For a Downtown Fentanyl Den, Plywood Is Progress

Washington Center, the most degraded property we examined in 2023, looks a little better now.

Recovering: The Washington Center complex on Dec. 8, 2023. (Anthony Effinger)

ADDRESS: 444 SW 5th Ave., 401-419 SW Washington St. (two buildings that take up three quarters of a city block)

YEARS BUILT: 1965, 1977


MARKET VALUE: $6.24 million

OWNER: Fifth Ave LLC, Fourth Ave LLC

HOW LONG IT’S BEEN EMPTY: The last tenant moved out this year.

WHY IT’S EMPTY: Police kicked out the drug dealers.

Nine months ago, the most notorious property in Portland was Washington Center, the weird urban mall and skyscraper complex at the corner of Southwest 4th Avenue and Washington Street.

Drug dealers hawked their products from graffiti-covered alcoves. Users smoked fentanyl on the sidewalk or went through shattered windows into the old KeyBank to get high. Trash piled up. A fence meant to keep people out lay flat on the sidewalk. Pedestrians just walked across it.

The owner, Menashe Properties, a family business founded in 1978, blamed the decay on COVID-19, the George Floyd riots, and Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of hard drugs.

Little happened to improve the property until WW wrote about it on March 22, reporting that the Menashe family owed tens of thousands of dollars to the Downtown Portland Clean & Safe District, the section of downtown where property owners pay extra for security and cleaning.

“We will be more than happy to pay when the city is clean and crime is properly attended to,” Lauren Menashe told WW at the time. She didn’t return an email seeking comment last week.

Only after WW’s story did the Menashes, and the city of Portland, swing into action. On the morning of April 12, Portland police officers blocked two square blocks of downtown and swept the complex of squatters. Firefighters followed, looking for hazards. Trucks carrying plywood arrived at 10 am.

The plywood wall grew over time. Today, the entire complex is sealed. Graffiti appears as soon as the barrier gets repainted. But, at Washington Center, plywood is progress.

“We have seen noticeable safety improvements to the surrounding areas near the Washington Center property since the building was secured and hardened last spring,” Mayor Ted Wheeler says in an email. “Increased patrols from the Portland Police Bureau and our public safety partners continue to have a strong impact.”

A nearby business owner credits others for that result.

“It’s light-years better,” says Ben Stutz, owner of Kelly’s Olympian, the 121-year-old bar across the street. “It’s not a fentanyl market like it was. Thank you for keeping it in the public eye.”

Stutz and his staff still see people smoking drugs. They still keep a supply of rubber gloves on hand for when people defecate in the doorway. Employees who just wanted to be bartenders have to be bouncers all day long, Stutz says.

“But our people and our customers aren’t getting assaulted,” Stutz says.

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

Washington Center in March 2023 (Jordan Hundelt)

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