$15M city plan to buy property, consolidate facilities and sell off valuable Bayside lot remains mirky

The Portland City Council on Monday night, through a series of unanimous votes, allocated more than $15 million over the next four years for something.

What, exactly, was unclear to not only audience members, but to the councilors themselves. To be fair, the council wasn’t setting aside an amount greater than some small towns’ entire annual budgets without any information whatsoever about what it will be used for.

They did have a general idea.

The money — which was already in the capital improvements budget and with Monday’s council actions was simply shuffled to different fiscal years in the multi-year spending schedule — would go toward the purchase of property, where the city would then relocate and consolidate several different department offices under one roof.

Pulling directly from the information supplied to the council in their packet of meeting agenda background materials, entities to be moved (and why) are:

So where are all of those divisions proposed to be moved? That was the question of the night (well, other than whether the city should sell part of Congress Square Park).

Portland residents Robert Hains and Steven Scharf, members of the public who frequently address the council at its meetings, each posed the question.

Asked Hains:

There must be a piece of property involved, because it’s a very specific amount of money. Where are we going to be putting public works? … Why not go out to referendum on the whole ball of wax, and let the public know where it’s going to be and what it’s going to look like?

Councilor Cheryl Leeman had this to say about the allocations:

We don’t know where we’re going to move to. We don’t have a plan. … Those are very unlike services. At what point are we going to see a plan? It doesn’t make sense to fragment public services just for the sake of moving them.

City Manager Mark Rees and Economic Development Director Gregory Mitchell each did his best to answer the questions, but each said he couldn’t specify what property is being discussed for purchase because they remain in sensitive negotiations with the real estate’s current owner, whoever and wherever that is.

Said Mitchell:

The concept is to consolidate the departments listed in the backup material to a single location. That’s our goal.

Said Rees:

We will certainly provide that [information] to the City Council once we finish preliminary negotiations with the property owner.

Said the aforementioned Scharf:

I guess you have to pass a measure to find out what’s in it.

In this case, the risk to the council of approving the allocations ($3.05M in bond money this year, followed by yearly amounts of $560,000 in each FY15 and FY16, then $10.95M in FY17) appears to be low or non-existent. If the plan Rees and Mitchell bring to the council in the coming months (“Within the calendar year,” Mitchell said.) doesn’t please the councilors, they can vote it down at that point and the money will recess back into the CIP budget from whence it came.

But with Monday’s allocation actions by the council, Portlanders know there’s a major property transaction potentially on the horizon, and that it will represent a significant shift in the city’s facilities arrangement.

Not to be lost in all this is that the movement of city divisions described above would free 65 Hanover St. for sale, and with the big Midtown development proposal working its way through the permitting processes and other Bayside neighborhood changes recent and coming, that spot could be very valuable on the market.

Councilor Ed Suslovic Monday asked if city staff had any estimates for what kind of a windfall the city might receive by selling off what would become excess properties once all of those divisions are moved and consolidated, and although he did not get an answer, the presumption is that there will be one.

It will be interesting to see all this play out.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.