BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week Portland mayor Charlie Hales, in his first year on the job after a successful City Council tenure in the 1990s, stopped by AIA/Portland's Center For Architecture to talk about the state of our built environment and his priorities for planning and designing the city.
The mayor began by reflecting on where Portland is today, including its breadth of creative-class workers and industries.
"If you look at Portland’s place in the world, there are strengths that have been with us for some time and may be on the rise at the moment. One is local talent," Hales said." We have a lot of home grown talent in our design and development community. I’ve tried to explain Portland to other cities many times: most developers look out and say, ‘How do I get around city hall and make some money?’ In Portland, it’s, ‘How do I make some money by implementing the city’s plan?’ It’s not quite that bad, but there is a congruity between the local talent and entrepreneurs in our city. It’s also true in tech and in the creative industry."
Hales also said the central city's education system is improved. "We have a great k-12 education system in the central city. That’s not true in most large American cities lately," the mayor said. "We’ve been at some risk for some time since passage of Measure 5 and the anemic property tax system on which it depends. But thanks to the last legislature and voters’ generosity, and great work in the schools themselves, they’re on the rise. Roosevelt looked like the classic school in decline. Attendance, student performance and graduation rates are all up by double digits. They’ve risen to over 1,000 students again."
To his credit, "placemaking" has long been one of Hales' favorite words, and he seemed eager to communicate to the assembled audience of architects that he spoke their language. "In a world where capital and talent are mobile, quality of place is huge, and we have it," he explained. "We have a lot of work to do on it, but it’s real. It’s not hard to get me in a conversation about architecture and design. The questions of how the city grows and the importance of design are crucial to me. We have a great record of deliberate placemaking, all the way back to Lovejoy and Pettygrove after the coin toss, who laid down a city grid with a city green down the middle that reflected their New England roots. The Olmsted plan, we brag about the fact that we’re still working off a 1901 Olmsted plan for the park system. And in the private sector, developers like William Ladd did great work. And the housing stock, from that 1905-45 era, is magnificent. I live in one. The downtown plan is a great accomplishment. The pearl and river district that took an old neighborhood and envisioned it as a neighborhood with streetcar brought it to life in a way that the whole country looks at."
Next the mayor delved into a set of issues that "vex us a little bit and have us looking for ideas."
Taking Success East
One is the challenge of creating complete communities throughout the city. "We have the great old neighborhoods, which are old streetcar streets. The challenge that Susan [Anderson, who heads the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability] and the PDC and others are grappling with today is how do we deliberately transplant that urbanism into places that were developed without it, or half without it. The PDC is trying out the Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, which tries to create a there there. I’m not sure how that experiment is working yet. But we a city have to be able to make the promise of living in a great Portland neighborhood true to the areas east of I-205. We’re not there yet in terms of that Portland image and quality of life. That challenge is one that will require money, ideas, partnerships, and perseverance to get anywhere. I’m very interested in your ideas."
Hales then moved on to infill development and parking requierments, lately a controversial issue.
"We’ve had quite a bit of controversy on the City Council about apartments on main streets and whether they should have parking or not: whether they’re good neighbors or durable buildings. We also have outbreaks of nimbyism in neighborhoods like mine in Eastmoreland. Achieving one more residential unit pisses off thousands of people. I don’t think that’s defensible," Hales said.
But later, taking a question from architect Dave Otte of Holst Architecture, the mayor added: "I should confess the decision was to some extent an emergency retreat rather than thoughtful planning and policymaking. The tipping point for me was the people on Fremont telling me there was no Sunday bus service. People are going to live a transit lifestyle? Oops."
Bureau of Public Plazas?
Hales also introduced the idea of creating more plaz-like public space in the city, even suggesting a new bureau to make it happen.
"By that I don’t mean parks," the mayor cautioned. "We have precisely two public squares. They’re a block from one other: Pioneer Courthouse Square and Director Park. Places like Jamison Quare are not public squares. And yet go to the street fairs or last Thursday or Old Town on a Saturday night, if you dare, and you will find thousands of people on the street. We have this human hunger for people watching. We don’t have any deliberate program as a city to create that. We don’t have a department of public squares. The planning bureau and the parks bureau, none of them conceive of that as a primary responsibility. I think we need a deliberate effort to create public space in which civic life takes place. And if you don’t fund it, it doesn’t happen."
Livability vs. Liberty
When Hales concluded his remarks to open the floor for questioning, the first query took a conservative tone, asking how "dirt people with pit bulls" could be eschewed from loitering in the central city.
"We have to do more on the services side for people who find themselves on the street. They’re there for all kinds of reasons, and there’s not one kind of homeless people," Hales said. "There are economic refugees. There are people suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Then there are people who are wanderers or travelers who have essentially dropped out of society and would rather travel than settle. Some of those people have issues of their own. You can’t characterize it as one type of person."
