Saki's Big Bet

The city says Saki Tzantarmas is holding his East Portland neighborhood hostage.

The ultraviolet fluorescent beams illuminate an expansive banquet hall he's named the Parthenon, a room filled with two dozen tables, Doric columns, wall-to-wall mirrors, a disco ball and a white gazebo for weddings.

It's just one room in the New Copper Penny Bar & Grill, Tzantarmas' drinking campus that takes up 29,767 square feet—and a full city block—at the corner of Southeast 92nd Avenue and Foster Road in the East Portland neighborhood of Lents.

At 78, Tzantarmas might be expected to bask in his triumphs as a Greek immigrant who made good.

But he says he's in agony. He can't sleep. He lies awake wondering what he's done wrong.

All this pain started when he asked the city of Portland for $5.5 million.

Tzantarmas claims the executive director of the Portland Development Commission, the city agency tasked with bringing urban renewal to Lents, responded to his request by calling the Tzantarmas family "terrorists holding the neighborhood hostage."

"How dare the guy," he says. "'Terrorist' is a word for blowing people up." (The PDC director denies using that word.)

Tzantarmas wipes his eyes.

"Sorry," he says. "Every time I discuss the damn thing, I just get tears."

For four decades, the New Copper Penny has been Lents' defining nightspot. With its towering sign featuring a glowing red profile of Abraham Lincoln, it may be the most recognized landmark in East Portland. It has been the setting for Outkast dance parties, weddings, bikini contests and countless off-track bets on horse races.

The New Copper Penny is also everything city officials do not want Lents to be: dated, disreputable and a little dangerous.

The PDC has another vision for Lents: It wants the neighborhood to become a success story for Portland planning, with the variety of shops and restaurants that have transformed places like North Mississippi Avenue and Northeast Alberta Street. And securing the land on which the New Copper Penny sits is key to that vision.

Tzantarmas' view is simpler: He wants $5.5 million to go away.

But that hasn't stopped Tzantarmas, who has warned that either the PDC pony up or he might turn the New Copper Penny into a marijuana dispensary.

The standoff is bigger than one nightclub. No place in Portland better symbolizes the tensions created by the eastward drift of this city. Planners predict construction rates in East Portland to quadruple in the next two decades. Lents is the frontier—the border territory between Portlandia and rougher places.

The city has already spent more than $100 million on Lents with few results. Tzantarmas' demand spotlights a question City Hall must answer: When trying to remodel East Portland with our tax dollars, what price is too high?

Every morning, a few regulars arrive at the New Copper Penny to eat breakfast with Theodosios "Saki" Tzantarmas. Many are Greek; all view him as a kind of local saint.

"This man," says daily patron Nick Raptor, stretching out his arms, "his heart is this big."

Tzantarmas has the long, dangling arms of a former prizefighter, and a pugilist's face: deep bags under his eyes, a pug nose and toothy grin. He wears bright pastel sweaters and gray slacks, and talks in a thick Macedonian accent.

The New Copper Penny is a sprawling enterprise. One wing has a dance floor, another a room with television screens showing horse races. On the east side is a recently remodeled restaurant with a stainless-steel counter. When Saki first bought the place in 1972, he served gyros 22 hours a day. Now the restaurant has 22 taps of Northwest craft beers.

At breakfast, Tzantarmas holds court, busting the chops of whoever's sitting nearest. When he teases, his deep-lined face breaks into a huge, mischievous smile. "He has this thing now where he tells me he only loves me on Tuesdays," says Nikki Tzantarmas, his 23-year-old daughter, who tends the New Copper Penny's bar. "I'll say, 'I love you,' and he'll say, 'I don't.' He'll never get old. Ever."

Nikki shows a faded photograph of her father folk dancing, holding aloft a table—covered with a cloth and cluttered with bottles of wine and ouzo—with his teeth.

"You don't want him to bite you," Raptor says.

