Huber’s Cafe bills itself as Portland’s oldest restaurant.
Founded in 1879, Huber’s has been serving up turkey sandwiches through the terms of more than 30 Oregon governors, two dozen recessions and two world wars. It’s credited with inventing the Spanish coffee in the 1970s.
The past year, though, has the restaurant rethinking its future.
While activity picked up this past March as the state loosened coronavirus restrictions and the weather improved, business remains down 50% from before the pandemic, according to David Louie, Huber’s vice president.
Boards remain on Huber’s windows and those of dozens of other downtown businesses. Louie worries the sharp rise in homelessness and persistent vandalism in the city’s core will continue deterring prospective customers who may feel more comfortable in their own neighborhoods.
With the restaurant’s lease set to expire in July, Louie and his family are trying to gauge whether the storied restaurant still has a place in Portland in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Under the right conditions, we would sign a short-term lease for one year and reevaluate,” Louie said. “The problems downtown continue, and I’m afraid it’s going to take a while for the downtown area to make a comeback. We’ve got a lot of things to overcome.”
People across the Portland area have similar concerns. Many anticipate visiting downtown less often after the pandemic, according to a poll of 600 residents in the metro region, commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive and conducted from April 30 to May 6.
If those people do in fact stay away, that could permanently diminish downtown. A prolonged decline in pedestrian traffic would undermine businesses’ efforts to regain their footing after an unprecedented year of upheaval.
The poll found far fewer Portlanders expect to be downtown on a daily basis in the future. Nearly a quarter of people who live within the city limits reported coming downtown most days before the pandemic; the number of people anticipating being downtown that often after the pandemic is 9 percentage points lower.
Only 3% of city residents in the poll said they never went downtown in the period before the pandemic. Now, though, 17% say they don’t anticipate going downtown afterward.
People living outside the city limits were even less likely to anticipate going downtown after the pandemic. More than a third of suburban residents said they would never go downtown in the future, up from 15% who said they never went downtown before the pandemic.
Crime is an abiding concern. Perceptions of safety were strongly correlated among poll respondents with the frequency with which they said they expect to visit downtown in the future.
Northeast Portland resident and poll respondent Sandra Seibel said she used to go downtown to walk around and visit the waterfront multiple times a month, especially during the summer. But she said the proliferation of outdoor encampments over the last several years has made the city core less walkable and less inviting.
And Seibel said the problems plaguing downtown were exacerbated last year during the pandemic. She doesn’t anticipate ever returning, even as the city opens back up in the wake of the pandemic.
“I’ve gone downtown once this year, and it was sad. It was depressing,” said Seibel, 63. “It wasn’t at all the downtown I used to be excited to go to.”
Drawing people back
Jordan Carter, co-owner of the Produce Portland clothing store in Old Town Chinatown, said he is very concerned about whether foot traffic will rebound after the pandemic. He said his business used to get around 100 customers a day before the pandemic but is now lucky to get 20.
It doesn’t help that most office workers are still working remotely and that tourists have been slow to return to downtown Portland. Carter said downtown is facing real challenges and he wants to see the city do more to clean up the city core and address the homelessness crisis in Old Town Chinatown. But he also said he believes overblown media coverage that painted downtown as under siege during nightly protests last summer has kept people away.
Last summer, Carter’s business launched a street fair in Old Town Chinatown to try to draw people back to the city center. Produce Portland is bringing those street fairs back this year.
Carter said the business worked with the city to clean up the streets around his shop and move campers out of the area before their first street fair this month. They plan to host street fairs every weekend during the summer and are trying to work with the city to permanently close down the street outside their shop so they can run an outdoor market on weekdays as well.
“We have to do everything in our power to show people that they should come back and it’s OK to come back, there’s more going on than what meets the eye,” Carter said. “Because it does look like a ghost town when you drive around downtown right now.”
People are notoriously bad at predicting their own behavior. What people say they will do frequently doesn’t match what they actually do. So, the picture may not be as grim as the poll results suggest.
Poll respondents in the metro region pointed to a cleaner downtown (70%) as the top thing that would make them more likely to visit the city core. Other top responses were less crime (67%); restaurants, bars and theaters reopening (61%); fewer protests (55%); and fewer tents and campsites (55%).
Last week, the Portland City Council approved a $5.7 billion budget that allocates $500,000 to businesses to repair damage and pours millions into tackling homelessness, cleaning up the city and removing graffiti.
