Dina Alexander Leans In

The real estate attorney helps guide Portland through its growing pains

Published in 2018 Oregon Super Lawyers — August 2018

Photo by: Rick Dahms

In 2002, shortly after Dina Alexander returned to Portland following stints with real estate firms in hot, techy markets (Seattle 1996; San Francisco 1998), Robb Ball, founding partner of Ball Janik, the firm that wooed her back, stopped by her office. He was going on sabbatical and had a small favor to ask: “Can you cover this work while I’m away?”

“This work” turned out to involve the South Waterfront Central District, a parcel of land running alongside the Willamette River south of downtown. It was owned by Williams & Dame Development, the firm that transformed a Portland warehouse district into the Pearl in the 1990s, as well as Oregon Health & Sciences University. Alexander’s task: navigate the legalities of acquiring and developing the waterfront property in partnership with the city of Portland.

“When we started, there was nothing,” says Alexander, now a founding partner at Radler White Parks & Alexander. “Which is great for a real estate lawyer. You get to do everything. You get to acquire land. My colleague Christy White rewrote code down there to allow for the height and the density that exists today. We negotiated to move regional transmission lines that ran diagonally across the middle of the district; we undergrounded them and got them out of the way. We built parks and greenways and the tram; the streetcar line was extended.”

She adds: “Public-private partnership work is a sort of niche I have now. I spent 10 years of my life [on South Waterfront]. It’s really what made my career.”

More than just South Waterfront, Alexander has been a key part of Portland’s recent growth. Since 1990, the population in the metro area has grown by nearly 60 percent—from 1.5 million to 2.4 million. In the last five years, the median home price has almost doubled, with some neighborhoods seeing home prices triple. A commercial construction boom that stalled during the global financial meltdown has more than made up ground. Cranes dominate the landscape. 

Asked whether she needs to be some combination of lawyer-banker-stateswoman-psychotherapist to be effective at what she does, Alexander laughs. “Definitely. It’s what makes those deals challenging,” she says. “It’s also, in my opinion, what makes them interesting and fun.”

 

Tall and rangy at 48, Alexander grew up in Salem. Even though her father was a plaintiff’s attorney, she didn’t know she wanted to be a lawyer until college.

“I grew up around litigators—and who you typically see in TV and movies are litigators,” she says. “[But] in law school I became very interested in: What are these business leaders up to?”

After attending Willamette University College of Law on an “almost full scholarship,” Alexander became a real estate associate at Bogle & Gates in Seattle in 1996—a time when tech giants Google and Amazon were remaking the idea of the physical workspace. She later moved to San Francisco, in part because of a relationship, and ended up at Cooley Godward, a multinational firm that has been integral to the building of Silicon Valley. 

The South Waterfront project was not without hiccups. The cost for the aerial tram, for example, was more expensive than estimated. “We had to renegotiate the funding and finance a couple of times [with the city],” she says. Then, of course, the real estate market collapsed on the back of subprime mortgage loans. Entire floors of the new skyscrapers sat empty. 

“I don’t think any of us quite anticipated anything like 2008 and just the magnitude of the impact on real estate,” she says. “People definitely saw we were in an overheated condo-building cycle, that a lot of money deals were moving fast and furiously. But did we see that Lehman Brothers would go bankrupt? I didn’t.”

During the downturn, Alexander made the most of what opportunities there were. She worked with developers working with foreign investors, many from China, who were interested in commercial investment in exchange for the possibility of obtaining EB-5 visas. She helped people with access to liquid cash get into properties at a much lower cost. 

She also developed relationships with those who dreamed big dreams. 

In 2007, Merritt Paulson—coincidentally, the son of Hank Paulson, treasury secretary during the economic crisis—bought Portland’s minor league baseball team, which he sold in 2010. He then went after soccer. Needing a venue, he appealed to the city council to approve the funds to renovate the old Triple-A baseball stadium, PGE Park. Alexander and Steve Janik represented the city of Portland in the $31 million redevelopment of what became Providence Park—now home to both soccer teams: the Timbers and the Thorns.

“We did the Timbers deal in 2009, when Merritt got the franchise, and then the Thorns came in 2013,” says Alexander, who recently put together a $55 million expansion of the stadium. “I mean, the Thorns are the most popular women’s sports team in the world.”

The enthusiasm reflects an influx of young people into Portland, where the median age is 36. Yet because housing has not kept pace with population, the rental market has become tight, and expensive. There are growing pains. 

