BY BRIAN LIBBY
Continuing our series of interviews with Portland mayoral candidates, this installment features Charlie Hales, whose experience includes two terms on the City Council from 1993-2002. Hales, a University of Virginia graduate, has also spent the last decade consulting a variety of American cities on light rail projects; he was a major force in the creation of the Portland Streetcar line in the 1990s. Local nonprofits Hales has volunteered with include Friends of the Trees, SMART, the Portland Public Market Committee
PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE: You’ve spent several years away from elected office and public service after being a Portland City Council member. How have you changed in that time?
CHARLIE HALES: I’ve always been a leader, all the way back to when I was a student. I organized a recycling program in high school to raise money for band uniforms. I was the rabble-rouser who got people together and made it happen. In college I ended up running the student union, basically an entertainment venue. Then whether it’s Friends of the Trees or REACH Community Development, or as a businessperson or on City Council, I’ve been a leader. That’s been consistent. That means hearing the good idea, not necessarily from your own lips, and then overcoming the opposition. So that hasn’t changed. I am, I have been, I will be, a leader.
But I think working in the private sector for the last ten years has informed that in a couple ways. One, I’ve worked all over the country, and that’s given me a chance to calibrate that against Portland: both the things that are unique, and some ideas from other places we would be wise to adopt. And in that work, which has been managing the planning and design of streetcar and light rail projects, I’ve been operating in a team environment. On one project, I might be the project manager. On the next, we might switch roles and you might be my boss. That’s been a very healthy experience for me. It’s reinforced my belief in collaborative leadership, and getting things done by being a good partner.
The streetcar was in many ways your baby when it was unrolled in the late 1990s. How would you evaluate the streetcar and MAX lines and the decisions made about them.
First, we should be very proud of what we’ve done. We’ve made a much more livable city with everything we’ve done in transportation and transit. That’s not just something pretty to look at. It’s a huge improvement in the quality of people’s lives. I’ve met so many people living a car-free or low-car lifestyle here. They’re happy with their choices and the environment is better for their choices. At an even more human level, there are a lot of elderly and disabled people who are living independent lives in Portland, and people who are getting back into the economy from being homeless, in Portland, because they’re not chained to a car. You look at the number of wheelchairs on the streetcar – those people can live an independent, dignified life: get to the grocery store, to their job, to everything, simply by rolling onto this moving sidewalk that shows up every twelve minutes. So I think sometimes when we look at this in terms of systems and policy, we might not notice the impact on people and their lives, which is really good and lasting.
Where are we going with MAX and streetcar, and what should be the future priorities?
In the near term the challenge is to make sure every neighborhood has good transit service, and that Tri-Met can meet that basic service. As much as I want to continue the progress with new projects, I think job one is that basic service of transit availability across the city and the region. Obviously there’s a challenge there with Tri-Met’s budget difficulties. Over time I think the streetcar can have its magical effect on more places that would benefit. We might do bus rapid transit out Powell, but we might also do a streetcar. That’s an important conversation we need to have. With a streetcar up MLK and to PCC help us fulfill the vision of the MLK corridor as a great urban boulevard and PCC as a more and more important community resource. Certainly light rail to Vancouver has been a great idea, is a great idea. It is a part of the CRC controversy that is an unquestionably good idea. An expansion of light rail from Hillsboro to Forest Grove might be the most important.
And the mayor of Portland needs to be a leader in the region, not just within city limits. I understand that and have that experience as well, having been involved in regional planning. I think there’s more interest now from the governor in trying to advance inter-city rail.
My vision for the future comprises really three things. In the city itself I want to see everyone working, and every kid graduating, and every neighborhood a complete community. That includes all these talented people moving here who want to be entrepreneurs. That includes a public school system that parents can rely on, and that equips kids to do a variety of work in a city that actually makes things from software to barges. The challenge is the 20-minute neighborhoods we have on paper need to be a reality: a grocery store you can walk to, and transit you can catch every 15 minutes. At a Cascadia level, we should have 10 trains a day at 125 miles an hour between Eugene and Vancouver. It won’t just be Portland’s project obviously. But we did that putting Amtrak cascades together. I was a part of that. We proved that for this region of Cascadia; those two states and BC all worked together to put that in place. It wasn’t the federal government’s idea. It was this region’s idea.
