Backers of a homeless shelter funded by the CEO of Columbia Sportswear held a brief ceremony with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Tuesday and say they are days away from breaking ground on the project.

Whether that’s true is unclear.

The ceremony went forward in spite of the inch of snow blanketing Portland, but it didn’t involve any actual ribbon cutting or shovels hitting the dirt. The site, once a rail yard, remains an empty lot, and no construction equipment was visible at the groundbreaking Tuesday.

The nonprofit Oregon Harbor of Hope hopes to open its navigation center in June, with a goal of providing 100 chronically homeless men with beds, showers, space for pets and health and addiction treatment services.

Transition Projects, a nonprofit service provider that has existing contracts with the city and county to provide emergency shelter for homeless people, has agreed to operate the center.

“This moment doesn’t just mark the most ambitious public-private partnership on homelessness yet,” Wheeler said. “This moment is also an important message about what we can and what we will achieve when we work together.”

Snow blankets the site of the future Harbor of Hope homeless center in Northwest Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Snow blankets the site of the future Harbor of Hope homeless center in Northwest Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

But the project has faced a series of obstacles, including cost overruns and a legal challenge from a neighboring property owner. On the day of the groundbreaking, Harbor of Hope was still negotiating a sublease agreement with the city for the land beneath the planned navigation center.

That site, under the Broadway Bridge, belongs to the economic development agency Prosper Portland.

Its leaders have agreed in principle to let Oregon Harbor of Hope use the land for up to five years. Longer term, Prosper Portland plans to expand nearby rail lines or use the property as part of a major public redevelopment of the Broadway corridor.

On Monday, Prosper Portland officials signed an agreement to lease the lot to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, with an understanding that OMF will sublease it to Harbor of Hope.

OMF provides financial and logistical support to city bureaus and has played a role in managing a number of other pilot projects to address homelessness, including the Kenton Women’s village. 

Prosper Portland’s spokesman, Shawn Ulman, said the arrangement between OMF and his agency isn’t unusual.

“It manages a number of properties on our behalf, including Union Station, which is immediately adjacent to the navigation center,” Ulman said.

But the five-year lease between Prosper Portland and OMF shows that more public dollars are being invested in the project that Oregon Harbor of Hope has revealed.

Prosper Portland has agreed to contribute $100,000 to the soil cleanup work on the site, which will be paid to Harbor of Hope “in recognition of savings that may be realized in connection with a subsequent development of the property due to removal of certain contaminated soil,” according to the master lease.

Oregon Harbor of Hope is working on an agreement to sublease the property from OMF.

“It’s a legal arrangement requested by the owner of the land,” said Don Mazziotti, Harbor of Hope’s director. “We at Oregon Harbor of Hope are fine with that arrangement.”

Mazziotti, who ran Prosper Portland when it was known as the Portland Development Commission, declined to explain why the city agency does not want to directly lease the land to his group.

He initially said that work preparing the ground for construction of the homeless shelter would begin “tomorrow.” That work includes bringing in fresh soil and pouring a concrete cap over much of the site.

Other Oregon Harbor of Hope staff said work will begin when the nonprofit finalizes its sublease agreement with OMF, probably next week.

“Flip a coin as to whose quote it is you’ll use,” Mazziotti said in response to the differing timeframes.

The navigation center also faces an ongoing legal challenge from developer Jim Winkler.

Winkler owns the adjacent lot, one of the last large undeveloped parcels of land in the Pearl District. It’s worth an estimated $13.8 million, according to Multnomah County tax records.

He’s filed a petition in Marion County Circuit Court challenging the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to approve the soil remediation plan Harbor of Hope proposed.

The shallow soils on the old railway site are moderately contaminated with several potentially dangerous chemicals, including arsenic, lead and crude oil.

Oregon Harbor of Hope plans to pour a concrete cap to cover the parts of the site where people will be sleeping and working, and to bring in fresh topsoil for areas that won’t be paved.  

“We have approval of the remediation plan from DEQ, and we believe that his objections are without merit,” Mazziotti said.

Winkler’s attorneys contend that DEQ has held other neighboring property owners to a higher cleanup standard, and that the state’s own 1998 evaluation of the site spells out the need for a more rigorous cleanup to protect human health.

Attorneys with the Oregon Department of Justice contend that DEQ’s approval of the cleanup plan was appropriate and argue that Winkler doesn’t have legal standing to challenge it.

A judge has scheduled a hearing on whether to proceed with the case in March, court records show.

The proposed navigation center stands out as a measure of the Portland business community’s growing concern about homelessness, and as an example of the city’s ongoing struggle to find appropriate locations for shelters as land prices rise.

Columbia CEO Tim Boyle and his wife Mary Boyle have almost single-handedly financed the project’s capital costs, donating $3.3 million to Harbor of Hope.

The couple first committed $1.5 million to get the project off the ground, then increased their donation after the costs associated with environmental remediation went up.

Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Harbor of Hope homeless center in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Harbor of Hope homeless center in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

In a brief press conference celebrating the groundbreaking, Boyle said homelessness is “what we do not want our city to be known for,” and urged others in the business community to support the work of local governments and nonprofits.

“Ending homelessness can’t just be the government’s job,” he said.

The project also secured critical support from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who announced earlier this month the Joint Office of Homeless services will reallocate $1 million in public money to fund the shelter’s first year of operations.

Developer Homer Williams had initially committed to funding the shelter’s first year of operations through private philanthropy, but that will now be covered by the city and county.

Unlike most of the city’s shelters, the navigation center will not be first-come, first-served. Instead, its 100 beds will be reserved for homeless people identified by street outreach workers and first responders — with the goal of getting vulnerable, chronically homeless men inside and connected to services.

The Joint Office For Homeless Services views the project as a cost-effective way to gain more permanent shelter beds as several temporary shelters the office has invested in are slated to close.

The city will net 25 shelter beds by moving funding from facilities that are closing into the navigation center.

“We’ve been lucky that property owners have stepped up to donate temporary spaces repeatedly over the years, but this is the first time something’s been constructed thanks to millions of dollars in donations,” said Denis Theriault, a spokesman for the Joint Office.

Theriault said that while the Joint Office has committed to providing that operating funding, there aren’t any amendments yet to Transition Projects’ contract, nor is there a use agreement for the facility.

Mayor Wheeler said the navigation center is worth public investment because it could help catalyze future private support for the city’s campaign to end homelessness.

“My belief is when Tim and Columbia Sportswear and his family step forward, that’s going to inspire others in the private sector to do likewise,” Wheeler said. “Here’s the key though — we have to deliver on this model. We have to show that the partnership is successful and the outcomes are real.”