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Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The mayor of Portland [rim shot] was all a-Twitter, literally, yesterday. He or his ghost writer was posting away furiously on the social networking site with several different spins on the announced closure of the Saks Fifth Avenue store downtown. In his view, it's all the recession's fault, of course. The highly disruptive and mostly failed remake of the transit mall, and the general deterioration of the city's core as a desirable place to work and shop, have nothing to do with it. Circumstances beyond our control; it's the "100-year economic storm," you see.

And despite the departure of Saks, the mayor glibly assures us: "With national anchors such as Nordstrom’s, Macys, and Brooks Brothers and regionally significant retailers such as Marios, The Mercantile, and Columbia Sportswear to name a few; Portland’s retail infrastructure is solid.” Is that statement anything like "I didn't have sex with the teenage intern"? How many of those stores will still be here two years from now? I'm sure the Macy's people are kicking themselves black and blue over letting the mayor's predecessor and political godmother, Vera Katz, talk them into staying downtown. And if the city weren't subsidizing it heavily, the luxury hotel upstairs from Macy's would likely be on the rocks by now.

But it's easy to see why the mayor is so hopped up that he nearly hurt himself Tweeting about this. The presence of Saks was Vera's symbol of success. I remember seeing her strutting around that store, basking in the glow of knowing that she and Neil Goldschmidt had finally turned that awful, backward Portland into New York City. It's the same feeling she must have felt standing in the midst of the Fake New York known as the Pearl District, and breaking ground on the ridiculous, doomed-from-the-start economic debacle known as South Waterfront.

Well, SoWhat is an epic fail, Saks is closing, downtown is dead, the Pearl is hurting, biotech never showed up, and Vera's largest gift to the city, Sam Adams, is a political dead man walking. We've got streetcars galore, but no economy, and the flow of blue-haired equity emigrés from California has long since dried up. This is Vera's legacy, and it isn't pretty. All the Tweets you can post aren't going to doll it up much.

Comments (32)

Lest we forget--- the 'creative class' will save us.

What, you mean shopping and condos doth not an economy make?

This has been my prediction for years- the bistro, boutique, and bedroom development model is doomed.

Looks like Doom has replaced Boom.

Let's be honest, Portland isn't really a Saks kind of town. It's more of an REI town. You combine that with the recession, and I'm not surprised Saks is bailing.

The whole, "This store is leaving Porltand, so that means such and such" is such an annoying argument. It's like when people look outside on a cold July and say Global Warming is a hoax.

Once incident does not make a trend.

Now, the fact that Portland and Oregon consistently have the highest unemployment rates in the country is a problem. I wish Sam would focus a little more on bringing more jobs in Portland, and less on saving an overly priced Jewelry and Apparel chain.

I had family fly in from New York (the real one) this last weekend. They rented a car and stayed at the Courtyard City Center. They made a point (over and over again) of telling us how "unworkable and confusing" downtown Portland is to get around in. Coming from a couple from Manhattan, that says a lot.

I think this will be the Katz/Adams legacy long term. It won't just be about streetcars, bikes, and worshipping all things green...it will be about how they sucked the life out of downtown. The next generation will have to focus on how to bring economic vitality to the core...and the planning circus will begin anew. Aaaah, I love this City.

Adams is partially correct, it is the economy. But the City isn't doing businesses any favors right now, that's for sure.

'One incident does not make a trend' is cute and glib, but completely misses the point. This has been going on for years. Look around at all the empty spaces and store fronts, and over a million square feet of empty office space downtown. A vibrant downtown has room enough and market enough for REI and Saks etc. There is no good business news or anything on the horizon to provide any measure of good planning or retail management, a key to healthy city. The person who likened us to Detroit is right on the money, just because some short sighted self centered civil servants imposed their "vision". We have only ourselves to blame for keeping those people in office.

Oh, come on Jack...don't hold back.

Tell us how you really feel and stop sugar-coating everything (tsk tsk).

In my mind, it was a toss-up as to which would exit Downtown first, Saks or Tiffany's!

In this case, I guess Saks bags the We Left First Award

___ora et labora___


I had a bunch of friends come in for the Physicists convention last week. They live in various countries and lots of different American cities. They couldn't believe how vibrant downtown Portland was (or sunny, but I told them that was a fluke) compared to most places in America. I was thinking about this blog as they told me how great the MAX and streetcar were, and how nice walking around the Pearl was. Their favorite place of all..........the Tram. I was very glad the convention center hotel keeps getting killed because if they had stayed in the Lloyd area the whole time I doubt any of them would have been talking about coming back soon.

Clearly your physics friends don't get out much do they? Go by Streetcar, babe!

Have to agree with Justin here. Saks is closing several other locations in cities that aren't cursed by our current government. You can't blame everything bad downtown on the bus mall/city government. The days of the department store are over.

Jack, Are you not going to welcome Mayor Adams a.k.a "Sherwood" to your blog?

