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Our Opinion: City must deal with Old Town fire traps

Nightclub fires in other U.S. cities have caused mass tragedies that left their communities in mourning for years.

We cannot imagine why the city of Portland would tolerate the high risk of such a fire in Old Town nightclubs — but it is doing exactly that.

The city has the power to make those nightclubs safer, and also has the ability to place the Old Town/Chinatown district on a better course for the future. Mayor Charlie Hales and city commissioners should assemble the resources necessary to address the hazards and blights of Old Town, which include dangerously occupied buildings as well as vacant structures.

As reported by the Portland Tribune during the past two weeks, two popular nightclubs in Old Town’s new Entertainment District have been labeled as “inherently dangerous” by the city’s own fire inspector. Outside experts consulted by the Tribune question why Portland would continue to allow nightclubs to operate in the structures. They fear these buildings would trap patrons in the event of a fire, resulting in a tragedy of such magnitude, no one wants to contemplate it.

As one retired fire chief puts it, “A fire in either of these two occupancies has the potential for catastrophic consequences to the public or responding firefighters.”

Now that this information is in front of the public, it would be financially as well as morally irresponsible for city officials to fail to take action. Just imagine the legal liabilities the city could face if a fire occurred in these buildings after the city was warned in its own reports that conditions in the structures pose a hazard “to the firefighting operations and the citizens of Portland.”

City officials should move immediately to prevent such a tragedy by, at the minimum, requiring sprinkler systems in both buildings and in all Portland nightclubs. Beyond addressing the urgent safety needs of these two buildings in particular, city leaders also must consider the unrealized potential of Old Town/Chinatown, which has become an island of neglect in the midst of an otherwise successful city center.

A large number of Old Town/Chinatown buildings are underutilized. The Entertainment District draws crowds at night, but daytime activity is limited. Some of the most prominent decaying buildings are owned by fraternal organizations that have existed in Chinatown for decades, but today have no compelling reason to invest in the structures.

These factors all are impediments to positive change, but the one thing that can drive progress is the realization that Old Town/Chinatown could yet be a gem within Portland’s central core.

Already, there is evidence that young people are willing to live in Old Town and take advantage of its proximity to so many cultural and entertainment options. The city has tools it can use to encourage rehabilitation of deteriorating buildings. Part of Old Town is in the same urban renewal area as the Pearl District, which means funding is available for public improvements that can spark private investment.

Outside of urban renewal, the city also can find the means to provide incentives to property owners. When it comes to directing city funds to important projects, it’s all a matter of priorities. Old Town, because of its potential payback, should be higher on the city’s list.

To get maximum results, however, the city can’t stop with incentives. It also must make it uncomfortable for building owners to allow their properties to fall into disarray. A proper carrot-and-stick approach would include cracking down on safety and code violations while offering to help with improvements. Strategies could include waiving fees, streamlining permit processes and accepting realistic seismic upgrades that don’t sacrifice safety, but also don’t cost a fortune.

The condition of Old Town/Chinatown does not meet Portland’s standards for safety or livability. This city is known for its ability to transform blighted districts into bustling neighborhoods. The first step for the city is to make Old Town/Chinatown safe. The next is to make it successful.