Cal Brockman has spent the last 46 years designing and creating custom jewelry at his downtown Portland store, Goldmark Jewelers. Until last year, he had no plans of vacating his longtime storefront at the corner of Southwest 10th Avenue and Southwest Taylor Street.
But foot traffic plummeted downtown after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, while vandalism spiked as nightly protests consumed downtown last summer. Two windows and the glass door at Brockman’s store were shattered on three separate nights.
When his lease came up for renewal this spring, Brockman decided he would close rather than sign a new lease. He is offering steep discounts to clear his stock of jewelry and hopes to continue operating his business online once he closes his shop for good at the end of June.
Business owners have been raising alarm about the state of downtown since last summer, but only a relative few permanently closed last year. However, several downtown businesses, including Goldmark Jewelers, have announced plans to close over the last few weeks and others could face tough decisions as their leases come up.
“I’m at the end of my lease and I cannot find a really good reason why I should continue with the store,” Brockman said.
While the economic fallout from the pandemic and revolving state health restrictions have led to significant challenges for businesses throughout Portland and some permanent closures, their effects have been particularly acute downtown.
Many downtown businesses saw sales plummet last year as tourism disappeared and office workers began to telecommute. Some worry it could take years for tourism to rebound and that at least some form of remote work may be here to stay, leading to a lasting decline in foot traffic.
Some business owners had reported seeing a modest uptick in foot traffic downtown as the weather improved last month, giving them some hope for the year ahead. But a recent resurgence in property damage committed by small groups during “direct action” events has again left businesses on edge and prompted some to put plywood back over their windows.
Brockman boarded up his windows before the presidential election last fall and hasn’t felt comfortable taking the plywood down. He said the boards have prevented him from seeing out to the street and that it felt isolating to no longer be able to wave to passersby and welcome customers inside. Some of his older clientele stopped coming downtown too, citing concerns about their safety.
“I’ve been here a long time and I love this city and I’ve enjoyed where I am on this block,” Brockman said. “But when I had to board up it really changed my world. … Anybody who has lived here for a while is pretty hurt when they come down and see how wounded the city center is.”
Amy Lewin, a spokesperson for the Portland Business Alliance, said her organization has heard glimmers of optimism from some downtown business owners, but others are rethinking their future in the city’s core.
“Others are asking the hard question about where to do business and what doing business looks like,” Lewin said in an email. “Remote working environments, local tax impacts, disruptions in how people invest in their community, fatigue in addressing vandalism and graffiti, expanding concerns regarding community safety, all of these factors are facing our employer community as they reflect on long-term plans.”
Golden Optical informed patients last week that it will permanently close its downtown location at the end of May. The optometrist has a second location in Bethany that will remain open.
Co-owner Caryn Lawson said Golden Optical moved to a new location at Southwest 8th Avenue and Southwest Yamhill Street in January after the property owners at its former Southwest Broadway location decided to put plywood on the building following a riot downtown last May. Lawson said they made the move, hoping that they’d start to see signs of recovery downtown in the next several months.
But Lawson said the boarded up buildings, graffiti, trash and increased homelessness has continued to keep regular patients away, and there have been few walk-in customers buying eyewear. She said she believes it could take years for downtown to recover.
“People aren’t working downtown, there aren’t tourists and then people don’t want to come downtown,” Lawson said. “We had a lot of patients who just didn’t want to come downtown because every time they came downtown, there was more graffiti, more buildings boarded up.”
Cameron’s Books and Magazines, the city’s oldest bookstore, closed its doors last month after 83 years in business. On Monday, owner Crystal Zingsheim said she was trying to meet with archivists to sort through the store’s valuable collection of more than 20,000 periodicals, which span from the mid 19th century to the present.
Zingsheim managed to save Cameron’s from closure at the end of 2019 by raising more than $30,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. She took over the store from its previous owner and negotiated a short-term lease with the building owner. But Zingsheim said she fell behind on rent as the shop’s sales plummeted 90% due to the pandemic. She said her landlord wanted the bookstore out, which forced them to close. However, she isn’t giving up hope yet that the bookstore could reopen in a new location at some point.
While Zingsheim said the dispute with her landlord was what finally forced the bookstore to close, she said the area around Southwest 4th Avenue and Southwest Harvey Milk Street had grown less safe over the last several years, a trend that was only exacerbated last year. She said the exterior of the bookstore had to be repainted at least six times due to graffiti over the last year and that the store has been robbed several times.
“There’s been robberies, vandalism, assaults,” Zingsheim said. “It’s not the most welcoming place for people to visit us and it’s hard for me to have anybody who is willing to work here and sustain this constant onslaught with me.”
Some businesses plan to examine their long-term options when their leases come up for renewal.
Kate Bolling, the owner of Oregon Wines on Broadway, said her shop relied heavily on tourists and office workers prior to the pandemic. Back then, the wine bar would draw regular walk-in customers and was known for its wine flights.
But over the last year, Bolling has had to shift her focus to bottle sales to stay afloat. The shop is now only open for limited hours Wednesdays and Fridays, and customers must purchase wine by the bottle because Bolling said she would risk wasting nearly full bottles if she offered wine by the glass.
While Bolling said she has started to see more people venturing downtown recently as vaccines have become available and the weather has improved, she said downtown still feels empty, and she sometimes feels vulnerable working alone in her shop with fewer people out and about. She has kept the windows of her shop boarded up since last May.
Bolling worries the landscape downtown has been permanently altered as well. She anticipates it could take years for tourism to rebound and believes many office workers may never come back downtown full-time. She plans to remain downtown until at least August 2022 when her lease comes up, but she is considering the possibility of not renewing her lease at that point after more than 20 years downtown.
“If my rent doesn’t come down significantly, I’m not going to sign up for another round,” Bolling said. “It doesn’t make sense. Part of the draw of this real estate space was full hotels, full buildings of people in offices and I think we’re at least a few years out before we see that again. There’s just so much uncertainty.”