On July 10, in front of a packed City Hall, Mayor Vera Katz anointed real-estate developer Homer Williams as Portland's savior.
As Katz made the case for gambling nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on Williams' plan to develop the North Macadam district, Williams fidgeted in the audience.
Dressed in a golf shirt, frayed khakis and scuffed boat shoes, Williams, who never finished college and whose absentmindedness led him to quit driving a car, seemed more Mr. Magoo than Mr. Wizard.
But the City of Portland and Oregon Health & Science University are betting their cash and their credibility that Williams, 58, can transform a waterfront wasteland into a $2 billion urban utopia.
Where today only Canada geese live, Williams envisions 3,000 housing units, 10,000 new jobs, a 125-foot-wide Willamette riverfront greenway and a space-age aerial tram connecting to Marquam Hill.
"Homer is unique," Katz says. "He sees possibilities other people don't see."
Katz, who last week announced she will not seek a fourth term, is counting on Williams to provide a capstone to her 12 years as mayor. "This is the biggest, most complicated deal the city has ever done," she says.
While the mayor and her council colleagues are enthralled, critics say the North Macadam plan, which calls for 325-foot-tall condominium towers, will obliterate views from the nearby historic Corbett-Terwilliger-Lair Hill neighborhood and create a traffic nightmare. "It's going to be a disaster for us," says Jerry Ward, an architect and neighborhood activist.
Others argue the city is giving away the store. Shelly Lorenzen of the League of Women Voters says, "The league has asked over and over again why we [taxpayers] need to pick up the tab for streets, sewers and other hard infrastructure that developers normally would bear."
Still others question the project's economics. "The reason that land has sat empty for so long is simple," says Bob Ames, a Pearl District property owner and former bank president. "There's no demand for it."
But fresh off his success in the Pearl District, Williams has the momentum of a 10-ton boulder rolling down from Marquam Hill. That's because, in a city famous for stiff land-use rules, prickly regulators and, at times, outright hostility to development, he has earned an extraordinary level of trust at City Hall. "Homer's vision excites people on the council," Katz says. "There are not many others you can say that about."
The first thing a visitor to Homer Williams' street-level office in a former Armour meat-packing plant at Northwest 13th Avenue and Flanders Street sees is a well-used black leather couch. Williams naps there every day around 12:30, lying down with a book or one of the many magazines--ranging from National Geographic to The Economist to Architectural Record--strewn about his office.
Photographs of children and grandchildren from two marriages dominate his compact desk. A door behind his chair opens onto what used to be a loading dock, where Williams smokes the occasional Marlboro and practices his putting.
Ubiquitous in the Pearl District, Williams often visits the bar at Paragon after work for a glass of wine and is claimed by several restaurants in the neighborhood as a regular. A scruffy beard and minimum-wage wardrobe are his trademarks. "In the temperate months he wears an outfit that is borderline pajamas," says former Pearl District Neighborhood Association President Neilson Abeel.
In conversation, Williams is self-effacing and tentative, pausing frequently and staring into space between before answering questions--Columbo without the raincoat.
His formula for successful development is simple. "Where most guys usually miss it is that you need to figure out what the public benefit of a project is," Williams says. "If you can't figure that out, you're finished."
Not surprisingly, his interest in the public good endears him to the City Council and its army of planners. Like most major developers, Williams is a reliable campaign contributor, but his relationships with commissioners extends well beyond his checkbook.
City Commissioner Erik Sten recalls that he first met Williams while accompanying affordable-housing advocates to lobby the developer in the mid '90s. "At that time, he had a fancy office in the Bank of America Tower," Sten says. "I went in with these rabble-rousers, and here's this guy [Williams] in a T-shirt. He was really disarming, and he listened. His ability to be real is something you don't see very often."
Last year, Williams threw a lunch to help raise money for Commissioner Dan Saltzman's $50 million Children's Investment Fund measure. When Saltzman arrived at Williams' office, the developer insisted Saltzman ride Williams' Segway, the gyroscopically controlled scooter introduced with great fanfare two years ago. "He's not pretentious, and he doesn't take himself too seriously," says Saltzman.