“Portland has just changed so much, especially in the last five years,” says Alexander. “We have a city that rightly is focused on some equity issues that are serious societal and community issues, but it’s put a lot of pressure on the development community in particular when you’re talking about affordable housing.”

Attempts have been made. On Feb. 1, 2017, the city of Portland implemented rules for its Inclusionary Housing Zoning Code Project, mandating that a percentage of units in new or substantially altered construction must qualify as affordable housing. It didn’t work as planned. 

“There was a rush to the Bureau of Development Services, for everyone to get their permits in before February 1st of last year, so they were vested pre-IZ,” says Alexander. “So you have thousands of units that are permitted but were not subject to the affordable housing goals. And one year since the affordable housing regulations went into effect, there are projects permitted that will deliver 89 affordable housing units, total, and none in the central city. The development community can’t get the numbers to pencil out except outside of the central city, in smaller, lower-density projects.”

Other cities have found ways to make inclusionary zoning work. “It might be a place where rents are so high that non-affordable units can subsidize the affordable units, [such as] New York City,” she says. “You have other places where they’ve given density bonuses. ... They’re saying: ‘You would’ve only been able to build 150 feet; now we’re going to let you build to 250 feet.’ You get economies of scale, and you can build more units. You can then make the affordability.’”

It’s almost a Catch-22. People flock to Portland because of its natural beauty but their very numbers could block it out. As a result, verticality is often opposed by neighborhood associations that want to keep unimpeded views of Mount Hood and the Willamette River. 

“People want historic preservation, lower densities, and yet we’re trying to solve serious problems around affordability of housing and homelessness,” Alexander says. “We’re at this inflection point where we need more density in the city, yet there are a bunch of people who don’t want to see that continued growth. The city is in the process of putting into effect a new comprehensive plan, some of that actually is downzoning property in the city—taking height away.”

Alexander reached her own inflection point in 2012 as Ball Janik continued to shift toward construction defect litigation. “I’ve never done any litigation,” says Alexander, who, along with three other partners, left Ball Janik to form their current firm. The timing was excellent. Developers who had taken baths during the global financial meltdown were starting to think they might survive.

“I met Dina when we were coming out of the recession and have been working with her ever since,” says Liam Thornton, executive vice-president for the global entertainment company Live Nation Entertainment. Thornton’s projects with Alexander include several mixed-use projects in the central city. “She brings both breadth and depth, which is unusual. She also has really good anticipatory skills. So if I’m going the wrong way on something, she can tell me. With diplomacy.”

He also sees her as uniquely qualified to handle Portland’s current dilemma.

“People are speaking two different languages, right?” he says. “Dina’s strength is that she gets both sides to trust her, even if they disagree. Even contentious parties can get to the same conclusion when the lawyer brokering has the trust of both sides. That’s Dina.”

 

Alexander often gains perspective on Portland by getting out of it. Recent trips include trekking for mountain gorillas in Rwanda and riding horses on a ranch in Montana. And recalling the dynamism of other cities in which she’s worked helps her see what Portland is, isn’t, and what it can become.

“It would be wonderful to have much greater diversity in Portland, as well as the state as a whole,” she says. 

She adds, “I’ve been back in the city for a decent amount of time and even I sometimes feel nostalgic for some of the parts of Portland that are changing.” But she’s also pragmatic. 

“If there are companies and job opportunities, growth is going to continue,” she says. “It’s inevitable—without making a judgment of whether it’s good or bad or indifferent. It just is. And we have to be smart about it.”

 


 

Here are a few spots where Alexander takes out-of-towners:

> “There are a lot of really great eats in Portland, especially on the East Side. We hit various spots like ¿Por Qué No? and Bollywood Theater.”

> “I sometimes bring people to ride my horses,” says Alexander, who in 2014 went on a weeklong horseback safari in Botswana. She now keeps a Palomino quarter horse and Andalusian Friesian south of Portland. “I had a friend visiting from Kenya. He said, ‘I’ve taken people on safari in Kenya. It’s interesting to see how people do it here.’”

> “I almost always take people to ride the tram from South Waterfront up to Marquam Hill. The views are so beautiful. Portland does not have iconic architecture: There’s no Empire State Building, no Sears Tower. We are more about creating neighborhoods—and we have great neighborhoods: the Pearl, Sellwood, Mississippi [Avenue]. We have great senses of place. These are still what make Portland special.”

Photo by: Rick Dahms

Photo by: Rick Dahms

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