BY BRIAN LIBBY
In the weeks ahead, Portlanders will decide between three main candidates to succeed Sam Adams as mayor of the city: former City Council member Charlie Hales, New Seasons Market co-founder Eileen Brady, and state legislator Jefferson Smith. Design is only one of numerous issues each candidate will weigh in on, but it affects a wide variety of causes and concerns, from economic development to livability to arts and culture. The following conversation with Smith is intended as the first in a series of talks with each the three candidates.
A descendant of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, Jefferson Smith, 39, was born in Portland and graduated from Grant High School. After earning his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon, Smith graduated at the top of his Harvard Law School class. He only lasted a few days at the prestigious New York law firm that hired him - because when Smith was assigned the case of a tobacco company, he quit rather than represent them. Returning to Oregon, he became best known as the founder of The Bus Project, a nonprofit effort to register young voters. He now represents East Portland in Oregon's House of Representatives. But Smith may be best known for culling comments from his fellow Oregon legislators on the floor of the House into an alternate version of Rick Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up":
PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE: Architects have been particularly hard hit by the recession, but they also embody the creative class that city leaders often seek to attract. What’s your message to the profession?
JEFFERSON SMITH: I’d say a few things. This city’s success as well as its national and global relevance would be largely linked to our ability to compete in the knowledge economy. Architecture and design are one of the best places for us to be able to compete.
I’d have two messages in addition to that obvious one. We should figure out how to lead the field in retrofits and rehabilitations, in a cost constrained environment. New edifice can be harder to sell. In a cost constrained environment, even our most ambitious plans, even those where aesthetics are deeply important, are strengthened if they can also make a long-term cost savings case. We need stretch projects. I think we need to demonstrate we are on the leading edge of retrofit and rehabilitation.
One thing that occurred to me a few days ago during the candidates’ forum on historic preservation was something Hanna Arendt wrote in a book, The Edges of Totalitarianism: that engineering can do a lot to help us figure out how and can do less to help us figure out why. Over the last 30 to 40 years, this city has become among the best and has become renowned for thinking about the how and even the what. We have to re-commit to our why. We have to re-establish the motivating energy behind what makes Portland special, and not merely rely upon the energy of decades past.
You were born in east Portland, spent your elementary school years in South Pasadena, returned to Portland for high school (Grant), then attended the University of Oregon and Harvard Law School. How does that variety of urban experiences shape your perspective on cities and particularly Portland?
Portland is more human. So much of our city has neighborhoods that work, that are nearly self-sufficient. So many people can live here without not operating an automobile. There are various elements that make it more comfortable for middle class people. In LA and New York, my guess is if you want to live there you want to be rich.
What’s your take on the Oregon Sustainability Center: can it go forward, and should it?
I think the Sustainability Center had two challenges, either of which could have been overcome, but the combination of which appears insurmountable. The best arguments for the OSC are that if PSU is going to grow, it needs to grow up. And if it’s going to grow up, it shouldn’t be a concrete slab. It should be interesting. The other best argument is that for the city to build upon its global reputation for sustainable development, it needs to have reach projects, so we can show what we’ve learned and have people pay us for the privilege. The challenge I have is it did not sufficiently, at least in public communications, make the cost adjustments. Having a Sustainability Center with so many questions about financial sustainability is a significant challenge. That’s all the first challenge: it failed to make the cost case. The second challenge is a bad economy, Tea Party Congress, grumpy taxpayers, and green jobs backlash. And either one of those might have been overcome. But the combination seems to be proving fatal. The case I would make to designers and architects and planners is to think yes, how can we get reach projects, and how can we do that while showing our costs consciousness?
What are some of your favorite buildings or spaces in Portland?
I think so little about preference, I really do, in terms of my own enjoyment. I love Grant High School. I love the front of Grant. I’m biased - not only because I went there but also because I have a granite quote on the ground there. I’m inspired by the story of Waterfront Park. I’m inspired by Johnson Creek and salmon returning. I was proud the first time I rode to the top of Rocky Butte as a kid. I proposed to my wife in the Rose Test Garden at Washington Park. Pioneer Square’s too obvious but I’m glad it exists. I like the Concordia business district. It is a small business district that works. It’s humble and cool at the same time.
The proposed Columbia Crossing has been the most controversial major building project of our time. Is it surprising that you’re the only one of the three major candidates to oppose it?
I was not shocked, but I was disappointed. The story of this city was shaped, almost launched, by the decision to replace a freeway plan with parks and transit. But today this city and region have been spending the bulk of discretionary transportation lobbying clout on a highway mega-project for Clark County commuters. I simply don’t see how the current project gets built now, even to comport with height requirements, let alone with financial reality.