Williams has bonded with the newest commissioner, Randy Leonard, even though he endorsed Leonard's opponent, Serena Cruz. "He's like the guys I hung out with in the '60s, very laid-back and very honest," says Leonard. (Commissioner Jim Francesconi was on vacation and unavailable for comment.)
But Williams' biggest champion at City Hall is the mayor. "Homer's got a holistic view of the universe," Katz says. "Our conversations are usually about bigger issues, demographics and how the city is changing."
Williams and Katz, who share an aversion to cars, occasionally dine together at Lucy's Table near Katz's Northwest Portland home. Williams is the only developer with whom she breaks bread. "Others don't ask," she explains.
A Portlander through and through (he was born in Walla Walla, moved here at 6 and graduated from Jesuit High), Williams embodies many of the values that make city officials' hearts beat faster.
He espouses population density, walks to work, re-uses old buildings, supports public transportation, develops low-income housing and exhibits a seemingly limitless tolerance for public meetings.
But it would be a mistake to say Williams is driving the biggest development in Portland's history simply because he rides the Streetcar and wears a Swatch instead of a Rolex. "He's obviously a proven commodity," says Saltzman. "He has succeeded on deals that people said couldn't be done."
Fellow developers marvel at his intuitive ability to see potential where others see only problems. "I'm not a cheerleader, but Homer is probably the greatest real estate visionary in contemporary Portland," says Al Solheim, a Pearl District property owner who has known Williams for 40 years.
Williams began his real-estate career while majoring in political science at the University of Oregon. He and a friend created an apartment-finding service using primitive computers. Then, as now, Williams was technologically challenged, but the database of rental information started him thinking about the importance of location and demand.
After leaving Eugene one paper short of his degree, Williams enjoyed early success. "We were building mini-storage all over the place in the '70s--Seattle, Chicago, Tacoma--and I remember thinking, 'Is this what I'm going to be doing with the rest of my life?'" he says. "I've since learned that boring can be good."
In 1972, at the age of 28, Williams cobbled together $1.5 million to buy 601 acres in Portland's West Hills. Earmarked for development, the land had lain fallow since 1960. Due to the steepness of the terrain and regulatory hurdles, it took Williams another 13 years to build the first house in what is now called Forest Heights.
In 1988, Williams sold Forest Heights for $16 million to representatives of the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru. At one legendary juncture during what Williams calls "interminable" negotiations, he walked away from the table, lay down in a corner and went to sleep.
Interest payments and development costs consumed much of his profit on Forest Heights. "It sounds like I made a lot, but that's not the case," he says.
Next, Williams successfully developed Broken Top, a 2,000-acre resort community near Bend that includes 1,000 home sites and a private golf course.
While Broken Top proved less complicated than Forest Heights, his other big project in the '80s, Jumby Bay, required a whole different set of skills.
In 1965, Williams' stepfather, Bob Davis, a retired Tektronix executive, acquired Long Island, a 300-acre strip of sand two miles from Antigua. After Davis suffered setbacks, the IRS seized the island. Williams says he offered the feds $500,000 for the property but they auctioned it instead. Williams was the only bidder, and he acquired the island for $150,000.
After failing for a couple of years to resell his purchase, which consisted of an old sugar plantation and a few guest rooms, Williams renamed the island Jumby Bay (jumbies are mischievous spirits said to inhabit the island's graveyard) and set about converting it into a resort. He had to manage construction, deal with a foreign government and enter a brand-new business, all from thousands of miles away. "Homer developed a world-class resort in the Caribbean without first having done something like a Motel 6 in Klamath Falls," Solheim says.
Williams says the island nearly bankrupted him a couple of times--fresh water was a big problem--but he finally sold Jumby Bay to the owners of Banfi Vintners, the largest wine importers in the United States. Today, suites at Jumby Bay start at $900 per night.
While Forest Heights, Broken Top and Jumby Bay were all remarkable in their own right, Williams is best known for his success in the Pearl District.
Other investors, including Solheim, Bob Ames, John Gray, Pat Prendergast and John Carroll preceded Williams into the neighborhood. But Prendergast, who sold Williams Hoyt Street Yards, a key 34-acre parcel of vacant land, credits Williams for envisioning what the Pearl could become. "He's extremely capable at seeing the big picture," Prendergast says.
