Yesterday Portland voters rejected Tom Potter's proposal for a centralized City Hall with the mayor gaining control over city bureaus from commissioners. But three other measures proposing smaller changes all passed: one to give the City Council more leeway in hiring and firing bureau managers, one for regular reviews of the Portland charter, and most significantly of all for local architecture, approval for the City Council to gain power in writing or overseeing budgets for the heretofore mostly-independent Portland Development Commission.
Regarding the PDC measure, we've already debated whether it's a good idea to give the City Council budgetary oversight. I was against it, others were for it, I could see their point and hopefully vice versa. Now that the election makes that issue moot, I think the new question becomes, how can City Council oversight be enlisted in a positive manner?
For most, the issue seems largely to do with keeping PDC in line when it comes to some of the managerial issues in-house as well as the financial breaks it often gives developers by selling key parcels under market value. Personally, I don't see the City Council having much direct effect on administrative and personnel issues other than to be able to weigh in on it with the threat of budgetary action. And I've never been as upset as some people about selling land below market value if it helps act as a successful catalyst in a key urban renewal area. So Oak Tower was going to get a big break. How many other big residential towers do you see going up in there?
But Oak Tower wasn't supposed to be the focus here. My larger point is that I'm wondering if the City Council can be enlisted in another issue I'd like to see emphasized more at PDC: design excellence.
Although largely independent before yesterday's election, PDC still has long acted like a public agency in that one of the key goals in the development process is to involve the public through various panels and commissions. But nobody seems to be in position to ask whether the projects go beyond having a transparent process or a solid urbanistic goal and actually embody good design.
I'd like to see PDC have an attitude a little more like the federal government's General Service Administration (particularly under head architect Ed Feiner), which has now spent a couple decades building courthouses and other buildings by some of America's top architects.
Of course part of design excellence is embodying a host of sustainability and energy-efficiency goals, and luckily this is a little easier to tangibly achieve, by mandating LEED certification or some other third-party green verification. But great design goes far beyond sustainability. It's about embodying beauty and function in a manner that endures over generations. It's the ultimate kind of sustainability, in fact, because people are more likely to want to preserve and keep re-using works of high quality architecture (unless your name is First Christian Church, I guess).
In many cases PDC has done just what I'm advocating, and its list of successes is long, seen in marquee projects like Pioneer Courthouse Square or, before it was scrapped, the Fire Station 1 design competition. But I'd like to see design made a priority in more tangible steps like involving more architects and planners in key commission positions. And, as I've long advocated since Vera Katz left office, I'd like to see the Mayor's Design Initiative re-enacted by Tom Potter. Perhaps there could be some sort of partnership where a staff member or two at PDC work on the mayor-overseen plan. We may also want to look at the RFP and RFQ processes to determine if good design is enough of a priority. It's great to involve the public, necessary even. But should we be happy if, say, a panel of neighborhood members chooses a lowest-common-denominator, Edsel-esque design over a far better design by a talented young firm?
Portland is quickly becoming an important city on the world stage for design in a host of sub-disciplines from web pages to sneakers to green buildings. Along with invigorating urban renewal areas with a series of pinpointed projects to fund, PDC needs to create projects that embody the best of Portland architecture.
I liked PDC independent as it was. But if City Hall can help PDC foster greater quality architecture, then my mind will be changed.