Two sides debate Chinatown project

From the Oregonian, February 15, 1995

It’s a professional medical and social operation that will take mentally ill homeless people off downtown streets and treat them until they can live elsewhere. And it will renovate run-down property and benefit the neighborhood.

No. It’s a misplaced, mistimed, unproven project that will leave out-of-control persons roaming Chinatown, making it unsafe for children and elderly citizens. And it shows disrespect for the long-established Chinese community that has built up a recognized professional and cultural center in Old Town Portland.

Which is it? A Portland hearings officer listened to more than three hours of testimony Tuesday on Mental Health Services West’s proposal to use the old Royal Palm hotel for a 20-bed shelter for chronically mentally ill men and women and an associated 32-bed single-room occupancy section and other services.

Hearings Officer Virginia L. Gustafson did not make a decision on whether a conditional-use permit should be granted for the 20-bed shelter — the only part of the request that needs the special land-use approval. But at the request of persons testifying, she left the record open for further written public testimony until 4:30 p.m. Feb. 28, and gave the mental health group until March 7 to respond.

She also said she hoped the applicant and opponents would choose to meet during that time to work out differences.

But for members of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and some other business and residential members of the area north of Burnside Street, that might be impossible.

As stated by Jeff Kleinman, attorney for the association and a group of businesses in the Old Town-Chinatown section, the project at 310 N.W. Flanders St. between Third and Fourth avenues flies in the face of the Central City Plan, the Chinatown Development Plan, and all the cultural and entertainment significance of the ethnically concentrated district.

Most incongruously, said Kleinman and several business operators from the area, the Royal Palm sits across the street from a parking lot promised to the city to be turned into a long-planned classical Chinese garden with the help of experts from Portland’s China Sister City, Suzhou.

Rebecca Liu, principal of the Benevolent Association’s Chinese Language School, said she was concerned that the mental-health program clients would cause safety problems for the hundreds of children and others attending the school’s popular Saturday classes.

The area has been getting rid of undesirable drunken and disorderly persons in the last few years, she and other opponents said, and they do not want them to return to bother people on the sidewalks or to leave various wastes in doorways.

But Dan Steffey, the project representative for Mental Health Services West, countered that the facility would cause less traffic than any other business allowed in the building without seeking a city permit, that housing people now on the streets would reduce social problems such as persons using doorways as toilets, that the people served are not criminals or safety threats, and that the project would just bring more order to the neighborhood.

“The choice is whether we treat people now who are a problem or leave them untreated on the street,” Steffey said.