The big picture meant securing massive public investment. In 1997, Williams negotiated the River District plan with the city. That plan produced $80 million of public funds, which paid for the removal of the Lovejoy ramp, the construction of the Portland streetcar and the development of Jameson Park, among other amenities.
In exchange, Williams promised greater density and additional low-income housing.
The River District Plan was the dynamite that made the Pearl explode. Ultimately, Williams built 3,000 housing units and more than 200,000 square feet of commercial space there.
Williams has plenty of help. His partner, Dike Dame, is the detail man who converts Williams' back-of-the-envelope scratchings into hard numbers. His lawyer, Steve Janik, enjoys unequaled access to City Hall and its bureaucrats (see "This Gun for Hire," WW, April 2, 2003).
He's also good at finding investors with more patience and appetite for risk than commercial lenders. "If you think of the top 50 real-estate investors in Portland, probably 48 of them have invested with Homer," says Bob Scanlan, who runs SKB, a local real-estate investment firm.
Williams has enjoyed a long relationship with Joe Weston, who owns 133 Portland apartment buildings among other properties, and Connecticut developer Clay Fowler, brother of OPB television host Stephanie Fowler. To finance North Macadam, Williams enlisted Weston and Stephanie Fowler's husband, Irving Levin, who made a pile in high-risk credit cards, as well as Port Townsend, Wash. resident Sam Schoen, whose family started U-Haul.
Despite all his success, Williams appears to have held on to a comparatively modest amount of money personally, at least according to a 2001 divorce filing.
Court documents show that Williams stated his income then at $300,000 annually, of which he surrendered half to his wife. He also agreed to give her a $710,000 Alameda home and a lakefront property in Montana.
That settlement suggests that Williams is comfortable but no tycoon. Part of the reason he isn't wealthier is that he often gets in over his head and relies on expensive financing. For example, in the past, Williams frequently borrowed from local fund manager Jeff Grayson of Capital Consultants Inc., who before pleading guilty to fraud in 2002 was the city's lender of last resort. "You borrow short-term for long-term projects," Williams explains. "A lot of times, that's a recipe for disaster."
Peers also say he is less bottom-line-oriented than most developers. "I don't think money is as important to him as it is to other people in this business," says Prendergast.
North Macadam could be the crowning achievement of Williams' brilliant career; it also could be his Waterloo.
Since the late '70s, city planners and politicians have hatched big ideas for the 409-acre swath of riverfront land between the Riverplace Hotel and the Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant.
Part of the district--Riverplace, just south of the Hawthorne Bridge--was developed in 1985 by a joint venture of Weyerhaeuser and Portland General Electric. Despite proximity to downtown and waterfront location, the low-rise condos there sold slowly and the project has not been a success. "The lesson of Riverplace is there have to be people on the street 24/7 to make a riverfront urban project work," says Portland Development Commissioner Don Mazziotti. "You need more than auto traffic."
In 1993, city planners rejected as excessively suburban a development proposed by the Schnitzer and Zidell families, the two largest private landowners in North Macadam.
Much of the land in the district was contaminated from prior industrial uses, and there are few roads in or out. The result was years of inaction.
"Nobody came in front of [Portland Development] Commission proposing anything in that neighborhood," says former PDC chairman John Russell.
Then, in 2001, Williams and his partners bought 10 acres in what's now called the South Waterfront area of North Macadam, a move akin to spiking the punch at an AARP dance with Viagra. "You couldn't make it happen without a developer who was willing to take the risk," Katz says. (Williams and Dame later teamed up with OHSU to buy an additional 21-acre parcel.)
Williams' timing was perfect. Up on Marquam Hill, OHSU, the city's largest employer, was making noises about focusing its expansion in Washington County. Meanwhile, City Hall desperately needed to juice up Portland's economy.
Williams had previously rejected North Macadam. When he first looked, he says, there was no land available and when sellers did appear, they wanted too much.
But as condo values in the Pearl District soared, Williams began to think North Macadam might work. "I passed on it earlier but I couldn't get it out of my mind," he says. Over the past year, Williams, OHSU and the city negotiated a development agreement that included the right to build taller condos in exchange for a wider greenway.
For its part, the city agreed to $105 million in public improvements in the next four years, mostly from property tax generated in the area and local business-district assessments. (Another $150 million in public improvements will follow in later phases).
