Jazz Fans Await a Club’s Resurrection in the Pearl District

Jimmy Mak’s was supposed to reopen in the old Oba Restaurante building in 2019. What happened?

Address: 555 NW 12th Ave.

Year built: 1941

Square footage: 10,000 square feet

Market value: $5 million

Owner: Mo Steele LLC

How long it’s been empty: 5 years

Why it’s empty: Skyrocketing construction costs

Steve McLain’s closing of Oba Restaurante a 20-year-old Pearl District institution, was so abrupt his staff didn’t even have time to clean out the kitchen. Diners arrived to find a note announcing the closure posted on the door. That evening, when the landlord arrived to change the locks, desserts were still sitting in the refrigerator case, according to the building’s real estate broker.

A subsequent letter from McLain, in which he called the restaurant a “labor of love,” failed to explain the reasons for the fancy Cuban restaurant’s 2017 closure.

The Pearl District building has stood empty since. The longtime tenant, a limited liability corporation owned by Douglas Pitassi, president of Pacific Office Automation, has been paying rent on the empty building since taking over the lease from Oba.

For years, the empty building has been tied to efforts to reopen the iconic Portland jazz club Jimmy Mak’s. In 2018, WW reported the club would move into the space the following year. That hasn’t happened.

Why there’s been no progress remains a mystery, says Debbie Thomas, a real estate agent who once rented out the building. In recent months, Thomas has been shooting off texts, trying to unravel it. So far, no luck.

Thomas says people often assume downtown buildings are empty because of the city’s “bad reputation.” But, she pointed out, there are other reasons too. “They don’t know the backstory.”

Pitassi signed a lease on the building in 2018 and successfully obtained city permits to build out a music venue and bar under the Jimmy Mak’s name. City design review documents describe plans to replace the building’s roof and renovate the façade.

But then the pandemic hit. “Construction costs literally went up almost a million dollars,” Pitassi tells WW.

And the project became ensnared in a legal battle between Pitassi and the building’s former owners, the DiGregorio family.

The family trust refused to sell the building in 2019, according to a complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by Pitassi’s holding company, Mo Steele LLC. He requested reimbursement for $300,000 in “improvements” already made to the building.

In court filings, the family denied the suit’s allegations. “I have become aware that Mr. Pitassi has performed amazingly little work on the property since the lease began in June 2018 and that the interior of the property is basically a shell of a building,” wrote Richard DiGregorio in a December filing. He denied making any promises to sell.

The lawsuit was settled amicably in October, and Pitassi now owns the building. (“Very nice people,” he says of the DiGregorios.) But now, Pitassi says, he is reevaluating his plans.

“We are reconsidering the project,” he says. “This turned into a much bigger buildout than I thought.”

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 newstips@wweek.com.