“Who are the largest landowners in Downtown?” —Anonymous
The answer to our latest PDXplained question is pretty simple (more on that in a moment), but getting to the bottom of it wasn’t easy.
It turns out that property ownership is easily concealed in Oregon — and most big landowners seem eager to do just that.
Take Parcel 18 LLC: According to Portland Maps, Parcel 18 LLC owns a small parking lot on the corner of Harvey Milk and SW 9th Ave.
So who’s behind Parcel 18 LLC? A search of the Oregon business registry shows that a second company, Greg G. LLC, is listed as the company’s manager.
Another search reveals that “Greg G.” is actually Greg Goodman, and as I learned from Google, Goodman is the president of Downtown Development Group, one of the largest private landowners in downtown Portland.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to do this sleuthing for every lot in downtown Portland, because a city employee had already done it (thanks, Carmen Piekarski).
But just going through the process for one lot helped me realize how little transparency there is around property ownership in Oregon, despite a new law designed to fix that.
Here’s what else I learned along the way.
The biggest landowners are big names in Portland
First, a disclaimer: Ownership is always changing, and the process of identifying an owner is hardly foolproof.
But according to the city’s latest records, the biggest landowners in downtown Portland (by number of acres owned) are all government entities: the City of Portland, the State of Oregon, and TriMet.
In the private category, five companies own more than 10 acres downtown:
– Harsch Investment Properties (led by businessman Jordan Schnitzer)
– Downtown Development Group (led by developers Mark and Greg Goodman)
Another landowner of note is Atlas Investments, which was co-founded by Katherine Durant.
If that name sounds familiar, it might be because Durant did an interview with the Portland Tribune last month to defend her husband, Gordon Sondland, who’s at the center of President Trump’s Ukraine scandal.
Property ownership used to be even less transparent in Oregon
In 2015, the Portland Business Journal discovered that 1,300 shell companies — all with anonymous owners — were operating out of a single house in the Portland suburbs.
The Journal’s reporting showed that Oregon was a safe haven for money laundering and other shady business practices, and it led to a reform bill in 2017 that made it harder for owners to complete hide their identity from the state.
But the bill stopped short of requiring all businesses to list an owner in public business filings, and that’s why piecing together property ownership is still such a challenge.
“Who owns our city” is a question worth asking
Columbia University professor Saskia Sassen makes a compelling case in The Conversation for why the concentration of property ownership in cities is such a big deal.
The full article is worth a read, but one paragraph in particular stands out:
Whether it’s national or foreign, large-scale corporate investment absorbs much of the public tissue of streets and squares, and street-level commerce. It shrinks the texture and scale of spaces that are accessible to the public, and ultimately changes the very character of the city.
It would be hard to write a better description of what’s happening right now on SW 10th and Alder, where a beloved food cart pod has disappeared to make way for a glitzy Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Growing cities have to change, and projects like the Ritz-Carlton are a part of that.
But it’s worth keeping an eye on what public goods get sacrificed as we grow — and which private landowners stand to benefit.