Downtown Hillsboro is not free of housing.
Sure, Main Street is filled with businesses and government offices. But a block south, along the MAX Blue Line, apartments offer a place for transit riders to call home.
But none, so far, have sparked a transformation of the city center. Growth happens in fits-and-starts, and between the shiny Civic Center and the ritzy Venetian Theater are shops that harken back to an era before anyone uttered the word "Tanasbourne."
Dwight Unti is hoping to change that.
"I do think this project can be catalytic," Unti said Wednesday, shortly after officials cut the ceremonial ribbon on 4th Main, a 71-apartment mixed-use building with a taproom under construction on the ground floor.
The catalyst, Unti said, is in the prices of the apartments, ranging from $900 a month for a studio to $1,700 monthly for a fourth-floor penthouse.
"If higher rents can be achieved than were demonstrated before," Unti said, "that's a strong economic incentive."
In other words, if he can justify the $16.8 million investment Unti's Tokola Properties is making in 4th Main, others will follow. More development means more business. More apartments in downtown Hillsboro mean less need for expanding the urban growth boundary. A boost in transit ridership benefits TriMet's bottom line.
If it works, everyone wins.
"This is a major step in the development and redevelopment of our downtown," said Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey.
There clearly is a market for nicer apartments in Hillsboro. A few miles to the east, in the Orenco Station neighborhood, apartments are renting for more than $2,000 a month.
That's the market energy that Hillsboro leaders hope to re-capture in the downtown area.
"The market cleared out downtown Hillsboro of retail and moved it to the malls," said Metro Council President Tom Hughes, who has lived in Hillsboro for more than 40 years. "What we know about downtown Hillsboro is to thrive, we need more people living downtown."
The storefronts are largely full on Main Street. Many businesses survived the Great Recession. But the area is not without its challenges.
Just south of downtown Hillsboro is one of the poorest Census tracts in the region. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a woman walked through crying, saying something about drugs.
The shiny building is a monument to the vision many have of Hillsboro – new, exciting, thriving. The woman was a reminder that this is still a downtown, and even in Hillsboro, urban living will still come with social challenges.
To help make 4th Main happen, Metro contributed $540,000 from its transit-oriented development fund to support the project. Hillsboro waived many development fees for the project.
The site is on a former parking lot next to the Hillsboro Central Transit Center. It once housed a gas station, and about $400,000 in environmental work had to be done to clean it up.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Willey lauded the cooperation that set the stage for the redevelopment project.
"As a city, as a metro, as a county, we're doing anything we can to help make this downtown successful," Willey said.