Jordan Schnitzer says Wapato Jail has weeks to live—unless the Portland mayor steps in.

For years, the empty jail built by Multnomah County has been suggested as a potential solution for people sleeping on Portland's streets. Schnitzer, a real estate tycoon and philanthropist, bought the place in April for $5 million. Last week, he made one final plea to local officials that they rent the building from him and use it as a homeless shelter.

But he also included a threat: If he doesn't receive a proposal by Oct. 1, he'll seek permits to demolish Wapato.

If Schnitzer follows through, the demolition would close a long and contentious chapter in Portland history. Wapato was a $58 million albatross around the county's neck, a jailhouse that never held a single inmate. Then it became a mantra for business interests who felt local governments should use it as an alternative to homeless people sleeping in doorways.

WW spoke to Schnitzer this week about the building's fate. Minutes before press deadlines, he called back—and said Mayor Ted Wheeler had reopened negotiations.

Inside Wapato. (Sam Gehrke)
Inside Wapato. (Sam Gehrke)

WW: Why did you buy Wapato?

Jordan Schnitzer: We bought it at a price that, as a backup plan, we could always tear it down and build a warehouse. But our intent first was to work with [real estate developer] Homer Williams and anyone else who had ideas of how to repurpose the building for public benefit—meaning all the way from incarceration to transitional housing to drug rehab, alcohol rehab, abused women's shelters, whatever came first that made sense. It seemed like there was excitement about it.

Why the time pressure?

It's costing $50,000 a month just to hold the building, and I'm not seeing anything come forward that begins letting us even negotiate on a dream of how it might be used.

One of the long-standing arguments against using this project as a shelter is that people who need housing don't want to live in a jail. What do homeless people and advocates tell you?

Well, it's not a jail. I think the people that don't like the project refer to it as a jail to rev up the negative attitudes toward it. As to why the city and county don't want to use it, call them up and get more quotes. They don't seem to want to use it. Maybe I should have recognized that to begin with and not been optimistic. Every citizen I've taken out there has been aghast at why this hasn't been used.

Inside Wapato. (Sam Gehrke)
Inside Wapato. (Sam Gehrke)

If homeless people don't want to go, should they be sent there anyway?

I don't know how to answer that. I mean, how fair is it for downtown merchants to have homeless people sleeping on their doorsteps? How fair is it that the symphony now has a number of people canceling their subscriptions because they're afraid to come downtown and be hassled by what's getting to be very aggressive homeless people? How fair is it that people in neighborhoods have houses across the road from tent camps that bring down the value of their property? I think there's a balance of what's fair.

Most of us would recognize not enough is being done. We've got families that through a set of unfortunate circumstances find themselves out of their apartment, out of their home, living in their car. They need some transitional help to get back to [being] productive members of society that they want to be. We've also got a number of people, young and old, that like being on the street. And if you put them up in the Hilton hotel, they'll probably want to go back to being on the street. So it's not that one size fits all in terms of approaching the homeless problem.

Do you consider the fact that Wapato remains vacant a failure of leadership
by Mayor Ted Wheeler and County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury?

Oh, that's too pointed of a statement. If the facility gets torn down, which it looks like it will, I think it's a failure of a lot of us. Maybe Deborah Kafoury and other leaders of the county are right. Either it's the right facility in the wrong place, or the wrong facility. I'm not an expert in this field. All I know is that everyone I've taken out there is stunned that it's been sitting there while we have all these people on the streets.

What happened today?

The mayor called and said, "I have a new idea." I said, "Have you been through it?" and he said, "Jordan, more times than you want to know." So there may be some new headlines. Maybe there's a glimmer of hope.