Seven Charts Explain Downtown Portland’s Precarious Moment—and Why the Future Isn’t So Dire

Businesses have fled Denver at a greater rate than Portland.

Gov. Kate Brown reopened indoor dining Feb. 12. It snowed. (Brian Burk)

Parking data shows Portlanders are staying out of downtown.

The city of Portland's SmartPark garages are the cheapest off-street parking downtown and a key indicator of how many motorists are traveling to the central city. Smart Park volume shrank dramatically in the past year.

Portland's commercial spaces are emptying out—but not at the rate of other cities.

Commercial realtors say the key measure of a city's strength is "net absorption"—an industry term that measures whether office space is filling up or emptying out. By that measure, Portland did better than many peer cities.

Here are the percentage changes for 2020:

And here's where downtown office vacancy rates stood at 2020's end:

Patrons stayed away from Portland restaurants as peer cities reopened.

One reason downtown Portland feels so deserted: Its renowned dining scene remains largely shuttered by COVID-19 rules and patrons who take the virus seriously. Portland is heavily dependent on the restaurant industry, both for jobs and for its reputation around the country. Data from the online reservation site Open Table shows Portland has been far slower to reopen than peer cities.
Here's how a selection of cities compare on Feb. 13. The percentage drop is from the number of table reservations made the same week last year.

Another key indicator of how hard the industry has been hit can be found in liquor sales. Restaurants and bars make much of their money from sales of hard liquor, particularly in December. Here's one indicator: In Multnomah County, sales to licensees, i.e., bars and restaurants, plummeted 86% from December 2019 to December 2020.

People are still moving to Portland…

Portland remained a popular city for in-migration in 2020. Based on an analysis by United Van Lines of about 125 metropolitan areas, Portland ranked 18th as a moving destination in 2020. That's down from ninth in 2019, and just behind cities such as Charlotte and Phoenix, but still ahead of regional magnets such as Denver and Salt Lake City.Meanwhile, Oregon as a whole remained the third-most popular state to move to, trailing just South Carolina and Idaho.

…but demand for downtown apartments has slackened.

Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment has remained flat over the course of the pandemic across the Portland metro region. In the suburbs, rents have actually increased. But in Portland's central city, average rents are dropping. Perhaps we're seeing the first effects of a construction boom that started four years ago. But here's another theory: People are still moving to Portland from out of state, but they'd rather not live too close to the tear gas.

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