BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently, for an upcoming Architect Magazine article about how architects can get involved in community activism, I interviewed an architect who is currently serving as member of the San Antonio City Council, Roberto Treviño. Although he takes partisan positions like any politician, what I remember most from the interview was something Councilman Treviño said about how he is often described in the media. Unlike any other member of the San Antonio City Council, when interviewed he is usually described as "City Council member Roberto Treviño, who is also an architect." The same addendum about profession is not extended to any other local elected official - not the lawyers, the businesspersons - the implication being that only Treviño's job gives him real expertise that transcends politics. Reporters and voters know he isn't just someone who makes arguments and casts votes, but that he's equipped to understand local issues in a way his colleagues aren't.
This May's elections bring the opportunity for Portland to add just such an expert to our own City Council: Stuart Emmons. A Harvard-trained architect, Emmons has worked at nearly every scale of design: starting out as a custom furniture builder, then a long career as an architect and an urban planner.
In a time when affordable and homeless housing have become our most front-burner issues and the campaign for both mayor and the City Council seat occupied by Steve Novick has also centered on issues like the urban growth boundary, transportation and design review, nobody in either race has anything close to the expertise Emmons has. Not only has he designed a number of affordable housing projects like Interstate Crossing and Kah San Chako Haws, but he has been a leading innovator with modular construction techniques that can house more people for less money. He has also been a longtime advocate for better-designed schools that can protect students and help them learn optimally, even founding the Next-Generation Schools Design Symposium held last month at the University of Oregon. Emmons has also designed a number of public buildings such as local fire stations.
And when it comes to an architecture and planning career as training ground for being a member of City Council, it's not just about the physical expertise about houses and schools and roads and bridges. Designers are trained to listen and to provide empathy. Emmons's opponent, incumbent City Council member Steve Novick, is ferociously intelligent and a longtime advocate for a range of progressive causes. But does he listen, and does he show empathy? Was it present amongst debates and dilemmas of the past four years? No one brain is more powerful than tapping into hundreds or thousands of them.
Emmons, whom The Oregonian recently endorsed for City Council, is also an activist who has long made community interests above career advancement. I first met him about 16 years ago when he wrote an Oregonian op-ed challenging Portland's architecture community to raise the bar. Which brings me to one reason you arguably can take my comments about Emmons with a grain of salt (although I hope you won't): he and I co-founded the Friends of Memorial Coliseum together in 2009, successfully fighting a David-and-Goliath battle to save this National Register-listed landmark from demolition. I'll admit I am biased when it comes to Stuart Emmons. But I'm far from the only one.
As part of a continuing series of interviews with various City Council candidates, I asked Emmons to answer the following series of questions.
Portland Architecture: Name an individual building or open space in Portland that you have found personally meaningful, or a source of civic pride, or have really enjoyed spending time at over the years.
Stuart Emmons: Veterans Memorial Coliseum is a masterpiece. Every great building has a great story, a great parti, is a part of history and culture of the place or city it's in, and ideally keeps giving new insights the deeper one understands the building and studies its history. I was one of the founders of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, and we have continued to advocate that this Portland cultural icon be saved and restored.
Portland is seeing a wave of older homes being demolished, but much of what is replacing these houses seems to be one-for-one and geared to the affluent, not adding density or affordability. How can we change that?
Significant historic houses and buildings need more protections, especially those that are not already protected as contributing buildings in historic districts. This is a complex issue because private property rights need to be factored in. I know how to save historic buildings. I would like to look into incentives that could make keeping historic houses a better idea. We can and should reduce demolitions in Portland, and I will help achieve that goal.
You have long been involved in designing affordable housing projects, and in recent years have embraced methods like prefab. Can we innovate our way out of the homeless and affordable housing crisis? How do we solve this?
The homelessness and affordable housing issues I see as separate but certainly connected to each other in several areas. I think unit cost is one very important part of these complex issues, but certainly can't alone solve these problems. Simply put, high affordable housing and homeless housing unit cost is keeping more people on our streets. I absolutely favor innovation to reduce unit cost and get more people housed. For my other ideas for addressing homelessness and affordable housing, please see my website platforms on homelessness and affordable housing.
You recently co-produced the Next Generation Schools Design Symposium and have long been active on the education-design front. Could you talk about the challenge we face here in Portland?
Schools are a foundation stone for our city. When we talk about crime, poverty, housing challenges, gangs, low wage jobs, economic development, the two Portlands, equity and other pressing issues, I always find the long term solutions involve schools, in addition to strong families in safe warm and dry housing.
Our school outcomes need major improvement. Our school facilities are a disgrace. Why is it that our schoolchildren go to school in facilities that are worse and more out of date than many of our workplaces? What does that say about Portland's future?
I am an advocate for getting our kids in excellent facilities, getting our graduation rates to 80% for all students and then up to 95%, and helping to get all of our kids directed to a fulfilling and productive life.
As for facilities, I was one of the leaders of the 2012 bond, and an advocate for a 32-year plan to rebuild all Portland school buildings. And, while we're at it, why don't we do something great. Why don't we build schools that are excellent teaching and learning spaces, and inspire students? Why don't we build schools that are net-zero and grow their own food for school lunches? Why don't we build new schools that can act as shelters after a major earthquake for thousands of people? Next Generation Schools Design Symposium that I co-hosted with Eleni Kehagiaras and Gerry Gast was one way to open people's eyes to the possible. We don't have to settle for just OK. Our parents, school districts, and all Portland citizens should expect excellence for our next generation of schools. Our symposium was a first step towards that end.