Is losing Saks really all that surprising? If you don't think the recession has had something to do with it, then you've got blinders on. Downtown Portland's never been a great environment for high-end retailers, and that's something that predates Adams (ptui) and Katz. Just look at the tribulations the (formerly) home-grown Meier & Frank went through with their downtown store. And there was a reason Portland didn't have anyplace like Saks in downtown prior to Saks moving into Pioneer Place.

The way I remember it, there was a reason downtown needed revitalization in the first place. There was some not too pleasant vibes from downtown in the '70s and '80s.

I am annoyed with Portland in many ways, but it still does attract people downtown on nights and weekends--which is a good thing. There are many similar sized cities with downtowns that are ghost towns come 5:00 pm.

Something does need to be done with the street kids and their dogs. It is down right scary at times to pass them on the narrow sidewalks downtown.

"Portland isn't really a Saks kind of town"

I don't think it is just Saks. Ask any merchant downtown and the environment is pretty bad and not getting better. We pour 95% of the deve money downtown and we don't get much more than train tracks and bike lanes (aka the new 20-year plan every 5 years).

I also don't think it is the economy, WashSq, ClackTC and Bridgeport have it tough, but at lease they don't look like Pioneer Place once you get above street level (i.e. empty.)

"Mayor Adams a.k.a "Sherwood" Ouch. If I was Adams I would have pushed for the convention center hotel. As it is 8000 nerds managed to spend millions in government cash staying in hotels downtown. Just pointing out that despite its many faults Portland is a nice place. Way better than it was a few decades ago.

I say it is The Economy, in its far wider scope than little ol' PDX.

Yes, all the bad-doers you name did do bad. Probably mostly hubris. But even if they were angels and done good, back then and all along, The Economy today would still have crushed this place like it is doing.

Ones who could have done something, something more than they did, are Hatfield, Packwood, Wyden, Smith (ret.), Blumenauer, Hooley maybe, a few scattered other 'electeds,' and then, most of all, Stickel, the paper and ALL the TV stations -- just by airing news of 'the secrets' and secret government, (let's say, Who killed JFK?), the people would have moved the power to have stopped this master-minded 'die off' -- at least 50 years of global comprehension playing on the planetary chessboard.

That's the problem with, and ultimate failing of a governing strategy of piecemeal crisis management, waiting for scams and frauds to happen and then chasing along behind to try to find and catch culprits. The only successful strategy is full-breadth early-presentation of each citizen's required personal participation -- sorta Block Watch coast-to-coast; or, the hippies were right: Think globally.

And that thinking has to be started when we're young and fostered with true news reporting.

No doubt the owners of Saks cashed out to the max and have a 12-month headstart toward the enclave of filthy-rich survivalists and DNA curators. (In Paraguay, as I understand it. Also sea-going 'survival ships.')

Adams would be a better mayor if he slept all day, every day.

It's not just downtown: take a look at Lake Grove, where Wizers store there has closed, leaving the little strip mall at Bryant & Boones Ferry a bombed-out hulk with more vacancies than tenants.

"it still does attract people downtown on nights and weekends"


I'm really looking for something that justifies the bazillions we pour itto the 2% of land area that is downtown and not the rest of our fair city.

I'll give a bonus point for the neon roses.

Saks isn't going far...Just far enough to get away from the tweakers, street urchins, and tax-hungry politicos in PDX. They're looking at the old Whole Paycheck store at Bridgeport "no spangers" Village.

Sherwood, I moved here 30 plus years ago. And that Portland is far different from this one. Both the city and I have changed over time. We were both less sophisticated and more idealistic. The transit mall was not yet built. Bus service was still expanding and being improved. I didn't have a car and could survive without one. I didn't have much money back in the early days either. The alphabet district in NW was redlined by the banks and Good Sam and Con-Way were plotting to make the whole area their playground. Nothing had been rehabbed and you could be a Victorian house West of 23rd for under $30K. While there have been some changes for the better in this city, there have been far more changes for the worse. Developers were not on the dole and also not buying city wide elections. Cops were not wantonly committing homocides. And bad cops like the Scott Deppe actually got punished. The PoPo union leader (S.P.)was a dumb putz and nothing has changed on that front. The city actually had vibrant group of neighborhood associations that managed to make some real changes in city policy. The early work done by NWDA moved NW from red-lined to the tony haven it is now. And the biggest dolt on city council was Mildred "The Bag Lady" Schwab. And people like Margret Strachan, Mike Lindberg, and Bud Clark actually served on city council as elected outsiders who did not get tainted while in office. While I appreciate the better restaurants and art scene, I'd gladly do without it to have a city with the integrity of yesteryear.

In this town you CAN blame Saks leaving because of: our downtown, the bus mall, poor city government. Like the guy said above, they are going to Bridgeport with a newer version. According to Saks' press release, Portland is only one closing. We're the new Detroit. The old post office will be the new Tiger Stadium. Try and keep up.

Those bio-tech jobs we paid for went to Florida.

My mom was a window dresser for the downtown Meier and Frank store(now Macy's)in the 60's and very early 70's. I remember downtown Portland seemed to have a very different personality than what I observe now. It seemed like there was more regard for social grace on the streets. People actually dressed up to go shopping downtown, even if they were only going to buy something as humble as socks. It was a destination experience for many.

