Three developers. Three ideas. One site. Whoever wins the battle to redevelop the Burnside Bridge's east end, the result will be a five-block monster.

Fittingly, two competitors are industry titans who've chosen outsize centerpieces. Gerding/Edlen, the well-connected local firm that built much of the Pearl District, wants to lure Home Depot. Opus, a Minnesota-based giant, puts Lowe's at the center of its plans.

As the Portland Development Commission heads for a January decision (see box, below), there's been a surprise: A relative small fry is stealing the show.

At packed public meetings on the Burnside Bridgehead project last month, discussion centered on local developer Brad Malsin's ideas for the site. Malsin, an ex-eye doctor with a salty New York accent, wants to eighty-six big-box retail. Instead, Malsin's complex would include a cheap-rent, 264-space "artists incubator," a film production company, a wind-power manufacturer, a gourmet food plaza and 235 condos with dazzling views.

We sat down with Malsin in his office at the Eastbank Commerce Center--which he built and filled with local businesses--to talk about his proposal, his past and why he thinks big-box won't work on Burnside.

WW: How did a New York doctor turn into a Portland developer who's taking on one of the biggest projects in town?

Brad Malsin: I was a vision rehab specialist in New York City. My family and I just got tired of Manhattan. My wife was a criminal-defense attorney with Legal Aid. She gave up her career. I gave up mine. I'd done real-estate development in New York as an investment. I was a poor boy from Brooklyn who grew up in the projects--I was very reticent to put my money in the stock market. So I bought property. I had no idea what I was doing at the start. Fortunately, in Manhattan you don't have to be too smart.

Give me an example of how this proposed project will work.

Well, there's an idea I stole from Chelsea Market in New York, the Chefs Collaborative there. I think that's the greatest thing since sliced bread. So I have a courtyard, and I put roll-up garage doors all along the ground floor. You have this--forgive the term--food court, but not the mall concept of a food court. The other side of the bridge is where the Portland Public Market's gonna go, so chefs can walk over and pick up fresh ingredients. You have a wine merchant in here, a coffee shop. You can pick up fresh flowers, olives, whatever the hell you want. Two or three chefs can share a kiosk and get a taste of what it's like to run a restaurant. They hone their skills, build a following and move on. To me, this whole project is about incubation.

Explain what that means. A key part of your project is an "artists' incubator" with a design based on single-room-occupancy hotels. How's that work?

There are a few interesting artist incubators around. But I think some of 'em have the potential to become hideouts for trust-fund babies. You know--they're artists, they paint a little bit, they shop at Bergdorf's. Nothing against them, but that's not who I'm trying to support. So in this project, you have dormitory-style 300- or 400-square-foot rooms. Bathrooms and showers are down the hall. And it would be governed by an artists' council. They would jury-decide who gets in. And monthly, they check their progress. Everyone's forced to make progress.

Let's talk about the big-box thing. Your project doesn't have one, yet it still seems huge.

Even though I'm the smallest developer of the three competing, I have the biggest project. I had to mass it enough to cover the costs. The other guys--if you put a Home Depot in there, I guess you can go with a lot less mass.

In fact, the big criticism of your proposal has been that its financing isn't as solid as the other two's.

Well, that's what PDC has been saying. But at the end of the day, if you look at all the letters of interest we have--I have more leased space than they do. And I think there's a hell of a lot more safety in a diverse group of smaller tenants than in one big one.

Your competitors have been called Goliaths. Why did you take on the role of David?

I was asked to do this by a number of people who got wind this was coming. They thought I would be a good fit, and they did not want to see a big box in there.

They were freaking out.

Yeah. There's a huge sentiment against big-box. I want to make it clear that I'm not against big-box retailers. I think they have their place. I don't want this to be Brad versus corporate America. Maybe on the next project...but, really, I don't think it fits here. I really believe Portland is about small businesses. We have to incubate them and grow them. This is the nursery, the hatchery--whatever the hell you want to call it.

Why should public money go to helping private enterprise?

I see this as both spreading the risk and fertilizing the next business generation. Hopefully they become successful. They get married, they have kids, they buy houses. They become the taxpaying people. The common people, whatever you wanna call it. That's what we need. We don't need the super-elite. We need the real people.

The reason I'm so passionate about this site is that I think it can really set the tone for where the city needs to go. And we need some more talent. You gotta go to the farm team and bring up some new players. Sometimes the rookie hits the home run.


Jan 12: Meeting at Portland Development Commission, 222 NW 5th Ave., 5 pm. Developers will make a presentation to commissioners. If time allows, the chair may allow public comments.

Week of Jan. 17: PDC commissioners are trying to set up another public forum.

Jan. 26: PDC meeting, 8 am. Commissioners will hear public comment about the proposals.

Feb. 9: PDC meeting, 3 pm. Commissioners are scheduled to select a proposal (or reject all three).