A dispute related to the novel coronavirus has erupted in Northwest Portland, pitting an urgent care provider seeking to provide COVID-19 screening and tests against a high-profile landlord who says she's looking out for other tenants and neighborhood residents.
On one side: American Family Care, a Tigard-based urgent care provider with five locations in the metro area. On the other: AFC's landlord, Katherine Durant, owner of Atlas Investments and the wife of Gordon Sondland, founder of Provenance Hotels and the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Last week, AFC asked for permission to install a temporary pod in front of its location at the Uptown Shopping Center at 25 Northwest 23rd Place. Atlas owns the property.
The urgent care company said it made the request after directives from Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority to screen patients in order to separate those who might have COVID-19 from those with unrelated ailments. (AFC also said that through a national partnership with LabCorp, it had access to COVID-19 tests, which are in short supply.)
AFC planned to use the pod to screen patients before they entered the clinic. The company noted it had sought and received such permission at its other four metro-area locations (see an example below).
Durant's property manager said no.
"After discussion with ownership as well as direction provided from our legal counsel, we are unable to provide approval for a pod to be used for patients in the parking lot or anywhere else within the center," wrote Durant's property manager, Camille Bone, in a March 23 email. "All patients are to be seen and treated in your space. Common areas are not to be used as an extension of the clinic for any means."
AFC executive Colton Steffen asked Bone again on March 24, further explaining the rationale for putting a pod in the parking lot.
"This will allow staff to initially screen patients, either as routine urgent care patients without coronavirus potential, or as potential coronavirus patients for testing and/or treatment or referral," Steffen wrote. "Of our 5 Portland clinics, you are the only landlord to refuse to similarly cooperate. Please reconsider your decision."
That request met with the same result.
On March 26, Daniel Reese, AFC's director of marketing, elevated the communication, going directly to Durant.
"The requested triage units are needed to protect health care workers and limit the transmission to patients and our community. This is also to ensure compliance with the Governor's Executive Order 20-10 and guidance from the Oregon Health Authority issued March 23," Reese wrote.
"Given our current health care crisis, we find it outrageous and unconscionable that this request would be denied."
Durant found that argument unpersuasive.
"I appreciate your company's desire to provide services during this global pandemic and I also understand that since you are not local, you do not understand the dynamics of this sensitive location," she wrote in a March 27 email.
"We carefully evaluated your request," she continued. "And, if you were from here, I am sure you would understand that this is not the proper location for a tent for COVID-19 testing and patients. To clarify, it is a very tight parking lot that has only a one-way drive aisle for all the other retail tenants as well as access to a condominium parking structure. We have adjacent apartments, condominiums and a grocery store in the close proximity—many of which house and serve the most at-risk population.
"If you have access to testing kits, I would suggest you may want to help our fine local hospitals who are in desperate need of those kits."
On March 30, Reese responded to Durant, noting that he is in fact "from here."
"You'll be surprised to know that I am local—having grown up in this area and now raising my family here. I know this area, and downtown Portland, extremely well," he wrote in an email.
"That said, you seem to be operating on a number of false assumptions based on your comments:
1. Our parking lot triage pod is not a drive-through pod, nor is it a 'walk-up' pod. No lines or loitering will be allowed (nor will it be necessary).
2. The pod will have no impact on the traffic flow in the parking lot given the above. In addition, the pad is only 16 feet long and 8 feet wide so it needs less than one parking space. Less, in fact, than the construction dumpster there now.
3. Patients are required to stay in their car and call the clinic when they arrive to ensure proper social distancing. They will be processed one at a time. Again, social distancing and proper safety measures have and will continue to be a priority.
4. While I understand your perspective on sending our patients to hospitals, hospitals are overwhelmed and under huge pressure at this time. Sending our patients to them would be irresponsible and unnecessary. Our patient care and testing is providing much needed help to alleviate the pressure on the system."
In a telephone interview on April 1, Durant tells WW she is sticking with her denial.
She says she's previously enjoyed a cordial relationship with AFC and offered the company two dedicated spaces for clients in front of its clinic but cannot do more than that.
"I've tried to work with them," Durant says. "They are asking for something that's extraordinary and not taking into account the tightness of the location."
Durant, who has worked in commercial real estate her entire career and owns an extensive portfolio of properties alone and in partnership with her husband, says the Uptown lot is not comparable to the lots at other AFC locations.
"It's not typical kind of suburban shopping center parking lot," Durant says. "And we still have many clients whose businesses are open and need parking space."
Other tenants that share the building include a bank, a butcher shop, a bakery, a pharmacy, a waxing spa and a liquor store—and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. A Zupan's grocery store is located in an extension of the Uptown Shopping Center on the south side of West Burnside Street.
Durant adds that AFC passed out fliers advertising the pod before getting permission to put it in her parking lot. "I didn't escalate this," she says. "They did."
In his final email, Reese warned Durant's the company would seek to go over her head, and "formally request intervention from state and local officials."
"It's an important part of keeping our patients and employees safe," says AFC's managing partner, Guru Sankar. "It's an imperative for us."