Last Christmas, Portland-area officials began discussing a gift for the city’s most vulnerable people: a parking lot where they could safely sleep in their cars.
Portland Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan and Metro President Lynn Peterson met to discuss using the Expo Center, which Metro owns, as a sanctioned car camp.
In a Dec. 22 email, Ryan told Peterson he “appreciated the focus on the next steps needed to bring the Expo Center facility and parking lot (possible safe-park space) into the Houseless Services System during this heightened emergency.”
After almost a year of discussions, the plan flopped.
WW broke the news last week that the proposal was on life support. For Ryan, whose high-profile program to establish “safe rest sites” across the city appears increasingly star-crossed, the failure was especially bitter.
“If Metro wants to come back to the table with 2 acres of paved land, I am happy to meet with them,” Ryan tells WW in a statement. “For now, I’ve moved on, the Safe Rest Village team has moved on, and we’re working with partners that truly want to realize our vision for unhoused Portlanders.”
Emails obtained by WW between city and Metro officials offer a glimpse into a slow-motion courtship lacking in urgency, deadlines and decisiveness. In fact, the greatest urgency concerned a Sept. 30 press conference at which Ryan revealed the locations of three of six safe rest sites he had promised.
The day before, Sept. 29, Ryan’s office asked Metro if Peterson would attend. Metro spokesman Nick Christensen wrote that Peterson was unavailable—and made it clear that Metro was not yet on board.
Nine months after Ryan and Peterson started discussing the plan, the two sides had agreed on nothing—not even which parking lot the city would get.
What makes the failure of the negotiation all the more puzzling is just how much of an albatross the Expo Center is for Metro: Records show the regional government has been looking to offload the money-losing building since 2019. Meanwhile, the city is flush with unanticipated tax revenue and federal bailout money.
Here’s how a can’t-miss idea missed.
1. Ryan’s office was in a hurry to clear campers from a park.
Ryan’s rush to secure the Expo Center this summer was in part because the city was planning a major sweep of RV, car and tent camps at nearby Delta Park.
That’s clear from emails exchanged between the city and Metro on Aug. 20. “Relocation of RV’s and cars is a necessary part of that plan,” Kellie Torres, Ryan’s chief of staff, wrote. “We hope to establish an agreement with Metro sooner than later so there is a place to relocate vehicles.…We are in need of an immediate solution—especially in this geographic area.”
That email was sent three weeks before the Grand Prix of Portland held at Portland International Raceway on Sept. 11-13. PIR is part of the Delta Park complex, and KATU-TV has previously reported that high-priority camps are pushed to the top of the removal list if they’re near an upcoming major event.
“The question from our office to Metro was about the goal of having a destination for those in RVs,” Ryan aide Bryan Aptekar tells WW. “That being said, we know the camping at this location has impacted parking at Delta Park, use of the off-leash dog area, and perceptions of safety.”
The lurching nature of the city’s request may be baked into Ryan’s “safe rest site” plan, which is essentially a bandage to provide temporary relief to people while local agencies create more shelter and housing. And yet…
2. Talks stretched for nine months before the city raised a key sticking point: The property it sought had to be paved.
In a Sept. 21 email to Metro President Peterson, Safe Rest Village program manager Chariti Montez wrote: “To make a Safe Park program work we need access to a legally designated, paved parking lot. Ideal size is 2-3 acres (87,000-130,000 sq ft) to include space for RVs, hygiene services, communal space, fire lanes, etc.”
Metro instead offered a gravel lot.
Ryan’s office said it could not work with a gravel lot due to city code: “Code requires that Safe Park programs be in a paved parking lot.”
Peterson’s chief of staff Kristin Dennis mentioned to Ryan’s office that this was the first Metro had heard of the pavement condition. Dennis, who formerly held the same position for Mayor Ted Wheeler and understands the city bureaucracy, suggested Ryan try to make the gravel lot work.
In the same email, Dennis said Metro didn’t want to take a financial hit as the Expo Center reopened to guests. “Breaking contracts for use of the property, particularly the large contracts, obviously has a significant revenue impact on the Expo Center,” Dennis wrote. “To be clear, this means that the lots that your office requested on September 21st on the east side of the property cannot be made available.”
Ryan’s office says it waited to discuss details until it had secured funding and set parameters for its rest site plan. “Given these are often RVs that no longer function (vehicles or the restrooms in them), and therefore given they may leak or discharge substances on their surrounding surfaces, paved surfaces are a prudent impact mitigation requirement,” Aptekar says.
3. The city decided in early October that $1.5 million was too high a cost to improve the gravel lot Metro offered.
Using the gravel lot required connecting water, sewage lines and electricity to the proposed camp. Among the other needed improvements were clearing vegetation and brush, filling the site to make it less flood prone, and “add and compact surface gravel” to make it more accessible. Total estimated cost: $1.5 million.
The city has $62 million more than it expected this fall, and $208 million in federal American Rescue Plan dollars, but Ryan and the city felt this was too much of a burden.
Asked why Ryan couldn’t find the funds, Aptekar says the site came with too many unanswered questions to justify the expense.
“This question implies a less than frugal and appropriate spending of federal dollars,” he tells WW. “That’s not a path we want to go down.”
The failure to reach a deal at the Expo Center is the latest setback in the safe rest villages plan.
Ryan said in May that the city would have all six locations up and running by the end of the year. Only two of the sites have been named so far—Ryan pulled one off the table after learning it was in a floodplain.
Ryan’s office says it faces numerous challenges. It listed several: “Universal support for the concept of Safe Rest Villages, but near universal disapproval of any specific proposed location (strong NIMBYism); reluctance of landowners to consider this temporary use in the face of critical need…and leaks about possible locations before the details are settled with property owners.”
Maureen Bachmann owns Kenton Antiques, just 2 miles from the Expo Center. She also does outreach to homeless residents in the neighborhood—and she’s frustrated.
“The Expo Center made so much sense,” Bachmann says. “At this point, just throw anything at this plan. Winter is coming and [the city] is going to put so much more money into sweeps, and where are these people going to go?”
Bachmann says she sees no solutions coming from City Hall. “Having two potential sites that can house 60 residents each? I mean, we have thousands of people living on the street right now.’”