The legend of Saki is passed down orally and in writing—on the old plastic menus the New Copper Penny only recently replaced.

It tells how Tzantarmas' father, a Greek army officer in Thessaloniki, was killed by Communists in the 1950s ("they chopped him up," Tzantarmas says, sliding a finger across his throat) and how the son spent three years in an orphanage and a year at sea before jumping ship in Philadelphia with five pennies in his pocket.

He arrived in Portland as a heavyweight boxer, with a gold medal he claims is from the 1959 European Championships. In a 1965 bout, The Oregonian billed him as "the Golden Greek of Portland." (He lost on a technical knockout in the third round.)

After six years he says he spent working as a folk dancer, Tzantarmas purchased a run-down pub called the Copper Penny in Lents, his home neighborhood. He soon bought all the properties on the block. A hardware store became the nightclub, a doctor's office the restaurant, and a shuttered movie theater the Parthenon.

The New Copper Penny became East Portland's go-to spot for nightlife: bikini contests with cash prizes on Thursdays, Top 40 dance nights with a fog machine, and, on Sundays, "Greek Nights" when Tzantarmas can still be found sitting at the central table, singing along to the folk songs and showering a belly dancer from a stack of $1 bills.

On the night before Halloween, patrons lined up to pay $5 to see a touring burlesque show. It included a dancer who set the tassels of her pasties on fire and gyrated so they spun above her breasts like flaming pinwheels, and another who sang a parody of Disney's Frozen anthem "Let It Go" so the lyrics were about being a crack whore.

The lounge is a time capsule of 1970s drinking customs, with a disco-fabulous elevated dance podium that lights up in colorful squares. To get there, patrons must wait in an antechamber lined floor to ceiling with mirrors.

Tzantarmas, who now lives in Happy Valley, runs the New Copper Penny with his son, 43-year-old Johnny Tzantarmas. Saki remains a commanding figure in the Greek community—as well as president of Agro Association Inc., a business guild for Portland's Greek restaurant owners he founded in 1995.

"I tell him, 'Slow down,'" says Ted Papas, former owner of the downtown nightclub Greek Cusina. "He's there from 9 o'clock in the morning to 9 o'clock at night. He has no life. He just works."

Two blocks from the New Copper Penny is a vacant lot with a display honoring the neighborhood's business leaders. A 3-foot-tall waterproof poster features Tzantarmas' portrait. A Web address posted at the site leads to a YouTube video of Tzantarmas talking about what he's done for the poorest residents of East Portland, and saying he's stayed out of trouble while running his bar.

He repeats the claim to WW. "Never had a ticket, never a violation," he says. "Nothing against the law."

Like much of Saki's story, that is partly true.

Even as Tzantarmas' domain grew, some neighbors began to wonder whether a self-contained entertainment complex was the best cornerstone for Lents, a neighborhood trying to escape its reputation as "Felony Flats."

People who want to revitalize Lents say the New Copper Penny's location is crucial. It sits at the exit of Interstate 205, and across the street from the new MAX Green Line light-rail station.

But many think Tzantarmas' place is not the best kind of business for reviving the neighborhood.

"It's a point of pride for the Tzantarmas family," says Nick Christensen, former chairman of the Lents Neighborhood Association. "But a nightclub that opens after dark, and you have to get frisked to get in, isn't adding a ton to the health of our business district. Healthy business districts support a variety of shoppers."

And the New Copper Penny has been a magnet for trouble.

Establishments that serve booze have problems, but Tzantarmas' place—perhaps because of its size, or the kind of crowd it draws—has been more troubled than many.

Nearly as soon as the New Copper Penny opened, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission started getting complaints the bar was serving drinks to visibly intoxicated patrons and to minors. The OLCC, however, has fined the New Copper Penny only twice for breaking service rules: in 1977 for serving a visibly intoxicated
patron, and in 1981 for letting an employee serve drinks without a license. (Tzantarmas says the fine for overservice was reversed because the patron wasn't drunk but had cerebral palsy.) 

