Welcome to Con-way Town

The freight giant in Northwest Portland is paving its way to developing a huge swath of real estate close to downtown.

The asphalt prairies along Northwest 21st and 22nd avenues don't look like much now. 

But Con-way, the freight giant who owns the parking lots and warehouses here, has lucrative plans to sell 17 acres, parcel by parcel, for housing, shopping and nightlife—the biggest such development near downtown since the South Waterfront—all within walking distance of the freight giant's offices for its 750 Portland employees. 

The old Slabtown neighborhood would be nothing short of a Con-way company town.  

"We have to compete across the board with Adidas and Intel and Nike," says Craig Boretz, Con-way's vice president of corporate development. "Companies that have a much bigger name recognition than us. It's almost like creating our own Nike campus around us."

The development would forever change Northwest Portland and test a neighborhood that's long been fighting about parking and growth.

But Con-way's plans also demonstrate how power in City Hall works—and they surface in an election year when the race for mayor will be defined in part by the way candidates balance economic development against protecting neighborhoods.

A sweeping 117-page plan, obtained by WW, shows the company has learned a lot after its initial 2008 proposal was jeered by neighborhood leaders. 

The new plan, submitted to the city for review last week, includes a library branch, four underground parking garages, and an extension of the Streetcar. (Boretz sits on the Portland Streetcar board, and says Con-way has presented a version of this plan to a receptive audience there.) Perhaps the biggest plum the company is dangling: a new, two-acre city park as part of its plan.

But the test of power will come in two ways: how the city will settle a fight already brewing over what the park should look like—and how it will handle Con-way's insistence nothing will go forward unless the city first approves development of a new grocery store.

Con-way says the store will be a "catalyst" but needs the city to allow for several "special provisions" in a master plan developed by the company and the neighborhood. The biggest: approve a retail space for the grocery of 30,000 square feet—10,000 square feet larger than what's otherwise allowed.

"That's going to be one of the big questions of the review: Is that [exemption] appropriate?" says Kara Fioravanti, a project manager for the Bureau of Development Services. "It's too soon for me to say. I'm trying desperately to dig into this and get a handle on it. It's huge. This is one of the biggest reviews we've ever had."

In 2003, the city adopted the Northwest District Plan, which stipulates that Con-way's individual properties can't be developed until a master plan is approved by the Bureau of Development Services and a half dozen other city agencies. It's the only property in the city that zoning code says can't be sold until it undergoes a design review. 

The master plan will need to be examined by at least six city agencies, Fioravanti says—including the Transportation, Environmental Services and Parks bureaus—before a final decision is reached in August.

The proposed grocery store location is called Site 296—a warehouse and parking lot bordered by Northwest 21st and 22nd avenues and Quimby and Raleigh streets. (Full disclosure: WW's owners also own an office building less than a block from the site.)

Con-way is under contract to sell the site to Vancouver, Wash.-based developer C.E. John Company for a grocery store, with 180 apartments built above it. 

Representatives for C.E. John say the developer is planning to convert the warehouse into "an artisanal grocer." They won't say which potential tenants they're talking to, but previous C.E. John developments have included a New Seasons Market at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton. Sources say the developer has been in talks with New Seasons and Whole Foods.

Boretz is confident about getting city approval. "[The neighbors] are completely and totally bought into the master plan,” he says. 

Then he adds, "There's just one little thing—they might not describe it as little."

Boretz is referring to the most likely stumbling block for the Con-way site's approval—the park, proposed for the land bordered by Northwest Pettygrove and Quimby streets and 20th and 21st avenues.

"We're really excited about it," says Brett Horner, a planning manager with the Parks Bureau. "This area of town has not got much park service right now."

Boretz says Con-way hopes the city can start work on the park "in the next three to four years."

But disagreements have already surfaced. 

The Northwest District Association wants the two-block space to include a public square or plaza—like Pioneer Courthouse Square and Director Park in downtown—that can host farmers markets and events.

The neighborhood association wants that plaza so much it wrote it as a condition of development in an earlier neighborhood planning document, the Slabtown Plan. 

"The Parks Bureau has different thoughts on what needs to happen," says Steve Pinger, a member of the neighborhood association. "And it wasn't exactly consistent with what the neighborhood would like to see."

The Parks Bureau is reluctant to commit to a plaza, since the ones downtown—including junkie haven O'Bryant Square, or "Paranoid Park"—have been a security hassle.

"We've got a lot of plaza space downtown, and it's quite an intense operation," Horner says. "It's a big commitment for Parks to take on our own. We're struggling with that right now."

The debate about the Con-way proposal could draw in the two mayoral candidates, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith. Neither wants to be seen as opposing a job-creating development—and that gives Con-way leverage. But nor do candidates want to get pulled into neighborhood battles, no matter how large.

In a February forum sponsored by The Northwest Examiner, Hales and Smith faced questions about a hypothetical development at the Con-way site that violated existing neighborhood plans. Both said existing plans should trump the developer.

Both candidates now say they haven't yet read the Con-way master plan, but they're in favor of the wider vision for Slabtown as a medium-density residential neighborhood.

"You're not hearing gnashing of teeth and sharpening of swords all over Northwest Portland, so that's to me a good sign," Hales says. "I think one of the differences between me and my opponent is that I am schooled in this kind of complex land-use decision making. So I can't pull out one piece of that and say they should either be allowed or not be allowed to have a bigger grocery store."

On May 8, a week before the mayoral primary, Con-way donated $1,000 to Hales (and another $1,000 to Eileen Brady). Hales says he's not beholden.

"I'd be disappointed in myself if I didn't have supporters on both sides of any given land-use controversy," Hales says.

Smith says he has reservations about the project.

"They want to re-route the Streetcar," says Smith. "I have questions about that, and what the line-item price tag is. If we do this, and there is an elimination of system development charges, how the heck are we going to afford that re-routing and other things? A question I have is what they view as the focal point. Assuming a long timeline, what gets done first matters a lot."

Con-way—a publicly traded company valued last year at $5.29 billion—is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has 27,000 employees. It was founded in Portland in 1929.

Boretz says Con-way can wait for the city to examine its development plans. "We've been on the site for 80 years,” he says. “We’re a patient seller of property.” 

FACT: C.E. John Co. currently owns five properties along Northwest 23rd Avenue, and is constructing a four-story apartment building on the former New Old Lompoc site at Raleigh Street.