Portland City Council member Erik Sten and Portland Development Commission (PDC) Chair Mark Rosenbaum debated at the City Club Friday whether the PDC should be subject to oversight. The two spoke at the downtown Governor Hotel about Multnomah County Ballot Measure 26-92, which would redefine the PDC’s mission and make the City Council the PDC’s budget committee.
Portland City Council member Erik Sten and Portland Development Commission (PDC) Chair Mark Rosenbaum debated at the City Club Friday whether the PDC should be subject to oversight.
The two spoke at the downtown Governor Hotel about Multnomah County Ballot Measure 26-92, which would redefine the PDC’s mission and make the City Council the PDC’s budget committee.
The PDC’s original charter, written in 1958, states that the commission’s goal is to enact urban renewal, urban development, and slum clearance. Under Ballot Measure 26-92, that would be amended to “implement[ing] the vision and goals of the city in regards to urban renewal, economic development and affordable housing.”
The PDC would also be instructed to seek social equity. Council member Sten spoke in favor of the ballot measure.
“If we examine past mistakes, I think a clear lesson emerges,” Sten said. “The current and historical structure of PDC that puts independence above accountability is the primary cause of its failures.”
Commissioner Rosenbaum disagreed, saying that City Council oversight would make PDC business more difficult rather than more efficient.
“Discussing accountability and oversight is to my mind an oversimplification,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone with business experience agreeing to be held accountable for the results of an agency without having control over the budget with which to make the results possible. But that’s what it seems we’re being asked to do.”
The PDC was created in 1958 and has been involved in the creation of the Chinese Garden, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Eastbank Esplanade, and Portland’s Aerial Tram, among other projects.
The Aerial Tram project caused controversy when its price tag climbed from $15.5 million to $57 million. Other recent PDC controversies have included a dispute over whether to put a Home Depot in the Burnside Bridgehead project and a PDC decision to gift property at Southwest Third Avenue and Oak Street to a developer planning to build condominiums.
The Burnside Bridgehead and Southwest Third and Oak controversies are “products of an agency which is neither as connected nor as accountable as it should be,” Sten said.
Rosenbaum said that the City Council should not have interfered with the Southwest Third and Oak deal.
“I’m still not convinced that the city was well-served by PDC stopping this project. With a contribution of land valued at approximately $1.5 million, PDC would have made a condo project possible in a high-crime-rate portion of downtown lacking any recent development around it,” Rosenbaum said. “It would have created $750,000 per year of property tax revenue with a piece of land which had been vacant for 20 years.”
Though amiable, the two men disagreed throughout the hour-long debate. Rosenbaum said that his hands are tied in terms of supporting the economic development of people already living in the neighborhoods the PDC seeks to improve.
“I happen to believe that the way you create wealth in a community is by increasing the capacity of the individuals who live there…through greater education, greater access to services, greater synergy through transportation,” Rosenbaum said. “The trouble with PDC to a certain extent is that its money can only be spent on bricks and mortar. That’s the problem.”
“Is your position that the way they set it up in ’58 works and should never be changed, or that should we take a look at tweaking it for the modern day?” Sten said. “We’re now in a situation where just fixing up buildings doesn’t necessarily help people and it certainly doesn’t trickle down. So we need much better connection-at the end of the day, it’s really about how do you connect the PDC to these other systems, to these other thinkers.”
Ballot Measure 26-92 will go before voters this May.