This fair city fails by resting on its laurels

by Carl Abbott (special to the Oregonian).

The following was published in Oregonian, September 28th, 2002. Carl Abbott is a PSU professor.

I fetched this copy from:

Sure we're a little smug, and why not? Visiting experts, journalists and casual tourists keep complimenting the enlightened thinking that helped put Portland on dozens of "best places" lists. Even cranky skeptics have a hard time finding much that's seriously wrong -- except that we're too much like Copenhagen -- squeaky clean and a bit boring. From Our Advertiser

They're right. We've built one of the nation's most admired cities. London's Economist magazine summarized Portland a few years ago as "Where It Works." Portland is a "pioneer," writes columnist David Broder. It's "way ahead of other places," enthuses the Brookings Institution, a respected Washington, D.C., think tank. And former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk says, "There is a depth and solidity to downtown Portland that compels confidence in its future."

This has become a cozy place to be part of the middle class.

But what have we done that's truly path-breaking in the past quarter century? Success can breed conservatism. I don't mean Jesse Helms isolationism or Pat Buchanan's brand of social reaction, but a troubling contentment with the status quo.

Simply stated, we're living large on a long-established reputation. Portland is in danger of luxuriating over its old news clippings and of recycling aging ideas at the expense of genuine innovation. These ideas aren't duds; they're good, but decidedly mid-range. Rather than sketching out exciting new paths, we happily color inside the lines, filling in the details of a future mapped out a generation ago. It's time to put aside the scrapbook and outline a new chapter.

Thirty years ago, a study for the Environmental Protection Agency declared Portland the most livable of the nation's large metropolitan areas. (In a one-two punch, Eugene took first place for mid-sized cities.) Ever since, Portland has attracted a growing posse of admirers for its downtown, growth management, regional government and neighborhood and civic activism.

Does anyone dare pick us apart? The counter arguments are pretty soft. Portland's just too nice, say some. Downtown is so tidy it resembles Disneyland. It's a place globe-trotting journalist Robert Kaplan thinks "exudes a stagy perfection." Or we're accused of "Potemkin planning" that conceals nasty truths behind a false front. Why? There are so many successful projects to look at that visitors never get around to the problems.

We've been building one of the most successful metropolitan regions in North America. But we've been filling in the outlines mapped out in a burst of citizen creativity and activism during the 1970s. The list of original thinking is long. The Downtown Plan of 1972 and Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland's much-lauded "living room." The Office of Neighborhood Associations. An elected regional government. State land-use planning. Tearing out Harbor Drive for Waterfront Park.

Look at some of the prominent public and private accomplishments of the past five years:

Light rail to the airport.

The East Bank Esplanade.

The Portland Streetcar.

Metro's acquisition of 7,000 acres of open space.

The Pearl District explosion.

Orenco Station.

Redevelopment of downtown Gresham and Vancouver.

It's an impressive list that makes for a more livable city and region, but they're all midscale efforts that fill in the blanks. Much of our work in process falls into the same category -- the coming restoration of Ross Island, redevelopment of the Coliseum and its surroundings, redevelopment along the south waterfront.

A number of cities in the past have enjoyed -- like Portland -- a generation of exciting civic innovation. Birmingham, England, from 1860 to 1890 pioneered the city services -- from parks to libraries to public schools -- that we've now come to take for granted. Chicago seriously planned for metropolitan growth from 1890 to 1920. Pittsburgh cleaned up one of the nation's most polluted cities from 1940 to 1970. In all of these cities, the "civic moment" has faded into complacency or conflict.

Portland must break the trend. Residents of the metropolitan region need to be debating, rejecting, modifying and accepting a new generation of ideas as radical as those of the 1970s. Here are three modest proposals.

First, we need new ways to reconnect the metropolitan population and economy to surrounding counties. A generation ago, it was possible to build an urban-rural alliance to improve the future of Oregon by crafting the state land-use planning program with Senate Bill 100.

