Cashing in on "smart growth"
There's a fairly lightweight profile in the O today about Joe Weston, Portland real estate mogul. Weston's piled up so much dough he doesn't know how to deal with it, and he's set up a foundation to give most of it away. In addition to the gushy words about that, and all the usual irrelevant nonsense (the license plate number on his VW bug, his divorce, blah blah blah), the O reporter fills in the basic outlines of how Joe made his money:
When Weston began building apartments in the 1960s, Buckman and the other close-in neighborhoods were filled with Victorians, four-squares and bungalows. But the areas were zoned for apartments. The zoning, says urban historian Carl Abbott, reflected the deterioration of the housing stock and the notion at the time that people with means buy homes in the suburbs, relegating the city for higher density. Weston accepted the invitation that the zoning extended. He began knocking down adjacent old homes and built two-story, 10-unit, brick-on-aluminum-siding apartments with the parking lot out front. By the early '70s, he had gotten quite good at it. Homeowners watched and worried.That's for sure. What you ended up with in Buckman includes drugs, and plenty of it; a ghetto of high-impact social services deliberately sited there by the Stennies; and lots and lots of turnover of residents.
"He was viewed as a threat," recalls Jim Andrews, who along with his wife is an architect. They bought a house in Buckman in 1974 across from one of Weston's buildings. "I don't think anyone regarded him as having malice toward the neighborhood. He was a shrewd businessman. There were worse developers, but he was so successful that people were concerned that he would just keep going and going."
Weston's buildings became a rallying point for activism in the '70s. Portlanders fought the national trend toward paving super highways to the suburbs and ceding the core to the poor. Neighbors such as Andrews got Buckman and other close-in enclaves rezoned. They re-emphasized single-family homes and established middle-class commitment to the city.
Today, Andrews says most of Weston's buildings wouldn't win a beauty contest. The projects substantially changed the character of neighborhoods. But "he built a decent product and he owned them for the long term," Andrews says. "Most neighborhoods benefit from having some diversity of income and ethnicity.... What we ended up with in Buckman is a pretty diverse neighborhood."
But Weston's biggest insult to the place is aesthetic. If you cruise around Buckman and Sunnyside, and if you look at pictures of what was there before the apartments went in, you'll see what Weston did to those neighborhoods. Blocks of beautiful old Portland homes are littered with awful low-rise apartment bunkers that look like bad motels. The buildings are hanging in there, but in addition to being ugly, they're showing their age.
This is where density gets you. Since then Weston has cashed in big time on the Pearl, and now he's licking his chops over the area over by the Rose Garden. He'll try to talk the school board out of its headquarters building at a lowball price, get out his wrecking ball for the umpteenth time, and bam! Up goes another condo tower. If he'll put in a dozen $900-a-month studio apartments, the City Council will probably give him a free ride on property taxes. He's way smarter than they are, and he'll have them eating out of his hand, as usual.
Buckman is not a better place because of what was done there 35 years ago in the name of "urban density." If Weston has so much money to give away, he ought to pay to build the long-promised, never-delivered Buckman community center at the old Washington High School. He's got enough wealth to do it single-handedly, I suspect. And one might conclude that he owes it to the people of Buckman. It's a rough neighborhood to raise a kid in. Maybe the original "smart growth" kingpin could make it easier on the people who have made him so rich.