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Why insurance company employees and other businesses are moving out of downtown Portland for now

Standard Insurance confirms its employees have left the company's downtown office buildings for now, and a nonprofit is selling its 40,000 square foot office space.

PORTLAND, Ore. — In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies and nonprofits are planning for the future around office space they're not using and may never use again.

The Standard Insurance Center at 900 SW 5th Avenue is part of downtown Portland's cityscape and until this spring, was home base for most of Standard's 2,100 Oregon employees. Nearly all of those employees are working from home now because of COVID-19.

Recently, Standard confirms, the company relocated a "small segment" of remaining employees requiring office space downtown, to Standard's Hillsboro campus. 

"An undisclosed number of employees of The Standard are continuing to work at the company's downtown offices," said Bob Speltz, Standard Insurance's community relations senior director.

Speltz told KGW the reasons for the changes are COVID-19 and "current disruptions and unsafe conditions in the neighborhood."

"Our downtown properties have sustained significant vandalism and a number of employees and contractors have been assaulted in recent months," Speltz said in an email.

Long-term, Standard Insurance is exploring more permanent remote and alternative work options. Speltz said the company isn't sure how many workers will return to Standard’s downtown locations next year, post-pandemic.

"We remain committed to the downtown core," Speltz said, "assuming conditions in the neighborhood improve."

While the future of Standard's Portland buildings is unclear, a Portland-based nonprofit recently announced it’s selling its office space. On Friday, OCHIN, a national health nonprofit announced its 40,200 square-foot headquarters at 1881 SW Naito Parkway will go on the market August 27.

Brad Christiansen with Colliers International said they were not "actively promoting the sales price for the building," but an OCHIN spokesperson Jennifer Stoll said the nonprofit bought the property for $14 million in 2017.

According to a press release from OCHIN, about half its employees worked from home before the pandemic, and now all of them do.

"What we've learned since then is a fully virtual model suits us well," said OCHIN CEO Abby Sears. "It allows us to offer more flexibility for our staff and more nimble, regional support for our members across multiple time zones."

Stoll said OCHIN’s decision to sell their building had nothing to do with recent unrest stemming from downtown protests.

Jonathan Bach, commercial real estate reporter for the Portland Business Journal, has been focusing on the pandemic's impact on downtown office space.

"I have not seen a mass exodus from downtown because of the protests," Bach said. "I think COVID-19 is consuming all the oxygen in the room."

Bach said while he considers the OCHIN building sale big news, there may be a better indicator of things to come.

"Less dramatic but almost more telling in this environment story is the sublease space," Bach said.

In June, The Portland Business Journal reported that vacation rental firm Vacasa put 37,000 square feet of office space in the Pearl District's RiverTec building on the sublease market. Bach said as it stands, sublease space available now still trails the dot.com bust and the 2008 financial recession.

"So those numbers may be a little more telling for offices in particularly and so far at least for the data I've seen, we're doing OK," Bach said. "Again, you’re not seeing a mass exodus."

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