Andrew Hoan, the president of the Portland Business Alliance, said it’s been a hard year for downtown, and he wasn’t surprised to see serious concerns reflected in The Oregonian/OregonLive’s polling. Still, he said he feels the city is putting its resources in the right places to help spur downtown’s recovery, and he is optimistic that the city core will rebound.
Hoan said the most important thing that needs to happen for downtown to recover is for office workers to return, something he believes could start happening after Memorial Day and certainly by Labor Day. Portland State University is planning to return to in-person learning this fall as well, potentially bringing more than 25,000 students back downtown.
Still, many employers have yet to tell their staff when they expect them to return.
The city of Portland plans to decide when and how to bring employees back to the office once Multnomah County is downgraded to low risk for COVID-19 spread, vaccines are broadly available and the city’s health and safety guidelines have been updated, said Laura Oppenheimer, a spokesperson for the Office of Management and Finance.
Approximately 2,950 city employees worked downtown before the pandemic, excluding those who worked at the Justice Center where the Portland Police Bureau is located, according to Oppenheimer. More than half the city’s workforce has been telecommuting during the pandemic.
The Standard, among downtown’s largest employers, informed its 2,000 downtown workers in March that they will work remotely until at least Sept. 7, although the insurance company is still working out the details of its return-to-office plan. The Standard restored fencing around its two downtown buildings in January after vandals broke 45 windows and doors on New Year’s Eve.
Still, Hoan said he believes relaxing coronavirus restrictions and a return to in-person learning will prompt employers to start bringing workers back to the office, which could help change how people perceive downtown.
“You will start to see more people on the streets and people’s impressions of downtown, and their willingness to spend money downtown and visit downtown will change,” Hoan said. “At this point, we’re in a moment of uncertainty that will be much more clearly understood after Memorial Day.”
An uncertain year ahead
Mother’s Bistro & Bar is one of downtown’s signature attractions, a popular brunch spot that draws diners downtown from across the region. Owner Lisa Schroeder plans to reopen it in June, about a year after it closed, but she expects customers will be slow to return.
Mother’s has boards on its windows because employees haven’t been at the restaurant as regularly while it has been closed. Still, Schroeder said the atmosphere downtown will change markedly as more businesses reopen and take boards down and concerts, performances and sporting events return.
“We have to acknowledge that a lot of our circumstances are due to COVID-19,” Schroeder said. “Portland is not the only city with homeless and tents on the street, Portland is not the only city with boarded up windows. … As things open up again, we’ll all rise with the tide. I don’t know if it’s going to happen right away, but I do think there will be a rebirth of downtown.”
Other business owners are less optimistic.
Nicole Whitesell owns Adorn, a boutique with four locations in the Portland area. She has allowed another local retailer to host a pop-up shop at her downtown store because she doesn’t feel the city center is stable enough for her to fully reopen and to ask her employees to come downtown.
A person experiencing a mental health crisis threw a sign through the window of Whitesell’s downtown store last week, shattering the glass. It was the third time in the last year that the store has been damaged or burglarized. She said she received a grant from the city that will help her pay to fix her window, but she still feels like it’s a liability to be operating downtown.
Whitesell said she isn’t surprised that people in the metro region anticipate visiting downtown less often in the future, especially when they can shop and go out to restaurants and bars in other neighborhoods.
“I signed a five-year lease before the pandemic,” Whitesell said. “But if I could get out of my lease today, I wouldn’t go back downtown.”
Dayna Pinkham has operated Pinkham Millinery in downtown Portland for more than two decades. But she said it’s been difficult to stay afloat over the last year with a lack of tourists and shoppers frequenting downtown. She said her business has been open to the public on Saturdays, but foot traffic has been limited.
The store is currently flanked by two construction projects, and several businesses on her block remain boarded up, an added hurdle for Pinkham’s shop. She said she doesn’t feel comfortable putting merchandise in her window display given the sporadic vandalism that has continued to rock downtown businesses.
While Pinkham said she is hoping that things will pick up as pandemic restrictions ease, she said she expects her rent to go up within the next few months and is worried her business won’t be sustainable if foot traffic doesn’t pick up soon.
“I’m really nervous about making it here,” Pinkham said. “I don’t want to face the fact I’m not going to make it, but that might be what happens.”
Today’s report is part of the ongoing series Downtown in Distress.
Listen to business reporters Mike Rogoway and Jamie Goldberg discuss the ongoing series Downtown in Distress on Monday’s episode of Beat Check with The Oregonian. Subscribe to Beat Check on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts.