Return of the Frangos

The reopening a venerable retail building highlights big doings in downtown Portland.
Crosscut archive image.

The old Meier & Frank in Portland. (

The reopening a venerable retail building highlights big doings in downtown Portland.

The long-awaited reopening of Macy's (and the return of Frangos) in one of downtown Portland's best known historic buildings made a splash as many local print and broadcast reporters covered it – as a retailing story.

It's that, and quite a bit more, as Portland Tribune writer Jim Redden notes in his bigger-picture story about the effects of a TriMet transit-mall project on downtown development. Redden puts the building's reopening in context, noting that it is a square in the sprawling quilt of new and rehabbed buildings coming together right now in the city.

The new analysis he quotes was done by Shiels Obletz Johnsen, a local consulting firm under contract to help smooth the way for the transit-mall project, which is sprucing up a long stretch of some formerly creepy downtown blocks and improving both bus and rail service considerably. The analysis estimates that $1.5 billion in downtown public-private development is coming online in the next couple of years.

Even allowing that some of the projects would have happened without the transit-system improvements, and the element of optimism that always accompanies such surveys, that's not a bad payout. This region-serving TriMet project (made possible with big dollars from the feds) is expected to cost approximately $557 million, roughly half of which is for the downtown transit mall and the other half for new light rail out alongside Interstate 205.

None of this means that the reopening of the venerable building that locals still call "Meier & Frank's" isn't cool all on its own. In fact, the overhaul from its shabby former self into a slick retail space (with a luxury hotel still to open on the upper floors) was overdue, and the result is making passersby almost giddy.

Remember when Nordstrom finally finished reviving the moribund former Frederick & Nelson building in downtown Seattle? Bringing back a store from the dead – one that folks of a Certain Age remember fondly from childhood – boosts civic pride, even among those who speeded its decay by eschewing it for suburban malls.

Anyone who worked in such a store has another layer of memories. (I did my holiday time at F&N. The green and white nametag is still in my jewelry box.) These big old multi-story buildings were like ocean liners from another era each with two parallel worlds: one for the moneyed, one for those who served them. Behind the sales floors were endless winding passageways and unpainted stockrooms. There the sore-footed, lightly paid workers scurried around looking for stock and swallowing chocolate-mint Frangos nearly whole. (The rule was: If the box is damaged, you can open it. Oops! Dropped another one!)

The first Meier & Frank store opened in Oregon in 1857, growing into a beloved retailer and eventually morphing into today's Macy's. (You do not want to know about all the retail marriages, dalliances, and divorces that took place between then and 2006, when the Macy's sign went up.)

Designed by big-hitter architect A.E. Doyle in 1909, the building at the heart of the newly named Meier & Frank Square was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. With 15 stories of glazed terra cotta, the place was (and is) a monument to the gumption of American retailers.

Along with Macy's considerable commitment, this Square's new life was paid for with tax breaks and, in part, with millions loaned by Portland Development Commission, which has a pile of property-tax money to put toward just this sort of urban renewal. (Meanwhile, the clock is running down on urban-renewal status for two other big chunks of downtown real estate, as a municipal committee ponders whether to keep tax dollars tied to these areas for a while longer.)

It's common for bloggers and commenters to dump on commissions like the PDC ("Call it Pretty Damn Corrupt ... Positively Dumb Commercialism ..." and so on) which suck up lots of money and can never please everyone, but every few postings someone pipes up to say that the PDC does what it was created to do. One reader weighing in under Redden's story puts it this way:

For all you hooligans who constantly kvetch about how awful PDC is ... maybe this article will make you shush for a while. The PDC is the public's way of making real-world, bricks-and-mortar things happen – and they always spur jobs, housing (market-rate, and affordable), and over-all livability. Seriously – you people have no idea how lucky this city is to have the PDC! Portland used to be like any other crappy small city- but PLANNING and the PDC have helped make Portland into something people come to see from all over the world. (So if you don't like it, I-5 is that way!)

Portland's downtown-core growth has some minuses, including a long period of real challenges to those doing business along the ripped up streets, but for a little while, at least, everyone walking around the big house that Meier & Frank built seems to be stepping a little lighter.


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