You mentioned the Columbia River Crossing. What’s your take on that controversial project?
I was on an interview show, Think Out Loud, back in February. My timing turned out either prophetic or lucky. I said there are three projects that will be downsized, dead or under construction by the time a new mayor takes office: the Oregon Sustainability Center, the streetcar to Lake Oswego, and the Columbia River Crossing. Since I said that, the Oregon Sustainability Center and the streetcar have both cratered. It’s clear the region is going to need to modify its plan for the CRC. I believe there’s a doable version of that project that we can move forward on and actually move to construction, one that conforms with our values and that we could pay for. That’s obviously not the version of the project that’s on the table now. It’s unbuildable and we don’t have any money to build it.
One of the strengths I bring to this office is…talking about issues is really not the important skill for a mayor. Any politician can talk about issues. An important skill is to be able to negotiate forward motion out of a planning process. That’s what I’m good at, and what I’ve been doing for the last ten years, consulting mayors all over the country. That’s what this issue needs. You’ve got two states, two DOTs, more agencies that you can name, that all have to work in concert for a viable project.
You suggest that a smaller Columbia Crossing should be built and that you can shepherd the process. But what if it’s not right to build it at all? Why replace a functional bridge, for example, when we can build a local bridge to Vancouver for half the cost and accomplish the same congestion-reduction goals on Interstate 5? Why not address the greater freeway congestion at the Rose Quarter instead?
There’s still people who believe the CRC is fundamentally not a good idea. I think a main span that doesn’t have to lift is a good idea. Light rail to Vancouver is a very good idea. Bike and pedestrian connection that doesn’t feel scary is a very good idea. I believe there’s a version that fits our values and can be done, within the bulk.
The Vancouver local bridge is an interesting and creative idea. Given where the project is stuck now, some creative ideas might come in handy.
What’s your take on the Oregon Sustainability Center? Can it go forward? Should it?
That project is on ice. Instead I think we should look at projects like the June Key Delta House [a private-sector project achieving Living Building Challenge standards] and what’s been accomplished there. Let’s create a few neighborhood scale examples like that if we’re not building ones downtown.
What are some of your arts and culture favorites?
Nancy and I are pretty omnivorous in our choice of arts and entertainment. A couple of the most memorable things we’ve squeezed in lately were the Oregon symphony’s performance of Haydn’s Creation, which is a monumental choral piece that just blew us away. And Portland Center Stage’s production of Red, with my favorite actor, Daniel Benzali—we were in the second row and it’s a great show. We went to the Rothko show at the Portland Art Museum before the play and it deepened it. As you can see [pointing to the art hanging in the campaign office], there’s a strong interest in the visual arts. There’s art in our home, in our campaign office. There’s artists involved in the campain. The Latino art collective is going to come in here and hang a show on April 2nd.
Architects have been among the hardest hit by the recession, but they also represent the kind of creative-class industry Portland and other cities seek to attract. What’s your message to the profession?
We export architects’ services to the world. The Portland nameplate carries some cache. I would say the architecture community can count on me to know the value of design and good urban design. They can also count on me to make things happen here in Portland, both public and private, because we have work to do to accommodate more people moving here and to build a great city. We’re not done building a great city in Portland. Far from it. This downturn has been tough on everyone, but I know Portland has a story to tell about talent and understanding of place-making that will help our architects and designers and engineers sell our services to the world. As someone who has been in the architecture and engineering profession for the last 10 years, I’m eager to help my colleagues do that. I know there’s a lot of talent here and we have a lot to teach to the rest of the country. So I’m bullish about our prospects as a center of excellence for design. I’ve been meeting with a lot of A&E firms in the course of the campaign. There’s stunning stuff being done by the architects of Portland. It’s impressive.