What's Happening

What's Happening

Portland State University College Station

July 26, 2011

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Bright against a gray sky, 400 helium-filled balloons rise Thursday over Figo House in downtown Portland. Building owner Randal Acker says the balloons will be there as long as the helium lasts.

Every day, Portland lawyer Randal Acker lives the big sight gag from the Disney movie "Up," where a construction crew sweeps a block clean of its cute old houses, but for one.

In this case, Acker's 1894 Queen Anne Victorian, which serves as his law office, stands as the last building of its vintage on the block on the southern edge of downtown.

All around him rises the skeleton of Portland State University's 16-story College Station residence hall, due to open in August 2012. After a long fight with TriMet and PSU to hold on to his building, Acker pronounces himself pleased with the result.

"Frankly, I'm looking forward to the new neighbors," Acker says, sitting in the first-floor conference room of the place he christened Figo (FEE-go) House after his dog, who is named for the Portuguese soccer star Luis Figo.

"Everyone has been very good to work with," Acker says, "and I've heard the architect for the project call the house a jewel in a jewel box."

On Thursday, Acker celebrated the likeness to the 2009 animated movie, hiring Balloons on Broadway to bring 400 helium-filled balloons to fly from the chimney of Figo House.

Earlier this week, Tom Mitchell, the project supervisor for Walsh Construction, threaded a nylon rope down the chimney and anchored it in the basement.

The balloon team knotted the balloons to the rope, and Mitchell went back into the basement and pulled the rope until the balloons were flying over the house, a riot of color against the gray sky and the gray concrete of the new building.

The cooperation, however, came after years of acrimony.

Acker, who specializes in commercial litigation, bought the house in 2005 for $380,000; the property had been renovated and converted to business use in 1995. All around the building stood houses from the time when the neighborhood was populated mainly by Italian and Jewish immigrant families.

Lawyer Randal Acker refused to sell his 1894 Queen Anne Victorian to Tri-Met or Portland State. So the university is building its new residence hall around Acker's property.

Acker had barely hung out his shingle when TriMet began purchasing the surrounding houses, and in 2007 knocked four down to build the MAX turnaround at PSU. Then TriMet came for Acker's house. He refused to sell.

"First," he says, "they could have bought it when I bought it. This building is perfect for my practice. It's got easy freeway access, it's close to downtown, and I actually enjoy this building. There's something to be said for these historic buildings."

TriMet told Acker it was contemplating taking the house under eminent domain, which allows public entities to buy private property for public use even if the seller is unwilling. Acker pushed back: "I told them that if I had to do eminent domain law for the next two years to save the house, I would do it."

 

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He organized a protest, printing "Save The Figo House" buttons and summoning public support for the house. In 2008, TriMet sent Acker a letter saying it would no longer go after the house.

But by then, TriMet had sold the block around Acker's house to PSU for the residence hall.

Construction on the $90 million College Station started in February. At the March groundbreaking, PSU officials and the private company building the residence hall dropped by Figo House with a plate of cookies and a hard hat.

Bill Bayliss, chief executive officer of American Campus Communities of Austin, Texas, says the presence of Figo House in the middle of the residence hall project "is just so typically Portland."

"We just love it!" Bayliss says. "It's a perfect demonstration of how the old and new can live with each other in Portland."

Acker says people have been so curious about the house in the middle of the construction zone that he had paper drink coasters printed with a line drawing of Figo House and his website address. Mainly, the coasters will go in at the Starbucks across Southwest Sixth Avenue from the house.

The noise of construction hasn't been distracting, Acker says. He's gotten new utility lines. And when he looks out a back window he sees the beginnings of a big, open courtyard for the residence hall, which means, "I'll have more light now than I did before the building went up." 

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