Earlier this month, housing advocates demanded and got an increase in the low-income housing portion of the project.
Critics still say the public investments are excessive and misguided. John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute argues that planned expenditures of $33 million on the streetcar extension and tram are particularly egregious. "Buses are better, cheaper and faster than the streetcar," Charles says. "And since OHSU will get the majority of use from the tram, they should pay for it." (A draft budget shows public funds paying for 75 percent of the tram.)
The roar of earthmovers will soon drown out such concerns, however. Williams hopes to break ground by year's end on a 300-unit condo tower and a 360,000-square-foot mixed-use research facility for OHSU.
Even with hundreds of millions of public dollars and OHSU's burning ambition, iceberg-sized uncertainties lie ahead.
It's unclear, for example, who will buy the condos. A report by consultant Eric Hovee says that in order to earn a reasonable return Williams will have to sell units at prices 30 percent higher than the top prices fetched in the Pearl District.
Apartment rents will be even dearer. "Pricing recommended for concrete units is 20 percent above a Pearl District base price and more than 80 percent above today's downtown base price," the report says.
Finding pioneer tenants for South Waterfront could be challenging. Local unemployment is at its highest level in two decades, and there will be plenty of competition as developers continue aggressively building high-end condos in the Pearl and downtown.
The views from South Waterfront--Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and the leafy side of Ross Island--are stunning, but the district lacks even basic amenities.
A self-described demographics junkie, Williams is unperturbed. He says the market for downtown housing is more a function of aging baby boomers than price or economic conditions. He expects the trends of downsizing and flight back to the city to continue. "We're early in the cycle that's going to last 10 or 12 years," he says.
As for the 10,000 OSHU-related jobs that are projected to materialize in North Macadam, the picture is mixed.
The earlier emphasis project boosters placed on biotechnology has faded under the weight of evidence showing that Portland lacks the population and academic resources to compete with major players such Boston, San Francisco and San Diego.
OHSU also has a mediocre record of licensing and commercializing its technology, according to a 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education study.
But countering those gloomy indicators is OHSU's impressive record of employment growth: In the past eight years, without city subsidy, biotech or a tram, the city's largest employer has increased its payroll by 5,000 to nearly 12,000, a performance that's difficult to fault. Last year, the university attracted $221 million in research funding, a 31 percent increase since 2000.
Early on, the complexity of developing North Macadam worried the normally placid Williams deeply. "It used to keep me up at night," he says.
He struggled in particular with the challenge of building towers four times the height of his Pearl District condos. But Williams had an epiphany when he visited Vancouver, B.C., to examine the soaring condos that dot that city's waterfront.
He discovered that codes there permit a design feature not previously allowed in Portland. Rather than building two separate flights of exit stairs, Vancouver developers build two flights of stairs that share a common wall. That feature, called "scissoring," saves floor space and cost.
Williams came back to Portland and raised the issue with Leonard, a 25-year veteran of the Fire Bureau--and the commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Development Services. Problem solved.
"Scissor stairs haven't been used in Portland, but they make for a smaller building footprint and the experts believe they are safe," Leonard says.
For Williams, the stairs were a reminder that even the biggest project is just a series of small puzzles.
"Everybody has to figure out what they're good at," Williams says. "I'm good at figuring out how to get things done."
Homer Williams was one of the original investors in
, long before the paper's current owners purchased it.
Of the first $105 million invested in public projects in North Macadam, $7.5 million will come from OHSU; $6.4 million will come from Williams and his investors; and the rest will come from public sources.
The 409-acre North Macadam Urban Renewal Area was formed in 1999. The first phase of Williams' development will occur in the central district of the 130-acre South Waterfront section of North Macadam.
Williams' daughter, Devin Williams, who holds a Harvard MBA, is co-founder of Spry Learning, an Internet company that provides computer-based programs for residents of assisted-living centers.
Williams' stepdaughter, Tiffany Sweitzer, now runs his former Pearl District development company, Hoyt Street Properties. His stepson, Craig Sweitzer, runs Urban Works, a Portland commercial real estate brokerage.
Although he often represents Homer Williams, lawyer Steve Janik represents OHSU in the North Macadam development.