You were involved in creating a master plan for the South Waterfront district, but a lot turned out differently than your plan imagined. What are the successes and failures there, and what lessons can we learn?
The only thing that turned out as planned, the main success, was the Portland Aerial Tram, which I consider one of the top designs in the last decade in Portland. My firm's design for South Waterfront earned a special citation from the AIA, and was designed to be a vibrant, inclusive, diverse neighborhood that would be a 'go-to' place in Portland for all Portlanders. I envisioned it as a super sustainable, forward looking project with interesting, diverse streetscapes, and a great waterfront park. I also made a program that would have helped enliven the sidewalks and made retail successful. Little of my plan was executed, and there are many parties who could have done a lot more to build the vision to maximize the success of the district. I do not buy the excuse that the Great Recession is to blame. I certainly learned a ton about how to build visions in our city from this huge project that fell so far short of what it can be. This is one of the big reasons why I am running - we need leaders on city council who can lead efforts to build visions.
Portland recently committed nearly $200 million to renovate the Portland Building and about $80 million to redevelop the US Postal Service site along NW Broadway. Do you support these moves? And what about the money the City has NOT been spending on Centennial Mills or Veterans Memorial Coliseum, by comparison?
All future city workspaces should be excellent up-to-date workplaces that are enjoyable to work in, healthy and foster collaboration. Some characteristics would be good natural daylight, high ceilings, and natural ventilation. Future city workspaces should also be net-zero or net-positive with respect to energy. And future city workspaces should be fiscally responsible, so taxpayers believe their money is well spent. I find it hard to believe that a refurbished Portland Building would meet any of these criteria. If not, the building should be sold, the future owner required to keep the façades of the building intact, and new city workspaces could be found. I bet we can do this project for city workspace for well less than $200m.
The funds used to purchase the Post Office site are apparently recoverable. I do not trust PDC to do the Post Office site right and I would cease further action on this site until a new city council takes office. Divying up the site into traditional 200-foot-by-200-foot blocks and selling off to developers is probably a bad idea. The unique location and size of this site gives us the opportunity to do something extraordinary, and what is proposed so far seems to fall short of that.
Emmons-designed Interstate Crossing affordable housing (Stuart Emmons For Portland)
I also believe City Council should set priorities and build visions. I also believe City Council/PDC should seed certain projects that have a large public benefit in a foreseeable time window. And these projects should be distributed across Portland.
I believe the area around the Convention Center up through the Rose Quarter and Broadway to the PPS Blanchard building site is ripe for dense housing, commercial, hotels and recreational space. For a large project to succeed, there should be a 'there there'. A reason why people would go to the place. A center that makes a district unique.
Veterans Memorial Coliseum should be given a first-tier restoration with previously allocated funds coupled with private dollars. I am not convinced that the Hales/Novick administration did a good job seeking private funds.
Centennial Mills was botched by PDC. I hope the next City Council will have the opportunity to get this project resolved in a far better way in the interest of all Portlanders.
Last year reports of a major earthquake ravaging the Pacific Northwest sometime in the next 50 years caused a major uproar. But is the city doing enough to prepare?
Should we be spending our transportation dollars on light rail and streetcar lines, or on paving roads and adding sidewalks? Or is this a false choice?
It's a false choice. Many of these dollars are not from the same funding sources. We absolutely need to resolve our $2 billion street issue immediately, and we need to plan for expanding our transportation network, so the outer eastside, especially, is well served by transit.
City Council and the mayor have made several changes to the city's planning bureau: Vera Katz split planning from development services, for example, and Sam Adams merged planning and sustainability. Given Portland's reputation as an urban planning leader, and how we have fewer planners than in the past on staff, are we set up to be successful in our current structure?
No. The time for a robust Planning Bureau is now, for a host of reasons. Planning needs to be led by a planner, and Planning needs to have sufficient staff to plan Portland's future and listen and collaborate with all of our neighborhood groups and community members. Having an excellent Bureau of Planning is critical to a successful Portland and helping to keep the livability and uniqueness of Portland.
What do you think of the current structure in which a mayor assigns oversight of city bureaus to different members of City Council? Might there be a better way to prevent silo'd thinking and encourage collaboration, like assigning commissioners to issues like homelessness or affordable housing instead of bureaus? It's allowed in the city charter.
The main power of the mayor over and above the other commissioners is the power to determine leadership of bureaus. It's possible that a mayor could select bureau leadership with the right criteria, but that rarely happens. Also, many commissioners have inappropriate experience coming into the council to be good managers of bureaus - essentially multi-million dollar 'companies' with hundreds of employees. I would like to see if we can get bureaus working better, and working better together, after January 2017 before we do a major restructure.
Some have argued that local elected officials risk being over-influenced by developers and other local moneyed interests. How might you assure less connected citizens that they have a voice?
Everyone will have an equal voice in my office, no matter what, or if, they contributed to my campaign. Ethics in government is a core value of mine.
It has been suggested that Design Review is "broken," with a lack of certainty and a prolonged process plaguing local building projects subject to its process. But Design Review is also what has made Portland's central core a huge success. What's your take?
Design review needs a lot of work - volunteers on the design review committee are overstretched and reviews are taking too long. If I get BDS, I will work to make design review work better.