elevated, according to crime statistics compiled by the Portland Police Bureau.

Crimes against people, though, were actually lower in downtown last year compared to 2019. Assaults were down 13% from 2019 and the rate of reported assaults has continued to decrease over the last four months.

The extreme decline in pedestrian traffic downtown surely accounts for a good deal of that decrease. But it nonetheless belies poll respondents’ perceptions that downtown has become considerably less safe.

Indeed, 45% of poll respondents said they had not been downtown since the pandemic’s onset, and another 28% said they had been downtown just a few times. So some of their perceptions may be just that – perceptions.

Still, Portland State University criminologist Kris Henning said perception matters tremendously, regardless of whether crime rates have changed. He said it won’t be easy to get people to return downtown if they don’t feel safe.

“Social disorder is what really drives people’s perceptions of safety,” Henning said. “Most people aren’t going to get robbed, but if they feel unsafe because they see campers or a lot of garbage or a lot of broken windows, that has a huge impact on their perceptions of safety.”

CHALLENGES AHEAD

In some ways, Portland has continued to thrive through the pandemic. Home prices are soaring and rents are rising again after plummeting in 2020. That reflects the economic disparities the pandemic exacerbated, with affluent neighborhoods thriving even as downtown struggles.

On any given day, a visit downtown may still be a pleasant, uneventful outing. The Park Blocks are lush with ash and towering oaks, the waterfront is vivid and bright with scenic views of the Willamette River, the downtown bridges and Mount Hood in the distance. Construction workers are on the job at building sites throughout the city’s core adding offices, apartments and condos in projects that began before the pandemic.

In the heart of the city, though, virtually every block has boarded-up storefronts and windows. Used needles littering the sidewalk are common, even in heavily trafficked areas like Southwest Broadway, downtown’s main thoroughfare. And trash and uneaten food are strewn about everywhere.

Pearl District resident and poll respondent Laurie Lago, 75, said the city hasn’t done enough to address the issues plaguing downtown.

She said the city and county should be more creative and proactive in finding temporary alternatives to house the homeless, even as they continue to work on long-term solutions. Lago said she would like to see officials make use of empty buildings or parking lots downtown to set up temporary homeless shelters where they could provide portable toilets and other amenities, rather than allowing unregulated camping within the city center.

Lago said she also feels that the city and county haven’t done enough to hold those who have committed property damage accountable.

“There seems in the last year to be this permission to do violence,” she said.

John Tapogna, president for ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm, said having a healthy and vibrant downtown is crucial to the economic success of the Portland region.

He said Portland’s active urban core has long been a draw to young people considering a move to the city and a desirable place to stay for tourists looking to explore Portland and the region.

The city has also invested tremendously in infrastructure tied to downtown with a transit system built around passing through the city core and two major interstates intersecting just outside downtown. Developers have invested heavily in building commercial and residential buildings in and around downtown, too, especially in the last decade. Tapogna said it would be a huge blow to the city if high vacancy rates become the norm downtown and foot traffic doesn’t rebound.

However, he said the city can’t just focus on improving the reputation of downtown in hopes of drawing visitors and locals back. He said it needs to first address the underlying issues that are keeping people away.

“An image campaign that precedes actual improvement would be counterproductive,” Tapogna said. “It’s imperative to find a new compassionate solution for the homeless crisis that is facing the city at large and imperative to address this ongoing property damage. If you encourage people to come downtown and they are seeing fencing and plywood, you are less likely to get them back.”

THE CITY’S RESPONSE

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler nearly lost his re-election bid last November amid widespread unhappiness with the city’s response to homelessness, protests and vandalism. This month’s poll suggests residents remain deeply unhappy.

Among poll respondents living in the city, 74% said they are unhappy with how the mayor and city council have responded to homelessness. Nearly as many, 68%, said they were unhappy with the city’s response to protests.

Homeless residents and their advocates say they want improved access to mental health care. Business owners in Old Town Chinatown say they want clear boundaries on where the city will allow camping, and where it will not.

Sam Adams, the former mayor and now a senior adviser to Wheeler, said that work is already underway to revitalize downtown and he believes the city has made some progress in the last two months in ensuring people feel safe coming to the city’s core.

Adams said the top issue that Wheeler has tasked him with addressing is the continued vandalism and destruction both in downtown and elsewhere in the city caused by a small group of people.

He said Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner, supports the Portland Police Bureau’s use of “kettling,” when appropriate, to contain and detain people who are causing destruction. He also said the mayor’s office has worked with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to ensure that vandals who were previously being cited and released are now being booked into jail and facing pretrial sanctions.

But while Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has reiterated in recent statements his intention to prosecute those who commit property destruction, his office is navigating a significant backlog of cases that has been exacerbated by court closures due to the pandemic.

“As soon as the courts open up, we want to make sure that these criminal vandals are held accountable in the courts,” Adams said. “One of the challenges has been that the courts aren’t convening around these kinds of cases.”

Adams said the city also collaborated with volunteers last month to clean trash piling up around homeless encampments in Old Town Chinatown ahead of the reopening Portland Saturday Market. He said he felt those targeted clean-ups made a marked difference and are a strategy the city wants to continue to use in anticipation of more employers reopening offices and larger events returning to downtown.

Less clear is how the city and county plan to address the proliferation of tents downtown and the needs of those who have taken refuge along sidewalks in the city core during the pandemic.

“The mayor has made clear the current status quo is not humane for those who have to live outside in tents,” Adams said. “That kind of scatteredness makes it hard to provide services in a cost-effective way and we can and must do better.”

While Adams said that the city still has a lot of work ahead, he remains optimistic that downtown will recover.

“The strengths of our downtown are unique and they haven’t gone away,” Adams said. “Everything from the small blocks, to interesting food carts you can’t get anywhere else, a variety of shopping experiences, easy access with transit — those strengths are still there.”

Yet the atmosphere downtown remains a concern for many.

Brandon Lane, a poll respondent and data analyst for the Oregon Primary Care Association, had worked downtown since 1982 before moving to remote work last year due to the pandemic. He expects to return to his office sometime between June and September.

While he said he thinks he’ll feel comfortable returning to work downtown, Lane said the city center has changed considerably in the last year.

“I’ve never felt unsafe and I don’t expect I’ll be in a situation where I would be in any real danger,” said Lane, 61. “It certainly would be more pleasant to be in surroundings that look nice, instead of seeing a lot of boarded up buildings, graffiti, broken windows.”

Lane remains hopeful that downtown will improve over time as people return to work and more businesses open. Still, he remains concerned that tourists and locals who may have seen downtown as a cultural destination or shopping hub in the past won’t be as willing to return until conditions improve.

“It’s really important for there to be a successful, vibrant and healthy downtown,” Lane said. “I think the whole metro area would suffer otherwise.”

Today’s report is part of the ongoing series Downtown in Distress that will cover more polling results on Portland police and homelessness next week, as well as business leaders’ response.

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