Sadly, now a trip to downtown PDX is just aggravating and something to be avoided at all costs.

Whole Paycheck left Bridgeport? (I've been gone for a few months.)

Whole Paycheck left Bridgeport?

Never was there. After Natures built a new store on the other side of I-5, off Boones Ferry, that company was bought out by Wild Oats. The dolts at Wild Oats decided they had to be in Bridgeport because if they didn't, Wholé Foods would go in there and kill them. So they took a big space. Meanwhile, Wholé Foods built across the street, over by REI. And after they swallowed Wild Oats, the Wild Oats store became redundant and was closed a couple of years ago. The space has been vacant since.

The one time I went into the Portland Saks store downtown looking for something that was carried by a Saks store in San Diego, they didn't have it, or even the entire department that it would be in.

Not that shocking that they're closing up, if they don't even carry all the products that people may want to purchase. I ended up buying it from another company off the Internet.

The Internet wins again, where mismanaged brick-and-mortar fails.

Come on folks. PDX is just not a Saks kind of town. Why pay 100% percent more just to have this month's model. Portlanders are smart enough to go to Marshalls one year later. It has nothing to do with the infrastructure, which is better than most cities in North America.

Unfortunately, Saks Fifth Avenue was an anchor tennant in Pioneer Place and it will be very hard to find another tennant to fill all the space they are vacating. And the second story of Pioneer Place already looks like a ghost town given the number of vacant spaces up there. Combined with the poor ongoing sales at Macy's, don't be surprised to see that store also become vacant after year's end.
Retail in downtown Portland? Why even bother to go there when you can go to so many other places where you don't have to deal with parking hassles, angry street punks or street blockages?

Perhaps the old Saks space could be converted into a giant-size version of Fireman Randy's bum toilet. Or an indoor biking center.

"Why even bother to go there when you can go to so many other places where you don't have to deal with parking hassles, angry street punks or street blockages?"

Agreed, especially regarding the angry street punks. Now that it's warm, every homeless punk on the west coast has moved downtown. Many of them aggressivley panhandle, cuss loudly, pee on the street, and abuse their captive dogs and cats.

It all adds up to about a 35% chance of having an unpleasant downtown shopping experience. The wife doesn't play those odds anymore, opting instead for the internet or Bridgeport.

(I hate to think that my wife's decision not to shop downtown any more had an effect on Saks' closure. I shudder to think how much money she spent there.)

The mysterious shopping habits of The Boss notwithstanding, it's a big mistake for the city to borrow loads of money for infrastructure improvements, but not do anything to get the angry homeless punks out of downtown. Portland needs to do something (short of murder or slavery) to shake its reputation as an oasis for angry street kids.

The posters on this blog that suggest downtown Portland is great and that it was the economy that took out Saks, or that Saks is not a Portland kind of store have their head in the sand. Portland’s downtown retail area was suffering because of the influx of suburban shopping centers in the 1970’s and was revitalized in the early 80’s. Pioneer Place was the capstone of that development. The 1980’s ushered in not only large national brands like Saks, Ann Taylor, William Sonoma, Ross and Brookstone which ran the gamut of tastes and budgets, but we also had a vibrant Galleria, a lively Morgan’s Ally, the Big Bang, a downtown Escape from NY Pizza and countless small independent shops that all added to the vitality of the core. Yes, recessions and bad management took the toll on some of these retailers. What really sucked the vitality out of Portland was the constant central planning of the Katz and Adams regimes. Potter doesn’t count as he was an idiot and let the Katz-Adams crowd run amok. This central planning destroyed the ability of shoppers to come downtown because of obstacles in traffic management, construction and the availability of convenient parking. They also added the highest system access charges in the region to make it virtually impossible for a small business to get a start. The new transit mall was one of the last nails in the coffin of downtown. The mall’s three year construction time table killed off many small businesses and now because of the inability to make turns across the tracks there are countless places where an eight block detour is necessary just to get to the other side of the block. The logistics of delivering supplies to a business downtown is utterly insane. The city also installed bike racks and benches on the sidewalk in front of truck loading zones making it difficult to unload a truck. Then along came morons like Nick Fish who has such a soft heart for the homeless and lets them and the punks run roughshod all over the city. The city then decides to spend twenty three million on a day center to attract even more street people. This is sheer idiocy. That money should have been spent to turn Wapato into a mental health center and actually treat the street people instead of maintaining them. It took 30 years to run Portland into the ground and it will take another thirty to bring it back. Getting rid of the current regime when they come up for reelection is a good start.

A co-worker who knows a couple of clerks at Saks says they reported that the landlord (the now bankrupt and possibly soon-to-be sold General Growth Properties) wanted Saks to sign a 20-year lease. That may have played a role, as well.

And, John Benton, I would agree with you, and add that the original Max installation also took a toll on businesses, especially along the 1st avenue alignment - the building where Great Harvest is located used to be a vibrant retail hub with several interesting, small local stores. The construction of light rail turned that building into mostly vacant space.

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