Could Wapato Jail have a five-star future?

Nine years after its completion, Wapato Jail still stands empty with no county plans for its future. A number of former prisons around the world have been turned into hotels, including the Oxford Malmaison, where cells have been turned into luxury rooms. Undated photo. (Christopher Onstott/Portland Tribune)
Nine years after its completion, Wapato Jail still stands empty with no county plans for its future. A number of former prisons around the world have been turned into hotels, including the Oxford Malmaison, where cells have been turned into luxury rooms. Undated photo. (Christopher Onstott/Portland Tribune)

Everybody knows Wapato jail — completed nine years ago at a cost of $58 million but never opened because Multnomah County couldn’t come up with operating money — is a mess. County spokesman Dave Austin calls it “a true albatross.”

That’s the old news. Mark Gustafson, Multnomah County property manager, prefers to look forward.

“It would be a great bed and breakfast for McMenamins,” Gustafson says.

McMenamins isn’t interested in Wapato (more on that later). But if Multnomah County is ever going to get this albatross to take flight, it’s going to take some creative thinking: Which is why the Tribune asked a number of Portland’s creative thinkers to consider how Wapato might be reconfigured so it could be sold or leased for another use.

Gustafson is probably more familiar with Wapato, near North Portland’s Smith and Bybee lakes, than anybody. He’s in charge of keeping up the property and letting in the occasional film crew. That maintenance has a price: the county pays more than $300,000 a year just to make sure the pipes don’t burst and the empty giant of a building (nearly 170,000 square feet) doesn’t fall into disrepair.

That annual maintenance cost is one more reason somebody needs to figure out how Wapato could be reconfigured and sold. A sold-and-operating Wapato that would generate property tax revenue is another. Gustafson says Wapato could make a great military dormitory. And he points out that the nearby Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, with its robust population of western painted turtles, could provide hiking for hotel guests.

Could Wapato go the way of Oxford Prison in England? In 1996 Oxford, first built as a castle in 1071, was declared too expensive to maintain as a prison and was sold for 9,000 pounds, or $13,500 in today’s dollars.

In 1996, the Oxford, first built as a castle in 1071, was declared too expensive to maintain as a prison and was sold for 9,000 pounds. Now called Oxford Malmaison, the castle complex features hotel rooms, apartments, upscale restaurants and bars. The property is now valued at an estimated 30,000 pounds. (Oxford Malmaison/Portland Tribune)
(Oxford Malmaison/Portland Tribune)

Oxford still looks like a prison, if you can imagine a prison turned into a luxury hotel. Now called Oxford Malmaison, the castle complex features hotel rooms, apartments, upscale restaurants and bars. Ex-Oxford prisoners might be surprised to find their old rooms now go for as much as the equivalent of $300 a night.

Oh, and today Oxford Malmaison’s owners estimate their property is worth about 30 million pounds, or about $45 million.

Oxford is one of a number of prisons turned into hotels around the world; apparently tourists like the idea of a night in jail. The Charles Street Jail in Boston gets four stars as a luxury hotel.

The most intriguing jail-to-hotel transformation might be Liepaja in Latvia. Liepaja was the KGB’s Karosta Prison during the Cold War. Today it welcomes visitors who want a KGB prison experience. Overnight guests are allowed to bring in only a toothbrush. They sleep on mattresses placed on the floor. Toilets are holes in the ground and dinner just a piece of bread. To complete the experience, guests get verbally abused by prison guards (really actors) throughout the night.

Ridiculous? More than 21,000 paying guests visit Liepaja every year, and the hotel gets high ratings from online TripAdvisor reviewers.

Gustafson says while walking the empty corridors of Wapato he’s often thought that with a little modification the jail would make a perfect site for themed weddings. And the suggestion, Gustafson says, should not necessarily be viewed as his metaphor for the institution of marriage.

But McMenamins, with its history of turning all sorts of abandoned or dilapidated buildings into brewpubs and hotels, isn’t interested. A few years ago, McMenamins bought an old Multnomah County jail near its Troutdale Edgefield hotel and entertainment complex. According to company spokeswoman Renee Rank Ignacio, the intention has been to build some sort of hotel/restaurant venue. And yes, Ignacio says, jail-themed weddings there would be a possibility.

McMenamins hasn’t set a timetable for the conversion, but the space is distinctive, Ignacio says, with a pinwheel design that features a center gathering area from which dormitory spokes spin off.

Ignacio says designers’ talks so far have focused on the possibility of a restaurant in the center and a variety of bars — “No, not that kind” — scattered around the property.

“Certainly it will be fun. We’ve never redone a jailhouse before,” Ignacio says.

