‘Strange Sale’ – old grocery sells; the working homeless

By Thacher Schmid

The old Northrup Food Center—vacant and rotting for 15 years despite occupying a coveted parcel—has finally sold.

Its walls could tell a story of colorful characters, contrasting cultures and economic transition as New Portland uproots the old until the only remaining value from a three-generation family grocery business can be calculated by the square feet of earth it covers.

It’s not only the walls who aren’t talking. And the picture only grows murkier around the circumstances of the sale.

The 100×100-foot property at 1120 NW 21st Ave. sold April 28 for $1.1 million.

Seller Jeff Baldwin’s concern for the homeless, who have camped on the premises with his blessing for years, doesn’t extend to the rest of the neighborhood, which has complained so long about accumulated junk on the property that unpaid city fines now reach six figures. Nor will Baldwin tell his side of the story to the press.

Baldwin also spurned a steady stream of developers, many of whom traveled to his home to woo him. All lost out to a buyer willing to cater to Baldwin’s interests—even going to a UFO festival with him—to win his trust.

George Fussell and partner John Frederick Hauser were willing to accept terms requiring them to retain the existing building at least 10 years. Without that deed restriction, one local real estate agent said the lot could go for as much as $2.6 million.

“In my estimate, [the $1.1 million price tag] is nearly paramount to theft,” said Mark Hush, managing director of the Portland office of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, a multinational commercial real estate company.

The sale price is “probably half of what the market is,” Hush said.

If the old grocery store is indeed preserved, it’s Baldwin’s stamp on the neighborhood, saving a funky, outmoded structure to forestall construction of another midrise apartment building.

Although Fussell insists he’s intent on holding, improving and managing the property, others have doubts.

Eyesore in land of plenty

Old vehicles in various stages of disrepair fill the parking lot behind the Northrup Food Center. Unpaid fines for ongoing nuisance violations have mounted to about $150,000, according to buyers of the property.

 

Opened by Baldwin’s maternal grandfather in 1929, the food center had seen better days. West Hills families once had their housemaids pick up custom cut meats here. Baldwin’s parents, Ephus and Georgia Baldwin, kept it going until 2001. The Oregonian reported plans for a 28-station hair salon, but nothing came of it. A 2010 Portland Mercury story details the lot’s more recent status as home for Baldwin’s erstwhile recycling business.

The building is listed with the city’s Extremely Distressed Building Enforcement Program, said Mike Liefeld, who manages the program for the Bureau of Development Services. City records show dozens of nuisance complaints, court cases and possible code violations dating back to 1993.

Liefeld said city staffers have played a long-term “cat and mouse” game with homeless people suspected to be living in the junk-filled lot. Inspectors’ notes cite trash and debris, piles of hundreds of pallets, “possible illegal occupation of commercial property,” “someone living in vehicles,” vehicles with flat tires, broken and boarded windows, peeling paint, holes in the siding.

“Concerned about possible fire hazard,” one inspector wrote.

“In Northwest [Portland], I can’t think of another property that would come to mind in such a highly developed, dense neighborhood that has that amount of concerns,” Liefeld said. “It’s an eyesore.”

Liefeld said Baldwin is not a big fan of city officials. “We’ve had some interesting conversations,” he recalled with a laugh.

Told the property had finally sold, Liefeld said, “Oh wow, I can’t believe that. That’s impressive. I know that’s been a concern for the community for a very long time.”

A place to sleep

For Jerry Vermillion, who often occupies the alcove outside the building’s papered-up front door, and another homeless man staying in the back, the sale will likely mean the loss of a place to spend the night.

 

Northrup squatter_3572-

Vermillion calls the alcove his favorite sleeping spot, though he’s not the type to fight off other homeless for it after his shift at the Astro Gas Station across the street (see sidebar, below).

