Freddie Brown’s To Close As NW Natural Exit Looms Over Old Town Chinatown
OLD TOWN CHINATOWN — Freddie Brown’s, a deli and convenient store anchoring the NW Natural building in Old Town Chinatown, plans to close on October 29, according to owners Diane and Samuel Lee.
(((Update: Closing party to bid goodbye will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29.)))
The Lees, who’ve operated the business since 2001, are leaving because of what Samuel Lee refers to as “uncertainty” over the future of One Pacific Square, which will soon lose NW Natural — its largest tenant and the neighborhood’s most prominent employer.
“It’s sad, I am going to miss them and wish they would stay a little longer,” said Rick, a NW Natural contractor who was buying a sausage-and-egg burrito around 6:45 a.m. Wednesday. Samuel Lee broke the news of the closure date to Rick and other regulars as they trickled in.
Hundreds of workers from NW Natural, who occupy most of the tower at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Davis Street, will leave their corporate headquarters early next year and relocate to a new office building downtown.
Meanwhile, the tower, often dubbed R2-D2 for its resemblance to the “Star Wars” droid, or “the NW Natural building,” will undergo $15 million worth of renovations to become “220,” a “reimagined” office building, according to story boards that have been posted in the lobby to attract new tenants. (So far, the city’s economic development agency firm Prosper Portland, which employs 84 people, has signed a 10-year lease to begin next summer, according to the Portland Business Journal and Willamette Weekly).
Completed in 1983 and owned by NW Natural until the natural gas supplier sold the building in 2015, the 242,143 square foot tower has 25,757 square foot of space available to rent now and an additional 155,000 will open up in Q2 of 2020, a brochure states.
A representative for the building’s owner Sprecht Properties declined to comment about upcoming renovations*, and a spokeswoman for NW Natural declined to comment on the company’s history in the building and its neighborhood impact due to the fact that no editor accepted this reporter’s pitch.
Other tenants in the building are also planning to move out, including apartment community developers Mill Creek Residential, its vice president Tony Piscitello told the Pipeline.
“We’ve been at [One Pacific Square] for 10-years and are moving to SW Broadway & SW Washington. Our space needs changes and we’re downsizing, in part, due to going more paperless. There’s no need for the big file cabinets any longer,” Piscitello wrote in an email.
For the Lees, the decision to not renew their 5-year lease was prompted by murmurs of NW Natural’s eventual departure.
“After hearing rumors in 2018 [that the gas company would be leaving the building], we chose to not renew our lease for another five years and have been on a month-to-month lease since then,” Samuel Lee said, noting that the decision to close was also related to the fact the deli would have to be closed for as long as 10 months during lobby renovations.
Samuel Lee said the majority of their customers are from NW Natural and other local employers, augmented by a mix of tourists and homeless people.
On a recent morning, he looked across the street, at a tent on the sidewalk.
“It’s getting much worse, in the last 4- 5 years, more homeless people,” Samuel Lee said. He attributed the rise to a plethora of social service agencies, rescue missions and volunteer-run kitchens in Old Town, making it “easier to stick around.”
Diane Lee wants to make it clear that they are “not blaming NW Natural gas for leaving” and that she and her husband were planning on retiring and now is “the perfect time.”
With elderly parents to assist, grandchildren eager for time with their grandma, continuing education courses (she’s thinking about studying Spanish) and volunteering at her church, Diane Lee says she’s happy about her and her husband’s next chapter.
“I’m not sad, I’m happy to retire. We have been here 19 years, raised three kids who are all married, we are so happy and blessed. No regrets, no complaints. To us, there is no negative,” Diane Lee said.
Diane Lee said she will miss the daily interactions with customers.
“I like dealing with people. All of our customers are very nice, we are very close and share life stories,” she said.
The Lees met in 1979 in Seoul, South Korea when they were volunteering in a YMCA choir. They relocated to New York City in 1982, so Samuel could study at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music.
But after living in New York City for a decade, it was “too crazy, with a lot of crime,” Diane Lee said. A friend of the Lees in New York City had previously lived in Portland and “kept talking about Portland so much that he moved back,” Diane Lee said.
Eager for a better quality of life, the Lees and their two young children left New York City for Portland in the early 90s. A third child was born in Portland.
“We wanted to raise our kids in a better area,” Diane Lee said.
*This reporter works at a company in One Pacific Square, though not at NW Natural or Mill Creek, and in full disclosure is a regular at Freddie Brown’s.