|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2009|
Randal B. Acker’s law firm is located next to the west end of the line of TriMet’s new Clackamas-to-downtown MAX Green Line, but that project almost proved the end of the line for his firm’s historic building.
But Acker, who a local newspaper dubbed “the wrong guy to tangle with,” took issue with the transit agency’s arguments for leveling his 1894 Queen Anne, which he bought in 2005 to house his two-attorney practice.
Using the power of eminent domain, TriMet demolished four other 19-century buildings on that block, and in late 2006, gave Acker notice, via a cheerful public-relations person, that “there is nothing you can do” to save his property from the chopping block.
Acker, a Portland lawyer since 1991, remembers his own succinct reply: “Mark my words: You will not take my building.”
It was the beginning of a long exploratory effort and orchestrated campaign on his part to keep what has become known as the Figo House intact and open on the corner of Southwest Jackson Street and Fifth Avenue — the last house still standing in that block, which is adjacent to Portland State University.
When TriMet debuts its new Green Line for the public on Sept. 12, Acker plans to join in the celebration, and may throw a neighborhood party of his own that day at the Figo House. But his mood was anything but celebratory during his year-long battle to save his building from the wrecking ball.
Law School Was “Rebellion”
“Friends say I’m too competitive,” Acker confesses. “Maybe it’s part of being a younger brother.” That competitive drive may be one reason Acker became a lawyer, but his background does not represent the conventional route many take toward the profession.
He was born on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the son of a physician who worked for the federal government. The family moved often and widely, from Detroit to London, before their return to his parents’ native Oregon when Randal was in the fourth grade.
Acker not only is a native Oregonian, but also is a descendant of Calvin Reed, “who led one of the first wagon trains to Oregon,” according to Acker. Remnants of that inaugural journey are housed in a museum in Eugene, says Acker, who was able to finish out his own school days in Portland, where he worked construction in summers and graduated from Wilson High School.
The geographic location for his college choice rested on a key motive — “I wanted to learn how to surf,” he says — so he selected Southern California’s Claremont McKenna College. There, he majored in philosophy, economics and political science, finishing with honors.
He also did learn to surf — his college best friend grew up surfing. The school “attracts a successful type of person, but one who also likes to play,” Acker explains. Classes were small, and “your professor called you if you didn’t show up,” to see if something was the matter.
In his early college years, he was with a tour group in Morocco with his father and a group of other doctors. Acker says the local ways were to barter for everything, but the doctors he was with would walk into shops and ask, “How much does this cost?” Acker was taken aback by their naiveté, but stepped in and started negotiating with shopkeepers on behalf of the group’s members.
He found he was good at it. “I like representing people, whether negotiating or litigating on their behalf.” He had no lawyers in the family, and his parents were both in the medical field. “I went to law school as my form of rebellion. I wanted to carve out my own career.”
After finishing at Cornell Law School, Acker was recruited to Portland by the large firm Bogle & Gates. He spent a summer there and “then less than a year,” before he came to the conclusion that he would be happier being his own boss. “As an experiment, I started my own shop,” he says. A borrowed card table served as his desk. “I didn’t put any money into (the business), because I didn’t think it would work.”
That was in 1992, and to his surprise, his business grew each month, then each year, until he could afford to add a legal assistant and eventually an additional attorney. Acker’s practice focuses primarily on business law and litigation.
As the firm grew, it needed more space, which led him to purchase, the Figo House (pronounced “FEE-go,” named after his dog). The building’s previous owner had recently remodeled the building at the time he bought it. All Acker had to do was paint walls and replace the carpet.
When TriMet came knocking, Acker asked, “How is it in the public’s best interest to remove existing businesses?” He learned all he could about eminent domain law, including that TriMet had to prove that there was no feasible alternative to buying, moving or destroying the building, owing to its historic value. He decided to fight the removal.
Acker asked for all of TriMet’s previous three years’ worth of e-mails related to the project. He discovered that TriMet eventually planned to transfer the land to PSU — each entity owns a portion of the block — and that the school wanted to erect a large dormitory on property including Acker’s.
He rallied neighborhood groups, including members of the Italian-American community that had long roots in the south Portland neighborhood, and he received favorable media coverage, including on Jan. 7, 2008, in an editorial in the Oregonian titled, “Leave the House Alone.” A month later, TriMet delivered a letter to Acker & Associates stating that the agency’s and PSU’s development plans would proceed, but would not include acquiring or removing the Figo House.
Mike Robertson, general superintendent of construction for the joint venture building the Green Line, says he came to act as a liaison for TriMet and the city in relation to Acker, and the two men were able to develop a cordial relationship.
“Mostly he’s been great to work with, as long as you keep him informed,” Robertson says. Robertson adds that his own objective is to “get the job done, and accommodate the public. I’m playing in his back yard, and trying to accommodate.”
For his part, Acker expresses appreciation to TriMet for spending $2 million “to beautify” the immediate area, which includes what he describes as “a mini-Pioneer Courthouse Square.” He also emphasizes that he supports public transit.
But he hopes the outcome with TriMet will encourage public agencies to approach use of the power of eminent domain more carefully. He views his successful challenge as a David-and-Goliath situation, but adds that this is par for the course: “We often find ourselves litigating against larger firms, with success.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2009 Cliff Collins