A homeless shelter

Homer Williams, the visionary developer behind the Pearl District and South Waterfront, is thinking these days of building more affordable housing — a very specific type of publicly subsidized affordable housing.

Williams has seen statistics on the number of baby boomers retiring without adequate savings or pensions. He says he’s looking at building dormitory-style housing for boomers.

Could Wapato be part of that solution? Probably not, Williams says, but it’s worth a thought.

“Baby boomers overwhelm everything,” Williams says. “You certainly can’t afford to build the number of apartments you’re going to need to put these people in.”

Jean DeMaster has looked longingly at Wapato for years. The executive director of Human Solutions oversees a nonprofit that coordinates much of the homeless family housing in Multnomah County. She says Wapato, with plenty of rooms, beds, bathrooms and an industrial-size kitchen, would be perfect to help house many of Portland’s homeless, except for one thing (not counting money).

“The stigma of putting homeless people in a jail is hard to overcome,” DeMaster says. “I don’t know how you could make it feel like a place people would want to be.”

Wapato’s distant North Portland location might make it unsuitable for many homeless who regularly access social service agencies downtown and in Old Town, according to DeMaster. But it might be perfect for those who don’t need those services, she adds. That would include many homeless families and couples without children who want to stay together but cannot stay in traditional men’s or women’s dormitory-style homeless housing.

DeMaster thinks Wapato also might be appropriate for housing men and women dealing with mental health issues. And, she says, there are federal housing grants that might help reconfigure Wapato so it feels less like a jail.

“It would probably be more for people who are homeless but know they are going to stay there for a long time,” she says.

Ideas that work

The Oregon film industry would love to get its hands on Wapato and make it a headquarters. The industry folks love it already, with TV and film crews regularly shooting jail, police station and hospital scenes there.

Vince Porter, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Film and Television, says Wapato is perfect as-is because it has all the elements of jails and hospitals, but no prisoners or patients to be moved out of the way when filming starts.

“It’s all dressed up and you don’t have to touch it,” Porter says.

According to Porter, when film crews come to Portland, they rent vacant warehouses for their sound stages, but have to find space elsewhere for their administrative offices and wardrobe departments.

Wapato, Porter says, would allow the state to rent out everything production companies need in one place. The huge dormitory areas could be remodeled into the empty spaces for sound stages. In back of the building there’s room for outdoor sets, horse stables and dog kennels — the stables and kennels were in place when Wapato served as a staging ground in the hunt for Kyron Horman.

Unfortunately, according to Austin, the county does not charge rent when those production companies use Wapato. Because voters approved bonds financing the facility as a jail, the county can’t make money leasing it as anything else, Austin says. Production companies merely have to pay the cost of utilities and security while they are filming inside the jail.

And that, Austin points out, doesn’t provide much incentive for film companies to help change the status quo.

“They know they are getting it basically rent-free now,” Austin says. “So where’s the incentive to buy it or rent it?”

Which is why the first order of business should be some policy change that would free the county to sell or rent Wapato, says Jefferson Smith, former state legislator and Portland mayoral candidate. Spending $1.5 million to $2 million to retire the bonds early would eliminate the restrictions, says Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen.

Smith came up with a number of suggestions for possible alternative uses of Wapato — some, he admits, more sensible than others. He likes the idea of a hotel with an overnight prison experience. Or maybe, Smith says, Wapato could become a murder mystery destination resort where people play different criminal justice roles during their overnight stay.

“I think there’s a lot of people who would pay to be a prison guard, and what about warden for a day?” Smith says.

Or, Smith says, Wapato could become a training center for prison guards, with prison workers role playing on both sides of the bars. Alternatively, Wapato could become a public safety super center where law enforcement officers ranging from local police to the Homeland Security Joint Terrorism Task force could train, he suggests.

An incubator for business startups might be worth considering, in Smith’s estimation. And a meditation super center for new age healers strikes him as a very Oregon solution for Wapato. “We could offer a lot of solitude,” he says.

Smith says he personally opposes the formation of a casino in the Portland area, but Wapato might make a profitable gambling center.

“A prison casino would be an international sensation,” he says.

Incidentally, Smith says that when he was working on voter registration as director of the Bus Project he inquired about renting Wapato for a political conference.

He figured conference attendees could spend the night in jail and use the common areas for conference sessions. He was turned down, he says, because of the legal interpretation that Wapato could only be used as a jail.

Do what has to be done to give the county flexibility to deal with Wapato, Smith says, and then put together a board or commission to evaluate new ideas for the jail. He even suggests a starting point for that hypothetical commission.

“Eliminate all the stupid ideas I just offered and think about ones that might actually work,” he says.

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