A reporter’s trip to Baldwin’s home in the Cully neighborhood of Northeast Portland—which itself has collected nearly as many complaints as the Northwest store, as well as city-mandated contractor abatements—found the house in extreme disrepair. With its front door enshrouded by tarps reachable by a broken wheelchair ramp, even knocking or ringing the doorbell seemed dicey. Calls of “Hello?” and “Jeff?” brought a head poking out a second-story window.

Though he’s a bit hard to track down with no phone or front door, in conversation, Baldwin can be genial enough. He bristles at the press and talk of city codes.

His rumpled appearance belies his status as one of the city’s most recent millionaires. His crinkled blue eyes blaze with a fierce confidence, perhaps defiance. He speaks his mind, and can make a good case for himself. Relationships are what he values, he’ll tell you. He takes care of his friends and has a soft spot for the less fortunate. Other than that, he’s not interested in what others think.

On the record, Baldwin, the sole beneficiary of a trust for the property arranged by his parents in 1996, declined comment: “I have nothing more to say at this time. Privacy is what I respect.”

Off the record, Baldwin stood with his sweet, aging yellow Lab and chatted amiably with a reporter for half an hour. Across the dashboard of his old Dodge pickup, parked across his front lawn next to other vehicles that have seen better days, was a well-loved copy of the “Alien Invasion Survival Handbook.”

A trust, a UFO fest

Fussell said the sale, for which he and contractor Hauser formed Northrup Brothers, LLC, is his first venture into commercial real estate after two decades of residential projects. Fussell said his grooming of the seller was a year in the making, culminating in a trip to the UFO festival in McMinnville a couple of weeks after signing the deal.

“It’s a really hard process for [Baldwin] to let [the building] go,” Fussell said. “I wanted to really cater to his needs. I catered to everything he wanted, and it was a year process. I’m thankful he did. He had countless offers.”

What’s the vision? “I think ultimately, storefront retail, section it off into five different sections,” Fussell said. “Redoing the rooftop and doing a deck.”

One possibility involves a marijuana dispensary and four other small retailers. He may put food carts in the back lot.

“We’re exploring all options,” Fussell said.

Except one, a proposal for a strip club. “We’re definitely not going that route,” he said, laughing.

Does deed trump?

Can deed restrictions, which in this case call for the buyer and successors to “not tear down or remove a major portion of the existing building on the above property within 10 years” be circumvented?

A Portland attorney specializing in real estate law said deed restrictions such as this can be hard to protect, with no government agencies specifically charged with enforcing the provisions if a title company doesn’t.

“At the end of the day, the original owner … everything’s going to come down to him,” said attorney Kevin Elliott Parks, speaking of deed restrictions generally. Ensuring the buyers keep their word “requires [a seller’s] continued vigilance,” Parks said. He added that when such restrictions are ignored, even when aggrieved parties decide to litigate the matter, “nine times out of 10” the resolution will involve a purely financial settlement.

Fussell said any talk that he and Hauser might flip the property and ignore the deed restriction is just sour grapes from competitors who lost out.

“There are no plans at all to flip the building,” Fussell said. “Anybody that would say that would be clearly in a magical ball.”

Was Baldwin adequately represented in making the deal? Were professionals advocating for his interests?

Fussell said Baldwin had an attorney present during the sale, but declined to share a name. Fussell said he and Hauser had no pre-existing relationship with that attorney.

Alysa K. Long, who notarized the deed, did not return phone calls.

“I thought [$1.1 million] was a very fair price.” Fussell said, adding that he and Hauser are assuming liens and fines on the property totaling $150,000, bringing the true cost to $1.25 million. Fussell said the property with deed restriction was appraised at $1.25 million or $1.3 million.

In the 1970s, an advertising campaign touted 7UP as the uncola. The message has never been updated on the back wall of Northrup Food Center.

 

The city is continuing to assess fines of $2,200 a month for nuisance violations during the 120-day promissory period before the deed transfers.

Hauser, whose state Construction Contractors Board license has been active since 1995 and shows one suspension for not providing liability insurance, did not return a phone call.

Fussell, meanwhile, has nothing but praise for the seller.