In 2002, 14 African-American men filed a civil rights lawsuit against the club for denying them entry based on a "no baggy pants" policy. They said the dress code was selectively enforced against African-Americans. Tzantarmas settled out of court.

But the New Copper Penny's biggest problem has been violence.

In 1990, a fight in the parking lot of the New Copper Penny turned into a car chase on I-205. One of the men who left the parking lot was shot to death during that highway chase.

In 2003, club bouncer Tony Marks broke up a fight at a Saturday night dance party by putting a 350-pound man named Nafatali Tafito Rusia in a chokehold. Rusia died on the dance floor as the music continued to play. (The Tzantarmases settled out of court with Rusia's widow.)

The death triggered OLCC fines against the New Copper Penny for "a history of serious and persistent problems."

Tzantarmas won't discuss the death, but says the club's high rate of police calls is because he's being responsible.

"If you're drunk, what do you want us to do, beat you up?" he asks. "No. We call the police."

In March 2014, a 34-year-old man was shot in the bar's parking lot—the second shooting there in two years. Neighbors demanded the OLCC revoke the bar's license, and television news trucks surrounded the club.

In September, Tzantarmas wrote a letter of complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, saying KOIN-TV had defamed his business by reporting the violence had started in his club.

"We have suffered greatly," Tzantarmas wrote. "Business is down 600 percent, and our public image is destroyed!"

Records suggest business may indeed be suffering: The New Copper Penny owes $111,896 in back property taxes to Multnomah County.

Tzantarmas closed his complaint to the FCC on a defeated note.

"I came to America for a better life and have worked very hard toward attaining that goal," he wrote. "At one time I believed in the truth and justice this country claimed it could offer me."

Patrick Quinton has encountered his own share of problems in Lents.

Quinton, 49, is a Dartmouth grad who wears sharp charcoal suits and has a well-tended sweep of light brown hair. In 2011, he took the reins at the Portland Development Commission—and soon began overseeing an era of austerity at an agency long known for having money to burn.

Among his new rules: a reversal of strategy for East Portland urban renewal.

"I said, 'We're not buying up any more property in Lents," Quinton recalls, "until we have a plan."

WW reported in January the urban-renewal agency had spent $96 million over 15 years in Lents while failing to revitalize the neighborhood ("Razed & Confused," WW, Jan. 22, 2014).

The total is now $103 million. City planners say East Portland is poised for a construction boom—predicting 11,600 apartment units in the next 20 years. But the New Copper Penny is still mostly surrounded by empty lots—properties where the PDC bought and demolished buildings, then couldn't persuade developers to erect anything new.

Quinton now faces skepticism from city leaders that the PDC has spent money wisely in Lents—and pressure from the neighborhood to accomplish something.

Tzantarmas has been saying for nearly a decade that he wants to cash out of the bar business.

In 2005, he revealed plans to shutter the New Copper Penny and build a new development on the site: a mix of senior housing and ground-floor retail. Architectural designs commissioned by Tzantarmas show a nine-story condo tower with a sky bridge leading to shopping.

"I'm getting too old," he told the Portland Tribune then. "I don't want to leave [Johnny] with this kind of business because it's not a life. Better we do another trade."

But the plans cratered. Tzantarmas blames Randy Leonard, who he says reneged on a handshake agreement that the city would help fund his development project—then threatened to send city inspectors to shut down the New Copper Penny.

Leonard says that's not true. He says he tried to broker a deal for the PDC to buy the New Copper Penny, but Tzantarmas ruined the negotiations with a "pugnacious" approach.

"He was his own worst enemy," Leonard says. "Whatever anybody thinks of the style I brought to my job, I was always seeking a deal. Saki enjoyed saying what he was saying more than getting a deal."