"What do we do? More services, and pick the services that are really making a difference for those who are ready to get help. We can’t check their residency and send them back to where they came from. Let’s deal with it and help them try to transition back into society. But others are resistant to services. The sit/lie ordinance is not a good deal for anyone, including those who have a right to a peaceful downtown. We need to increase the enforcement of public spaces. At city hall we used the ordinance to say, that’s a high traffic street and you can’t camp there. And we put down tables and chairs and tried the Bryant park experiment….Each of us with a planning and management responsibility needs to be good stewards. We have to do more on the services side and the enforcement side. Commissioner Saltzman is going to bring a budget proposal forth to bring over $1 million to enforcement, which I support."
The mayor took this moment to express optimism about budgeting, a drastic change even since last November's election.
"We had a $21 million deficit in January. We had some tough decisions to make in cutting budgets. We’ve bounced out of that hole and now have a 14 million dollar surplus," he explained. "That’s going to go to pay off debt and support housing services."
Appetite for Construction
A member of AIA/Portland's Urban Design Committee, Brian Campbell, asked Hales, "If we come up with great ideas, what’s the political appetite to make some changes in how we look as east Portland as a whole?"
"My sense is the attitude is good," the mayor said. "My sense is no one is dug in to things as they stand. I don’t think political resistance to change on the city council is our blocking force. One effect is always money, but we’re heading into better circumstances. We need to figure out how much PDC has to spend."
From answering that question, Hales went on to cite development opportunities in areas such as the Central Eastside near the new MAX stations. "It's waterfront property with a spectacular new bridge with no freeway along the river, within walking distance of Ladd’s addition," he said. "A lot of Trimet’s staging areas are freed up for redevelopment. There’s Burnside bridgehead: I think it could be a great place, especially since we’ve got great outbreaks of urbanism from there to 12th."
Further out from the central city, "Lents is in a state of arrested development, but PDC owns 30 pieces of land," he said. "Maybe we’re land rich and idea poor. But we’re looking at proposals for four or five of those right now. I think we need bold ideas."
Mary Vogel of the Portland Downtown Neighborhood Asssociation asked Mayor Hales about the continuation of Mayor Adams' plan to split Burnside and Couch Street into a couplet, as had been done a few years ago on the east side.
"I’m not inclined to follow through with the couplet," he said. "It’s expensive and seemed to be fixing one problem in exchange for another one."
Rose Quarter and Memorial Coliseum
In his boldest challenge to architects, Hales at first seemed critical of the city's proposed $31 million Memorial Coliseum restoration plan. "We have a plan that leaves me cold: to spend money to put duct tape around that building, because it needs $70 million," he said.
The mayor seemed to be implying that the Coliseum should not be restored, but in private remarks after the talk, Hales cautioned that he is opposed to letting the buiding be demolished. Rather than opposing the MC's restoration, he seems to believe that it doesn't go far enough. He also acknowledged that perhaps the most pressing redevelopment opportunity in the Rose Quarter is not Memorial Coliseum, but transforming the city's two adjacent above-ground parking garages into high-density architecture with parking buried underground. It's "not a low-rise commercial and employment district," the city needs in the Rose Quarter, Mayor Hales explained, "but a higher intensity mostly residential district."
"Homer [Williams] and Al Solheim were right," he added, referring to the two Portland developers most responsible for transforming Portland's Pearl District from an industrial zone and railyard into the city's next high-density neighborhood.
Perhaps more than Mayor Sam Adams and certainly more than Mayor Tom Potter, Charlie Hales has an inherent sense of how the mix of architecture, planning, public space and transit can achieve transformative results. His mayoral tenure began amidst difficult budget realities that may now be improving. What will be his legacy? The close-in East Side may be the place to start.
During his late-90s and early-00s tenure on City Council, Hales was the elected official most associated with developing the Portland Streetcar. Now, as the newest streetcar line winds along the Rose Quarter's northern edge and down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, winding through the Lloyd District and past the Convention Center and continuing to OMSI, the mayor can help affect positive change along that line. The key may be to unify these areas, particularly the Convention Center/Rose Quarter/Lloyd District cluster, into transit-oriented, high-density development. The way to do that is to harness the power of under-utilized land, particularly vacant lots and parking garages such as those at the Rose Quarter, as well as soon to be vacated parcels like the Portland Public Schools lot fronting NE Broadway. Hales must also harness the existing architecture there, especially National Register-protected landmarks like the Coliseum, and take advantage of the opportunity the Rose Quarter and Convention Center areas present for creating new public space.
Indeed, Hales is all about placemaking, and now is his chance to show that he supports not only transit-oriented development, but also the broader balance with economic development and historic preservation. More than a decade ago Hales first showed he's a man with vision, helping to set in motion the streetcar and other key parts of Portland's renaissance. Now is his chance to prove it.