Address: 915 NE 21st Ave.
Year built: 1928
Square footage: 1,530
Market value: $873,280
Owner: NE 20th Artist Studios LLC
How long it’s been empty: Since 1993
Why it’s empty: We don’t use the telegraph anymore.
The fate of the old Sunshine Dairy on Northeast 21st Avenue resides with a German American billionaire who once sold everything he owned except a small bag of clothes, his BlackBerry, and a Gulfstream IV jet that used to roam the world looking for deals.
Nicolas Berggruen, born in Paris to a wealthy art dealer, according to The Washington Post, owns a majority stake in NBP Capital, a local real estate company that has been buying up marquee properties in Portland in recent years, including the old Multnomah County Courthouse and a 290-unit apartment complex near the South Waterfront.
In February 2019, NBP Capital paid $8.1 million for the Sunshine Dairy building, and the tiny Fire Alarm Telegraph building that sits just north of it. On the dairy site, the company plans to build a seven-story, 271-unit apartment building with parking underneath, according to documents filed with the city of Portland.
The Fire Alarm Telegraph building was built in 1928 as a hub for a system of 750 “pull boxes” around the city where Portlanders could report fires. The messages went through the little building on 21st and Pacific Street and were relayed to the closest of 16 fire stations. The building shut in 1993, replaced by a 911 call center in Southeast Portland.
“The walls in the stone building had heard millions of cries for help from citizens of Portland, and alerted firefighters to respond with its electronic circuits and underground cables,” Portland Fire & Rescue says in a history of firefighting on its website.
Schematic drawings show the telegraph building untouched.
The Portland Design Commission approved the project in December 2019, just before the pandemic thrashed the world economy. Since then, artists have dressed the building in a stunning series of murals. Beyond that surface adornment, however, nothing appears to have changed.
Neither Berggruen nor NBP returned calls or emails seeking comment.
NBP Capital was founded by the sister-and-brother team of Lauren and Spencer Noecker. Lauren graduated from the University of Southern California in 2004, and Spencer got his bachelor’s from the University of Oregon two years later. The pair started NBP in 2008 and partnered with Berggruen a year later.
NBP calls its project the Dairy Apartments, an homage to the Sunshine Dairy, which operated on the site from 1936 until 2018, when it went bankrupt with $12 million in debt.
Strange though it may seem, Berggruen, the vagabond billionaire, has a history in Oregon. In addition to his real estate deals, Berggruen invested $80 million in an ethanol plant in Clatskanie that operated for just seven months before shutting down (“Corndoggle,” WW, April 7, 2009).
Judging from his lifestyle, Berggruen’s other investments have performed better. These days he lives like a philosopher king, à la Plato. He runs something called the Berggruen Institute in L.A., which “addresses fundamental political and cultural questions in our rapidly changing world,” the institute’s website says.
Berggruen’s latest project is called “Antikythera,” which he describes as “a new program reorienting planetary computation as a philosophical, technological and geopolitical force.” (The project takes its name from an ancient Greek astronomical computing device found in a shipwreck off the Greek island of the same name.)
Meanwhile, back at the Dairy Blocks, Lauren Noecker is in charge. In 2015, her brother Spencer went hard into the cannabis business, buying warehouses for grow operations. In a six-month span, he bought 400,000 square feet for $26 million.
These days, Spencer runs two weed companies. PDX Industrial Investments buys industrial and retail buildings and leases them to his other company, Groundworks Operations LLC, which, according to his personal website, “rethinks, redefines, and sets the bar for progressive cannabis culture through artistic vision, scientific rigor and world-class talents.”
One can see why the Noeckers and Berggruen get along.
Every week, WW examines one mysteriously vacant property in the city of Portland, explains why it’s empty, and considers what might arrive there next. Send addresses to email@example.com.