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Tent city planned in fancy Portland neighborhood

One of the toniest areas of Portland might soon be home to a tent city.

If this were another town, the owners and developers of high-end homes and condominiums would scream to high heaven about diminished property values.

But this is Portland, Ore., where the citizens try their best to be tolerant of everything except intolerance – and gluten.

Opponents of a city plan to put 100 people under a century-old bridge in the Pearl District are carefully choosing their words when complaining about the prospect of new, down-on-their-luck neighbors. Rather than express concern for their financial investments, they have criticized the city’s expedited process and worried for the welfare of those willing to live in a parking lot under the west ramp of the Broadway Bridge.

Tiffany Sweitzer, the president of Hoyt Street Properties, a realty and development firm that – over the course of 15 years – has helped transform a dying industrial area into a sparkling urban neighborhood, said “throwing a bunch of people under a bridge” should not be the city’s solution to helping the estimated 2,000 residents who sleep outside each night.

“It’s embarrassing, because that is not how you would treat anybody,” she said.

Mayor Charlie Hales and city commissioners plan to decide Oct. 16 whether to move the camp to the Pearl District from its current home near the entrance to Chinatown. If approved, a coalition of property owners promises to sue.

The camp known as Right 2 Dream Too was established in October 2011 during the Occupy Portland movement. Four years earlier, the city forced an adult bookstore to close because of code violations. The building was later demolished and the lot remained empty for three years until the aggrieved owner allowed the homeless to lease the property for $1 a year.

Each night for two years, roughly 100 people have slept on prime downtown real estate – in tents shielded from passers-by with a barrier of old, colorful doors fashioned into an artsy wall. During that time, landowner Michael Wright racked up more than $20,000 in fines because of violations associated with operating a campsite without a permit. He responded with a lawsuit.

To extract Portland from this mess, city Commissioner Amanda Fritz brokered a deal in which the fines would be waived, the lawsuit dropped and the homeless campers would be sent to the Pearl District. It all happened in a matter of weeks, angering homeowners and developers who say the city was so desperate to settle Wright’s lawsuit that it bypassed zoning laws.

Fritz, a former psychiatric nurse, acknowledged that the camp is not the ideal answer to homelessness. She said there is not enough money to provide housing to all, and Right 2 Dream Too has provided a much safer alternative than the street.

“It’s been an option that’s been better than nothing,” she said.

Scores of people spoke for and against the proposal at a recent five-hour hearing. Though some older women testified their safety would be jeopardized, most Pearl District residents completely ignored quality-of-life and financial issues and repeatedly griped that the city did the deal in secret and delegitimized the zoning code. Not everyone in the neighborhood is rich, they added, and the fight has been unfairly cast as the greedy against the homeless, or “us against them.”

“It’s a sad, confrontational, divisive atmosphere because communication was intentionally closed,” said Julie Young, a retired social worker who lives in the Pearl.

Besides condominiums and the low-income apartments for older residents, there are businesses nearby and a Marriott is scheduled to open next year. Those who have spoken to the potential financial impact of Right 2 Dream Too say hotel guests won’t want to stay near a shantytown and commercial rents could fall by more than 15 percent.

Ziba Design spent $20 million to build its headquarters in the Pearl District. Its real estate adviser, Greg Close of Wyse Investment Services, said in a phone interview that his client represents a large Chinese apparel manufacturer that is considering Portland.

“What does my client tell the executive of that manufacturer when it asks: ‘How can we trust you, Ziba, with our brand when we come to Portland and see you invested $20 million next to a homeless camp?’ ”

Homeless people, meanwhile, ask their prospective neighbors to give them a chance. Right 2 Dream Too (or R2D2) has an excellent safety record, and supporters say the camp – they call it a rest area – has helped people get back on their feet and into permanent housing.

“We’re not there to bring property values down,” said Ibrahim Mubarak, the R2D2 leader. “We’re there to get people from sleeping on your sidewalk. We’re there to stop people from sleeping in the doorways. We’re there to stop the drug dealing. We’re there to stop the drug use by our friends.”

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