“Jeff is donating; he’s doing something extremely good for the community with [this sale],” he said. “He’s one of the most remarkable guys, just has incredible integrity. … Jeff’s 10 times smarter than probably you or I.”

Neighbors watching

The deed restriction to preserve the existing building resonates with those weary of the wave of demolitions and new developments transforming the city.

“It’s been a conversation topic here,” said Rand Klemp, owner of nearby Anna Bannanas Cafe on Northwest 21st, speaking of the Northrup Food Center property’s future.

“We’re enthused that something is going to happen here. That’s great news. But will it retain the neighborhood’s character? … [Or] are we going to be sandwiched in by McUsed,” Klemp joked, a play on the phrase “mixed use.”

“Preserving the building’s footprint with its corner entrance through deed restrictions is a great preservation move,” wrote Joseph Lyons, president of the Nob Hill Business Association and a local realtor, in an email. Lyons is thrilled about the likely improvements to the property and future business and employment opportunities the development will bring.

Inn at Northrup Station Operations Manager Andrew Brown would like to see the kind of mixed-use development—with an affordable restaurant on the ground floor and apartments above—that Klemp is wary of. The notion of dividing the building into small storefronts seems less realistic to Brown.

 

When working poor becomes working homeless (sidebar)

A few years ago, the idea of the “working poor” gained traction as a political counterweight to stereotypes of the poor as lazy or unemployable. These days, particularly in Portland and other cities where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable, a starker phrase has emerged: “the working homeless.”
JerryIn front of the old Northrup Food Center, where Jerry Vermillion usually sleeps, the nightly lullaby is the clanging of the Portland Streetcar. Vermillion works at the Astro Gas Station across the street. A reporter’s mid-morning, late May visit to the spot found Vermillion awake inside a sleeping bag above a mattress pad on a slightly inclined, concrete ramp. Behind his head, a pillow, under an ancient placard reading “Member–United Grocers, Inc.”
Behind the glass, cardboard, mattresses—one window broken and replaced with particle board. A cellphone’s tiny, tinny speaker played alternative rock on 94.7FM inches from a couple of empty, 16-ounce cans of fruit-flavored Four Loko.
Over his long-sleeve T-shirt, his striped Astro uniform shirt.
Vermillion said he pumps gas, sells cigarettes and works as a cashier at the station. His little nook in the front of the store, he said, is “primo.” Vermillion said he has been on the street for two years, in the current spot since December. He lost his apartment three blocks away as rents went “up and up and up” just as he split with his girlfriend.
Vermillion said he isn’t concerned about possible repercussions for reporting his homeless status and naming his employer. Jeff Baldwin, who until recently owned the grocery store property, “let me stay here to keep the riff raff out,” Vermillion said, echoing the words of another homeless man in the lot. “I’m one of the more normal ones,” Vermillion said, a wry grin playing across his wind-beaten, kindly face.
Tony Bernal, director of funding and public policy at local nonprofit Transition Projects, said he’s not aware of solid statistics on the working homeless, but he agreed it exists and he guesses it’s growing in Portland.
“There are people who are doing everything they possibly can trying to play by the rules, and working, and still not able to make it,” Bernal said. “The cost of living, the cost of rents, are astronomical these days. … We still have a shelter crisis, an immediate shelter crisis. The wait to get into our shelter is seven months. That’s
sort of jaw dropping.”
Bernal said single, able-bodied males like Vermillion represent the largest single demographic in the local homeless population, since they are often ineligible for benefits or programs designed for parents with children or Social Security disability payment recipients.
Recently approved new funds for affordable housing and new shelter space could help individuals like the two living on the grocery property, but it’s a cruel numbers game: The most recent citywide count of homeless found 1,887 unsheltered individuals and 3,801 total homeless—and that was more than a year ago.
“In Portland, we can only shelter about 50 percent of people who are experiencing homelessness,” Bernal said. “The national average is about 70 percent.”
Vermillion’s favorite shelter from the urban storm could soon go away.
“If they do that, I have a new place to find,” he wrote in a text message.
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