Under Quinton, the PDC reopened negotiations last year to buy first rights to develop Tzantarmas' land, hoping to use it to attract a grocery such as New Seasons Market.

The PDC has several ways it can secure properties for development. It can pay owners for their land and buildings, or offer subsidies to developers to get them to build.

It has also used eminent domain to forcibly wrest properties away. But that's something the PDC hasn't done in a long time—and the city promised never to use that tool when it brought urban renewal to Lents. It made that concession as a way of pacifying East Portland residents who distrusted downtown government.

Instead, the agency hired an appraiser, who said in January the New Copper Penny was worth $3.2 million.

Tzantarmas told the PDC he wanted $5.5 million, but he'd trim a half million dollars off that figure in return for a vacant building across the street, which he would turn into another banquet hall.

"He's got a number in his head, what he wants for it," Papas says. "In his old-fashioned mind, he's taking it personally."

In July, the negotiation turned toxic. 

The PDC held a meeting with two developers working closely with Tzantarmas, as well as Jesse Cornett, chairman of the Lents Neighborhood Association.

"The New Copper Penny owners are holding your neighborhood hostage," Quinton reportedly said at the meeting, "and I'm not going to put up with that."

Cornett and Kevin Clock, one of the developers, say Quinton also called the Tzantarmases "terrorists." Quinton and another PDC official who attended the meeting say he didn't use that word.

"The 'hostage' line stands on its own," Quinton says. "I don't need to embellish it. It is reasonable to question their sincerity about selling the property."

The two sides also have different recollections of what triggered Quinton's remarks.

The Tzantarmases say their representatives asked about the price. "He made that comment based on us raising what was paid per square foot for other properties around us," Johnny Tzantarmas says.

PDC officials say the developers arrived at the meeting with a warning that could have been seen as a threat: Tzantarmas had another offer, for a marijuana dispensary—timed to a ballot measure that would legalize recreational weed.

WW obtained an email from an anonymous source that confirms the negotiating tactic was discussed later in the summer. The August email was written by Clock to Johnny Tzantarmas and other allies.

"Early on have yourself or Johnny state…If these conditions could be met, a deal could materialize. If not, then we are proceeding quickly with medical marijuana. Do they like the slogan 'green line to the green room high times'?"

The New Copper Penny's neighbors are divided as to whether the PDC should meet Tzantarmas' asking price.

Cornett, a former City Council candidate, says the PDC's stubbornness is baffling—and the latest sign East Portland is being neglected.

"I just don't understand it," Cornett says. "They've literally spent more on studies on this urban-renewal area then they're willing to pay on what they say is their linchpin property. If the city is willing to send $6 million to a company in California to write off a loan for the downtown Nines hotel, they should be willing to spend an extra million dollars in Lents."

Christensen, who preceded Cornett as Lents Neighborhood Association chairman, disagrees. He says the PDC would be throwing good money after bad.

"If the PDC cedes to that demand," Christensen says, "you'll have every developer in every urban-renewal district saying, 'Marijuana Disneyland is coming unless you pay us an extra million.'"

The decision will now probably go to Mayor Charlie Hales, who has pledged to make "place-making" in Lents a priority. Hales will have to decide how steep a price he's willing to pay.

The mayor met for coffee last month with Saki and Johnny Tzantarmas. But his top aide for urban renewal, Jillian Detweiler, says Hales is not eager for the PDC to buy another property in Lents.

"I agree that the visibility of the New Copper Penny would lead one to believe it would be a home run," Detweiler says. "But we need to show we can make a base hit first."

Saki Tzantarmas believes he can wait out the PDC and get his price. He's built a world that has proved largely immune to outside pressures—neighborhood demands, government threats and the changing tastes of revelers. He'll never get old.

"Always, still today, I have pennies in my pocket," he says. Tzantarmas reaches into his gray slacks and there they are: five shiny pennies.

He cackles. “Don’t give ’em to PDC!” 

WW news intern Dakota Smith contributed to this story.