The City’s Proposed Sale of a West Hills Property Revives a Feud With Longtime Portland Produce Royalty

“We will pursue a lawsuit if you even think about selling this property.”

In the swanky Healy Heights neighborhood in Portland’s Southwest Hills, most houses are propped up by stilts on one side to prevent them from toppling down the steep slopes. But one property does not look like the others.

There’s no million-dollar home on the quarter acre. Instead, the plot is all dirt, rocks, untrimmed shrubbery and some plastic bottles. The lot is so dramatically concave it looks as if it were carved out by a giant ice cream scoop.

In 1996, it was the scene of a landslide. In under a minute, the land rolled away—and left behind a fight between the landowner and the city that’s still raw 27 years later.

“The cliffside gave way and left a ravine behind. Most of the soil on the lot rumbled downhill, tore a piling from underneath a three-story house next door, crashed across Fairmount Drive below and continued down the next slope,” a 1996 Oregonian story reported. “Three days later, streams formed on the naked lot, probably fed by natural springs that lace this part of the West Hills.”

The city of Portland is now stuck with a piece of property it considers nearly worthless. But it’s still dear to familiar foes from nearly three decades ago: the Spada family, who made a fortune shipping potatoes and onions to Japan.

The Spadas are threatening to sue the city—again—if it moves forward with the sale of their once-beloved plot of dirt. It’s the latest chapter in a strange saga that involves a Portland spud dynasty, bureaucratic inaction, destroyed settlement documents, and a plot of land that’s valued at only $8,000. And perhaps it speaks to a certain sour mood that can be felt across the city—even at its highest point.

“Through this whole process, you pulled all these stunts on my parents and they went through 10 years of hell,” Fred Spada told the Portland City Council on Jan. 18. “We will pursue a lawsuit if you even think about selling this property.”

Fred Spada, 56, wears apparel indicative of time spent in the upper echelons of Portland: a Multnomah Athletic Club hoodie under a Portland Yacht Club coat, topped by a Portland Golf Club cap.

Spada descends from veggie royalty.

In the mid-20th century, his grandfather (also named Fred) founded Spada Distributing Company. Meanwhile, in 1941, another branch of the Spada family began the United Salad Company. Within a decade, the Spada network became the most powerful produce family in the state. (Another Spada arm owns Pacific Coast Fruit.)

George Spada, Grandpa Fred’s son, took over the distributing company in 1963, making most of the company’s money by shipping spuds to Japan. “Like what the Maletises were to beer, and what the Schnitzers are to steel and real estate, we are to produce in this area,” says Fred Spada the younger, whose distant cousins still own United Salad Company, whose annual revenue is estimated at $56 million by Zoom Info.

It was George Spada and his wife, Marietta, Fred’s parents, who bought the plot of land in Healy Heights in 1995 with the intent to build their dream home on it. It had a tremendous view, from Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge to Mount St. Helens.

Then, the landslide. Fred Spada got a call about it while he was finishing up a workout at the MAC.

The city of Portland blamed the Spadas for the damage. The Spadas blamed the city. What followed was 10 years of litigation and multiple legal battles—the second ending in a settlement in 2006 (by which time, incidentally, the Spadas had sold the produce business).

The city paid the Spadas $450,000 and acquired the sunken plot of land.

Almost two decades after that settlement agreement, the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services is seeking City Council approval to sell the parcel as part of a larger purge of surplus bureau land. But the Spadas insist that, as part of the 2006 settlement, the city agreed never to sell the property.

The city says it’s not aware of such an agreement and points to a city ordinance passed at the time that states BES can sell the property to recoup costs.

It would be a simple matter to resolve if anybody could find the settlement agreement. But nobody can.

The attorney for the Spadas died years ago, and the Spadas don’t know who inherited his case files. The city says it destroyed the case file years ago as part of the city’s record retention schedule, which allows it to destroy case records after 10 years if a case is categorized as “minor.” (The Spadas contend the case should have been considered “major,” requiring the city to retain the files indefinitely.)

The property is a financial albatross to the city. BES estimates it has lost thousands of dollars over the past 20 years maintaining it, yet tells WW it just recently got around to selling some of the city’s surplus properties. “Continuing to own it is a drain on ratepayer resources,” bureau spokeswoman Diane Dulken tells WW.

And yet it’s not just the Spadas who want the city to keep it. Several other property owners in Healy Heights agree. “Deanna [Feeley] and I will pursue litigation against the City of Portland if any damage to our home results from any future development of this lot,” wrote Andy Mendenhall, the new president and CEO of Central City Concern whose home abuts the property.

Mason Van Buren, the white-bearded neighborhood association vice president who now lives in the Healy Heights he grew up in, told the City Council at the Jan. 18 hearing that the land is both special to residents—who gathered there for bonfires and to watch Mount St. Helens erupt—and a safety hazard if developed. Van Buren tells WW the land is “a hot potato that the city doesn’t want…it’s this slide just waiting to happen.”

Oddly, Fred Spada says he doesn’t want the family property back. WW asked why, if neither he nor his parents want the land, he cares if the city sells. He says it’s a matter of principle.

“It’s because of what they put my parents through. If they made a deal, stick with the deal,” Spada says. “I’m a pro-Trump Republican, and I’m very pissed at the city’s hypocrisy, where they feel they can break the law but have every right to enforce the law.”

Despite the testimony from the Spadas and neighbors, the City Council unanimously agreed to move forward with a vote on selling the property Jan. 25.