In the Burnside Bridgehead saga-the fight over a quarter-billion-dollar project to turn five blocks at the bridge's east end into a big mixed-use complex-Brad Malsin has vaulted from outsider to frontrunner.

Last winter, big boys Gerding/Edlen and Opus Northwest proposed putting a Home Depot or Lowe's at the project's heart. Their plans matched what the Portland Development Commission seemed to want but ignited fiery neighborhood opposition. Malsin harnessed that fury, blowing off big-box for dorm-style art studios, light-industrial space and 200-plus jobs courtesy of a Chinese investor.

Malsin's rivals soon erased big-box retail from their plans, too. But with PDC set to choose a developer on April 27, Malsin still has the Big Mo. Last week, a PDC advisory committee recommended Malsin get the nod.

Even so, Malsin's Beam Development remains the smallest of the three contestants, with the thinnest track record. Key questions still in play:

Can Malsin win the end game?

Despite the advisory committee's recommendation, PDC's decision isn't locked in. Gerding/Edlen, the competitor most closely tied to PDC, is widely perceived to have dropped out of serious contention. Opus Northwest, however, remains in hot pursuit.

Minneapolis-based Opus has worked overtime to reach out to neighbors alienated by the defunct big-box plan. More to the point, Opus is offering to assume most of the financial risk.

Does Malsin have the horsepower to see a contract through?

The committee evaluated proposals in four categories. Malsin's won in three, and came in dead last in one: developer capacity, where the committee gave Opus top marks. A $1.5 billion company, Opus would handle most of the complex project in-house. And the national firm might be sturdier in a financial crisis-if steel prices skyrocket or interest rates climb. Malsin-whose largest single development so far is a $12.5 million New York condo project-says he can handle the pressure: "I'm working on a smaller margin than the other two, and we're deferring our profits for a longer time," he says. "We can be more patient if something happens."

Who's the Chinese guy, anyway?

Malsin's investment team includes powerful local builder Bob Walsh and parking magnate Barry Schlesinger. The most intriguing figure, however, is Zhang Xiao Wu, owner of Shaanxi Jierui Group. A Beijing-based consultant for the state of Oregon confirms that Shaanxi Jierui has about 1,500 employees in China. Beyond that, no one knows much about the investor, who says he wants to bring about 250 jobs and a scrap-steel export business to the Bridgehead.

Can Malsin's vision survive reality?

No question, Malsin won the imagineering sweepstakes. He wants to build hundreds of tiny live/work apartments for artists, incorporate wind power and other sustainable tech, and lease to an eclectic array of local businesses. If the financial going gets tough, will all that survive? Or will it prove to be, as one veteran Portland developer put it, "political froufrou"?

The PDC's final public hearing before choosing a developer is at 5 pm TONIGHT, April 13, OMSI Auditorium, 1945 SE Water Ave.,