Since then, the erosion of logging, farming and fishing and the shift of environmentalism from legislation to litigation have cut whopping ruts in the road to progress.

Portland could build stronger connections with the lower Columbia and the northwest quadrant of the state. Tillamook, Astoria, Hood River, Redmond and Portland all share a common market for many goods and services, ranging from fresh food to medical specialists.

Voters in this larger area are often in tune with those in Clackamas and Washington counties, and sometimes even Multnomah County. Let's think of a regional economy where these smaller cities develop specialized manufacturing and services that dovetail with the metropolitan core.

As a way to kick-start this process, let's return the Columbia River to its natural role as a unifier by redrawing state boundaries.

Why not pretend we're Bob Whitsitt and pull a three-way trade? Give the Idaho panhandle to Washington (and unite Pullman with Moscow, Lewiston with Clarkston). Compensate Idaho with the Snake River counties of Oregon (Malheur, Baker, Wallowa, Union) and shift Washington's Skamania, Clark, Cowlitz, Wakiakum, and Pacific counties into Oregon. With this new map, we might leapfrog the fruitless debate about port investments in Astoria versus Portland by creating a unified Port of Portland-Longview to better satisfy environmental and economic needs.

Second, Portland might well be the best middle-class city in the nation, but is it any better to be poor here? There's some evidence that we'd like to think so. Regional growth management has kept rentals relatively affordable. The Housing Authority of Portland has one of the country's best-managed inventories of affordable housing. We've tried creative responses to the challenges of homelessness.

More needs to be done. Waiting lists for housing assistance are long. One estimate predicts a need for 90,000 more lower-cost units by 2017.

Since the real estate industry nixed a fairly modest sales transfer tax, what about an alternative "McMansions" tax -- a progressive tax on dwellings with more than 4,000 square feet. It wasn't long ago that 1,000 square feet made an acceptable starter house and the average new house had about 1,500 square feet. (Think about the mass-produced boxes of post-war suburbs such as Lakewood, Calif., and Levittown, N.Y.)

Does anyone really think 4,000 square feet is necessary for basic comfort? Put a modest tax on square footage of 4,000 to 5,000 square feet, a higher rate on 5,000 to 7,000 square feet, and so on. A special surcharge on garages that hold more than three average-sized vehicles would bring squeals -- and money. Such a "Mark Wattles" tax could go a long way toward meeting housing needs.

Third, everyone agrees Portland needs a bigger and better university. Portland State University is a great foundation, but there's no evidence Oregon wants to take the time and effort to grow its own. So we'll imitate major league sports. Instead of looking for a big-league hockey or baseball team to import, why don't we buy a ready-made university?

We'd have to be realistic. Just as Portland's baseball promoters have their eyes on the Expos, not the Yankees, we can't expect to snag Yale. Look for a good university in a place with lousy weather whose faculty might like a change. (University of Rochester?) Or for good schools overshadowed by stronger neighbors that might benefit from a change of scenery. (American University in Washington, D.C., or Temple in Philadelphia come to mind.) There might also be excellent research universities available at a good price in Russia, given that country's need for cash.

The Hayden Meadows shopping complex just south of the Columbia River offers the perfect site. It's just off Interstate 5 and will soon have light rail nearby. And it seems as if half the big-box stores there are vacant -- many for years. They'd be easy to reconfigure into classrooms, offices and the rest: the Pay n' Pak library, Home Depot student center, Speedway athletic fields.

The newcomer could become a new Vanport Campus for PSU, reconnecting my downtown university with its historic roots at World War II's huge Vanport housing project that preceded Delta Park. If Vanport University is too retro for a name, we might try "River City University" or "Really Northwestern University."

As much as I value Portland's history, we need some civic brainstorming. We can't rely on a reputation forever. It's time to extend the legacy of the past 30 years with a new generation of creative ideas.

Who'll be the first?

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