As the controversy over the Burnside Bridgehead project continues to garner press and Portland Development Commission garners criticism from City Hall, the urban renewal organization is facing an unstable future.
While many opponents of the PDC are currently debating its future, commissioner Randy Leonard has taken the next step and proposed an amendment to the city charter that would abolish the PDC and transfer the functions of the PDC to a new bureau under the City Council. The new bureau would be under the control of a single city commissioner, moving the PDC away from the independent status it currently holds.
The reasoning behind the move is that the new organization would be required to be more responsive to the demands of the communities where urban renewal is taking place. Advocates say the uproar over the Burnside project has shown that the autonomy of the PDC makes it is difficult to require the commission to consider community requests.
Due to the current pressure of the Burnside Bridgehead project, representatives of the PDC were not able to comment for this article by press time.
Leonard’s proposal to eliminate the PDC, however, seems too extreme to some. Neither Carl Abbott nor Karen Gibson, professors in Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, advocate for the complete eradication of the PDC, and see opportunities for the organization to be reformed and restructured.
“It doesn’t have to be abolished and turned into another department reporting to a city commissioner. City commissioners have political ownership too. They build up their own areas of interest, and there’s isolation there too,” Abbott said.
A shift towards neighborhood development within the PDC may be possible with the appointment of a new executive director June 1. Don Mazziotti will be stepping down at that time and Mayor Tom Potter will appoint a new executive director.
“We need someone with political skills who is also sensitive to the nuances of Portland politics, where citizens expect people to pay a lot of attention to them,” Abbott said. “There is a distinct, participatory-style civic culture here.”
Would a simple change of executive director be all that is needed to change the direction of the PDC? This alone may not satisfy the community’s desire for accountability, according to Abbot.
“Because of the nature of real estate development, the PDC needs to be an independent agency. It needs to hold its cards real close and deal quietly with real estate agencies,” Abbott said.
Due to the need for discretion, some community members feel that the PDC has not been forthcoming with information regarding the status of projects, making it difficult for those in the communities to help shape the futures of their neighborhoods.
“The quality of the input is constrained. The PDC has more knowledge about the process and the outcome and the neighborhood remains relatively uninformed,” Gibson said.
The discussion about the PDC could represent an opportunity to refocus the future of development in Portland.
“We pride ourselves on being progressive. We have an opportunity here to be different. We have to be careful we are not just going to turn this city into a playground for the upper class citizens,” Gibson said.
The Burnside Bridgehead project is not the first time that the PDC has been under fire for failing to elicit community participation. Projects such as the renewal of the Lents neighborhood and the development of North Portland in the ’70s were criticized for a lack of community involvement.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the PDC began an urban renewal project in North Portland. As real estate prices began to skyrocket in the ’90s, many black people were forced to move out of the neighborhood.
“People in the neighborhood felt, ‘You hurried up and tore down our homes and then did nothing,'” Abbott said.
This concern for the displacement of lower-income populations and many ethnic groups is common. “I worry that we’re pushing poorer people out of the city, losing affordable housing for students. Commercial business and storefront spaces that used to be cheap are disappearing,” Abbott said.
In order to better represent neighborhood members, Gibson feels that the process of gathering public opinion will have to be taken more seriously by the PDC. “Yes, there is a public process, but the public really does not have much input,” Gibson said. “The bottom line is that the PDC has processes, but it doesn’t mean that the processes are more than just symbolic; they are about placation. The PDC is required by law to have them, but they are not designed to elicit input. It is just tokenistic involvement.”
An idea Gibson proposes to further involve the community would be for the PDC to hire staff members who would be responsible for educating the public about urban renewal projects, as well as for representing the concerns of the community back to the PDC. “All the knowledge, all the information is controlled by the PDC. As long as the community is doing this on a volunteer basis, how can they have any kind of expertise?” Gibson remarked.
Another area threatened by the current focus of urban development in Portland is small and local businesses.
“In the past, the [PDC] director has been much more in tune with how to make the PDC more neighborhood-friendly. A lot of criticism has been that the bigger you are as a developer, the more comfortable the PDC is working with you,” Abbott said.
“There has to be some place for new retail businesses and artists to spread out. The PDC sees these areas as development areas, and so do politicians,” Abbott said.
The Burnside Bridgehead Project
The Burnside Bridgehead development project has been the impetus for much of the public scrutiny focused on the Portland Development Commission in recent months.
The PDC’s board of directors voted April 27 to select Opus Northwest to develop a five-block area on the east end of the Burnside Bridge.
The decision came in spite of considerable public support for a competing developer, Beam Development, and followed more than a dozen public meetings and numerous postponements of a selection.
Beam Development was widely considered the leader for the deal after an evaluation committee appointed by the PDC recommended that Beam be awarded the contract.
Mayor Tom Potter asked the PDC to halt progress on the Burnside Bridgehead project until he can review the process that the PDC pursued. Potter has also spoken with representatives of Opus and Beam to see if a compromise arrangement can be made.
Earlier this year, the development project also incurred scrutiny from community leaders after it was announced that two of the three developers bidding for the contract had included “big box” retailers in their development plans. Many were concerned the corporate presence would harm locally owned businesses in the area.
Opus Northwest had originally planned for a large-format retailer such as Lowe’s or Home Depot home improvement stores at the site, and expressed that they would continue with the plan as late as January. However, the plan was eventually dropped after continued protest from community members and objections to the plan from Portland City Council.