Loyalty in the retail development business doesn’t run deep — at least in Portland, Oregon — where three developers are vying to be chosen by the city to develop a massive 5 block project known as the Burnside Bridgehead development. Two of the three developers have presented plans that include a big box retailer. But growing citizen opposition to big boxes has caused the developers to rethink their plans. The Portland Development Commission (PDC), the city’s urban development agency, will make the final choice of developers, and in response to community concern, has scheduled at least two more public hearings on the plan, and expects to make a decision on February 9th. The Kerns neighborhood of Portland, where the project will be located, has expressed its opposition to a big box retailer, as has a group called the Sustainablae Business Network of Portland. “There are plenty of local merchants with the products, prices and people to serve Portland’s consumers,” the group told the PDC. “All they ask is a chance to compete on a level playing field.” One project, offered by the Gerding/Edlen Development company, has a Home Depot as its anchor tenant. A second plan, prepared by Opus-Northwest Development, has a blue version of Home Depot — a Lowe’s. In addition to both hosting big box retailers, each developer is asking the city for tax breaks or subsidies. Gerdling/Edlen has asked for an astounding $40 million in tax credits and other subsidies, according to the Portland Tribune, while Opus wants the city to sell the property for several million below what the city will have to spend to prepare the site for construction. The third project, from Beam Development, has no big box store, and focuses more on locally-owned businesses. But when pressed about big boxes, both developers hedged on their plans. “Our proposal does not spin on Home Depot,” Gerding/Edlen told the Tribune. “If you don’t want them, we’ll take it out.” And Opus-Northwest told the newspaper, “The PDC said that if we planned to include a large retailer, we needed to name it. We named Lowe’s because we have had discussions with them, but we have not made any commitment to them.” Before the PDC meets on February 9th, it will receive a report from a selection panel that is reviewing all three plans. One bad sign of the panel’s thinking was the statement from one panel member in the Tribune that it’s unfair to compare the Home Depot or Lowe’s plan to other suburban-style big box stores, because any national retailer would be a “one of a kind store” to fit the development. Developers love to tell local communities that THEIR Home Depot is going to be different than all the rest, but in the end, the “unique” store appears very similar to the rest of the boxes, with a few minor concessions to local demands.
Citizen pressure in Portland clearly has to build over the next month to the point that all three developers renounce suburban big boxes in an urban setting. No single-story, flat-roofed, windowless boxes for the Kerns neighborhood. If the developers are willing to “spin” Home Depot and Lowe’s off the blueprints, then let them do that before February 9th, rather than play games about what they might do. Local residents in Portland should be insisting that their home improvement should take a front seat to big box home improvement stores. It’s time for the PDC to think outside the box.