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  • 17 Sep 2014

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Old Town vacancies glaring in sunlight

Shop closures leave few daytime activities in nightclub district


Morteza Aleali closed his Old Town herb and acupuncture shop three weeks ago. It wasn’t a big shop and it hadn’t seen many customers in recent years. But its closing, according to Aleali, should serve as a resounding wake-up call on city policies: the Old Town/Chinatown Entertainment District, he says, is pushing out daytime businesses in favor of nighttime clubs and bars.

Aleali is moving to a new location on Southwest First Avenue, just south of downtown. As detailed in a series of stories in the Tribune during the past three years, Aleali’s shop, decorated with large glass jars full of mysterious looking herbs, used to get many more customers, including quite a few from Chinatown walking tours. According to Aleali, those tours stopped their visits when the sidewalk on the north side of Northwest Couch Street was blocked off. Bricks had begun falling off the top of the Sinnott Building, at the corner of Northwest Couch and Third Avenue.

The Sinnott was sold to Keisha Nathan in 2010 for $400,000. The upper floors of the Sinnott have been vacant for years and cannot be occupied, according to Portland Fire & Rescue. But the ground floor has been allowed to host a series of popular nightclubs, most recently The Barrel Room.

The city’s Bureau of Development Services required that sidewalks around the Sinnott be fenced off so that pedestrians would not be hit by falling bricks. The bureau also told Nathan in 2011 that she had to make repairs to the building or face a series of steadily increasing fines.

Three years later, the sidewalks are still closed and Aleali has shuttered one of the few Chinatown shops open during daytime hours.

Nathan, who declined to talk to the Tribune, has told the city that she has plans to fix the problem of the falling bricks. Plans have been filed and work has intermittently occurred, but not for a while. And the city has not levied any fines since 2011. Nathan’s latest extension gives her until Nov. 20 of this year to take care of the exterior repairs.

“It’s a balancing act on the owner’s part and a little bit on the city’s part as well,” says Mike Liefeld, BDS enforcement manager. “I don’t think we’re going to get support to condemn these buildings when people are indicating they want to address issues and repair (them).”

The bigger picture for the Sinnott is even more uncertain. In earlier interviews, Nathan said she didn’t have the money to take on the large-scale renovation that would allow her to reopen the building as she had hoped. So the Sinnott, shrouded in scaffolding, stands as one more historic, abandoned Chinatown building, except on Friday and Saturday nights, when The Barrel Room serves large crowds until 2 a.m.

Daytime activity

While Nathan is unwilling to discuss the status of her building, Stephen Ying, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, wonders if allowing owners of otherwise vacant buildings to operate ground-floor nightclubs is serving as an obstacle to getting those owners to renovate or sell their properties.

The rental revenue from the nightclubs provides building owners enough money to pay property taxes, Ying says. As long as the buildings aren’t a financial burden, many owners are willing to defer decisions about their long-term fates.

Ying’s vision for Old Town/Chinatown includes entertainment venues in a closed area at night, with active ground-floor businesses during the day. He’d like to see a requirement that the same buildings that host nightclubs have something open 9 to 5.

“Sell sandwiches, I don’t care what you do, have some daytime activity,” Ying says.

The alternative, he adds, is the “ghost town” feel much of Chinatown has today.

Aleali says that drunken revelers broke his front window and that in the mornings trash from club patrons littered his sidewalk and street. He notes that Ping, an upscale restaurant, has indefinitely closed at the corner of Couch and Northwest Third, which means the entire block on which his store sat is vacant during the day.

“The whole area is abandoned. All the businesses are going. There are nightclubs thriving at night, it is a big party. For any kind of day business it is very bad,” Aleali says.

Reaching stakeholders

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales says he has an interest in making the Entertainment District work, having successfully pushed last week for extension of the ordinance which closes a six-block area of Old Town/Chinatown to vehicles when the nightclubs are open. Those rules will stay in effect until October.

Hales, according to policy adviser Chad Stover, doesn’t want city policies to prioritize nightclubs and bars over daytime businesses.

“It is not our intent to make this exclusively an entertainment zone,” Stover says. “What we are doing is trying to reach out to all the stakeholders to make it a 24-hour-a-day neighborhood.”

If Aleali’s experience counts, Hales will have to reach out quickly or there won’t be many business stakeholders left who don’t own nightclubs.