Downtown Portland's paradox: Crime, public perceptions threaten growth, retailers say

Downtown Portland's paradox: Crime, public perceptions threaten growth, retailers say

By many measures, downtown Portland is flourishing.

Employment and wages are up, and more businesses have opened than have closed. Vacancy rates remain near historic lows. Skyscrapers command record prices, and cranes loom over the skyline as development dollars and new residents continue to pour in.

Paradoxically, downtown retailers and others are faced with theft, break-ins, human waste and the detritus of the opioid epidemic on a regular basis. These problems are made worse by a shortage of police making the rounds, they say.

As 2017 drew to a close, the problems remained vexing and defied solutions that are both compassionate and effective. The underlying data raise as many questions as answers, and city leaders, pressed to respond to a situation some retailers feel has reached crisis levels, vow to keep downtown livability and safety as top priorities.

Business and city officials are quick to distinguish between crime and homelessness, emphasizing that those sleeping on the streets should be treated with compassion as long as they don't break any laws.

But just the presence of panhandlers or others lingering on the sidewalk can discourage some from visiting downtown's restaurants or shops. Meanwhile, recurring crime, no matter who commits it, wears thin for some.

Business owners, advocates and city leaders agree that no one thing will address their various complaints.

After Columbia Sportswear chief executive Tim Boyle threatened to move his company's Sorel offices out of its downtown location if incidents of harassment, theft and human waste didn't decrease, Wheeler added additional foot patrols by police to select parts of downtown.

Those patrols are still in place, Cox said. The mayor's office – with the help of police, city transportation officials and the Portland Business Alliance – also added "no-sit zone" signs to Portland sidewalks. One of the new signs was installed in front of the Columbia Sportswear flagship store downtown.

In response, protesters staged a sit-in at the store, and advocates criticized the no-sit policy for criminalizing homelessness.

The Columbia incident illustrates the potential backlash business owners may face complaining about certain issues in progressive Portland.

In a December interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive, Portland Business Alliance President Sandra McDonough agreed that Portland needs more police officers, but acknowledged complaints of public drug use and defecation are harder to address.

This is partly because some livability issues aren't necessarily crimes, and because it's impossible to separate those committing crimes and those who are homeless.

"We want to be super-duper careful," McDonough said. "We don't believe that every person out there who is homeless is committing livability crimes."

And while addressing homelessness is a high priority for the business group, those committing crimes should be prosecuted, she said.

The Downtown Clean & Safe program, with its security and sanitation workers, is managed by the business alliance and operates within a 213-block area of downtown.

According to the group, workers collected nearly 17,000 needles in its district in 2016, up from about 10,000 the previous year. McDonough said workers were on pace to collect 30,000 needles in 2017.

Counts for graffiti tags, bags of trash and biohazards the workers removed were also all up significantly, according to Clean and Safe's statistics.

Get Email Updates