I’ve been disappointed that it has been treated as a yes or no question, when it is in reality a priority question. And it’s not just a bridge. A bridge would be $700-900 million. Retrofitting the current bridge would be $200 million. I’m disappointed that the project seems to access so little of our imagination. It seems we’ve learned almost nothing in 40 years. And I am surprised that after 40 years of debate between Robert Moses and Portland, Oregon, we’re somehow letting Moses win.
I think an early watershed decision that was apparently a very close call and a bad one, it turns out, was committing ourselves to a single-pipe solution. Because that asks all sorts of unswered question about the Rose Quarter, about I—84. If you want seismic safety, don’t commit yourself to one thing. I’ve sat through more presentations on this than more than almost any policy maker I know. I’ve sat through them as an interested human being, as a member of the Trans & Econ Development Committee in the House, and as a candidate for mayor, wanting very much to have the support of the construction trades who want to build the project. And I remain befuddled and confused.
I was a bit surprised when, as confused as I’ve been, when one candidate said, “let’s build it, you guys,” and the other says, “we’re going to do it in the first year of my administration.’ I think we need to approach it skeptically and humbly.
What about the Rose Quarter and Memorial Coliseum, where a plan is being put in place to restore the Coliseum and revitalize the district?
That’s another place I’m befuddled by, and passively and actively looking for advice. It is where my historic preservation instincts run up against my economic hunchery. I have more of an emotional connection to Memorial Coliseum than I have to the Rose Garden, as somebody who went to Blazer games as a kid. My challenge is I’m not aware of many places that have two sports arenas enclosed adjacent, and one major league team and one professional team between them, that play in roughly the same season. While I have had some criticism of what has seemed like a meandering process, I also want to be humble in recognizing that they’re facing a challenging question. I am interested in an elegant solution, but also recognizing that it is not clear to me what decision will still be there.
The question is, is the fact that there aren’t too many places of that nature with two arenas a lesson that that can’t work a lesson that that can’t work, or that we have something special
What do you think?
Well, I'm biased on this question, but: Portland is the only US city with this two-arena configuration, and it’s already proven financially viable. Both arenas are full over 150 nights a year, and events like the Dew Sports tour came here specifically because of the double venue. Great cities don’t tear down world-class architecture, and besides, the Rose Quarter needs density, and that should come from converting its surface parking lots and parking garages.
That makes a lot of sense.
What are some of your arts & culture favorites?
I range between having pedestrian tastes and liking things that shake me up. If I just pull up a list of songs or albums on my ipod, I’ve got Neil Young, Counting Crows, Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Belefonte, Pavarotti, Ice Cube, Joan Baez, Elliott Smith, Guns N’ Roses, Garth Brooks.
The art form that has captured my attention most over the last years has been high-quality episodic television, from The Wire to Deadwood to Mad Men to The Sopranos to Downton Abbey. I grew up going as a kid to plays and musicals. I sang ‘Old Man River’ word for word by the time I was nine. My grandpa was a patron. So we would go and eat prime rib and then catch a show.
For movies I’m largely a sucker. I love Hoosiers. With the campaign, unfortunately I’ve never watched so little March Madness. In terms of classical and traditional art, what’s interesting is as a younger guy I had less appreciation for what was known as modern art, people like Picasso and Mark Rothko. It was actually going to Italy and being knocked off my shoes by Rome and by Florence and by Venice and the museums. After that, I appreciated abstract art and modern art more than ever in my life, and the appreciation remained. I think it was from seeing the progression of art. After seeing my upteenth chuch, I had a sense of how refreshing it must have been to see paint without obviously intentional angles, and seeing free form and free color.
You mention cities of the Italian renaissance like Florence and Venice. They became great cities for art and culture after becoming robust commercial centers. Is there a lesson for Portland there?
My impression is that the great artistic periods in these Italian city-states were largely driven by wealthy patrons who could fund the art. Without being a historian, my rough sense is that artistic greatness followed economic greatness. Which to some degree followed military greatness. Today, in a globally competitive knowledge economy, when design itself is among the most valued elements, it might be that great economies follow great art. It might be the other way around.
What might be your priorities for running the city?
There’s an argument about whether this city should continue to be weird and creative and cutting edge, or whether we should get down to the basics and take care of the essentials: whether we should have a tram or whether we should pave roads. The case I want to make to Portland is that we embrace and leverage our creativity and our innovation to address the basics, to do the essentials, to do what must be done. And it isn’t what I want to say to the architecture community, it’s what I want to ask them: how can we do that together?
Any chance I get I need to make the case I can lead this city. It is valuable to have a mix of entrepreneurial, executive and legislative and budgetary experience. We can improve some of the budgeting practices of the city. We can take a page from the state in taking the head of the office of management and finance and make that person essentially the chief operating officer of the city. We can prioritize money better by focusing on front-line services and saving on management. We can focus on projects we can get done and are good investments. And we can focus on doing those things very well that only government can do.