Mayor Tom Potter isn't known for big ideas or bold plans for Portland. In fact, the mayor is far more likely to convene a committee than propose innovative legislation.
So it was no surprise last year when he announced a "community visioning" process—a massive project to gauge Portlanders' wants for the city's future. Potter's goal? To "create a shared vision for Portland's future," especially in light of the growth we're expecting by the year 2020.
"I know we all share a love for our city and excitement about the future of our community," Potter wrote last July when he kicked off the process—now called "visionPDX," a silly name that hasn't helped the ambitious project escape ridicule.
"Over the past year, I've heard from many of you about the need to have a community-wide discussion about the values we share, the challenges we face, and the decisions we all need to make to create the city we want for the future. Hundreds of citizens have already shared common concerns with me, volunteered to improve our community, and conveyed stories of Portland at its best."
Since then, Potter's put together a visioning committee, which has been busy soliciting input from 100,000 residents—one fifth of the city. Perhaps you've seen the polling-booth style Vision Vessel—complete with a computer to collect citizens' ideas—making the rounds of neighborhood fairs and community events. Groups from the Q Center to the BroadArts Theatre have split $250,000 in grants to do things like "multi-cultural potlucks," an "Interactive Salon Cabaret" and "coffee talks" to gather input.
Believe it or not, we here at the Mercury generally think of ourselves as optimists. But frankly, we're skeptical that this huge effort is going to produce proportionately valuable results. With so much input, it seems the "vision" will either be a muddled mess of platitudes—residents will urge the city to go for nice, vague things like green space and sustainability and family friendliness—or a laundry list of hyper-specific wants from 100,000 people (like, "Fix the pothole in front of my house!" and "Give everyone a bike").
That's where the Mercury comes in. You wouldn't catch us dead in any "vision vessel" (and there's no way we're attending a "coffee talk"), but we've definitely got a ton of concrete, progressive ideas for Portland's future that Mayor Potter can steal. (Feel free to use 'em yourself, if you accidentally stumble into the Vision Vessel.)
This is the city we want for the future. Because we love Portland, too.
It's Time to Grow Up
Simply put, we want Portland to make the leap from sleepy burg to real city. That means taller buildings downtown and throughout the city; denser, more bustling neighborhood centers with a mix of housing options and—gasp!—nightlife; round-the-clock transit; a mayor who occasionally brawls with the city council; a vibrant arts scene (with more all ages music!), and businesses open late all over town.
Right now, Portland seems stuck in a permanent up-and-coming mode. We've got a national reputation as an urban haven for the creative class and as a desirable locale for young families and empty nesters. In Portland, compared to other West Coast cities, housing is still relatively affordable. Our economy is picking up. The kind of urban planning Portland's been doing for decades has been the envy of urban designers across the country.
These are all ingredients for success, but Portland's got a major problem: Residents and business owners—especially longtime ones—are far too satisfied with the status quo. Change, in the form of new development, expanded transit, an influx of people, is met with scorn. New ideas, like those for a reconfigured form of city government, are greeted with an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" scoff. And if history keeps repeating itself, Portland's new vision will once again be co-opted by the old-timers—ignoring the age demographic (18-35) that really makes our city tick.
If we're going to be a great city in the future, the first step is to drop the idea that Portland was better in the past.
Next, residents have to embrace density, and ditch Portland's anti-height attitude. If estimates are correct, the Portland metro area is slated to gain a million residents in the next 15 years. Those people have to live somewhere, and if we don't want a traffic and global warming nightmare, we should be encouraging them to settle in our neighborhoods—not the suburbs. To accommodate these new neighbors—and to increase the housing supply, which helps meet demand and keep prices in check—neighborhoods should be encouraging taller buildings along their main drags. Streets like N Mississippi Avenue, NE Alberta, SE Division, and SE Belmont should be crammed with mixed-use buildings that encourage people to live above the shops and restaurants they frequent (and discourage driving all over town). The added density, in turn, will make those neighborhoods more vital; people will be clamoring to live there.
While we're upping the density of Portland's neighborhoods, the downtown core could use a dose of increased residential use as well. Instead of being satisfied with a financial, civic, and cultural core that becomes a ghost town by 10 pm, we should embrace the idea of a 24-hour-city. That means people need to live downtown—not just in the Pearl and the South Waterfront, and not just in pricey condos. Then the food carts and stores might have a reason to stay open later. And the management of Pioneer Courthouse Square should take note of the popularity of the Flicks on the Bricks evening movie events—they're packed. Why not schedule more evening events? There should be far more people on the streets downtown, well after dark.
The 24-hour-city concept needs to spread outside of downtown, too. Nightlife—clustered along the neighborhoods' commercial strips—should be encouraged, as a busy bar and club scene breeds more late-night dining and entertainment, all over the city. While increased nightlife won't be quiet, it'll be concentrated in the densest part of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods—areas where people live because they want to be a part of city life, noise and all—leaving residents in the single family homes a few blocks away in peace. To support nightlife (and people who work nights), TriMet should work towards round-the-clock transit (or at least a few buses that run later than 2 am, for crying out loud). And instead of continuing to let the OLCC regulate clubs into the ground (stifling the hiphop and all ages scene), let's lobby Salem to disband the archaic agency entirely. Other states have done it—with no ill effect.
Improving the Arts
There's no question Portland's a creative town. Bands like the Decemberists and Modest Mouse (not to mention the soon to be defunct Sleater-Kinney) are constantly drawing national attention to our local music scene. The city's fashion design industry is growing rapidly. We've got a new art museum wing and dozens of innovative galleries. It seems like every neighborhood has a First Thursday (or a Last Thursday, or a Second Thursday, or even an occasional Friday thrown in for good measure) to showcase its artsy offerings. And with the much-ballyhooed "creative class" picking Portland as a top destination, it seems our arts scene is at the top of its game.
But it could be better.
For starters, the city needs to study the arts' financial impact on the local economy, and support them appropriately. How about a city-underwritten all ages venue, more funding for artists' grants, and subsidized live-work spaces? All this could be accomplished by a Portland-centric Arts Commission—that has the solid monetary backing of local government.
As far as the music scene goes, as we mentioned above, the OLCC and their absurd blue laws have got to go. The OLCC's regulations have hampered Portland's all ages scene, which is crucial for incubating young musical talent—Portland's future top musicians. The OLCC (and the cops) also have to stop focusing on clubs that play hiphop or draw a younger crowd. As it stands, Portland's hiphop scene can't grow, because it's too tough to insure a hiphop show. (Ever wonder why Portland is the whitest city in America?) Portland's leaders must take a page from Austin, Texas, and support the music scene as an economic driver, rather than an annoyance (something two city commisioners are currently exploring).
The visual arts, meanwhile, need better leadership. Currently, the network of galleries and museums is rudderless—the arts community needs a leader or two (or a kickass non profit) with a broad vision for expanding and promoting Portland's art scene. That leader would need to do two things: Raise the profile of Portland arts nationally, and simultaneously make locals aware of the art happening outside our city. Both artists and art patrons need to be exposed to new ideas if we expect our art scene to remain vital.
Capitalizing on Portland's love of literary arts is also key. We support Powell's, and great events like Wordstock. But Wordstock is only once a year—this city definitely has an appetite for more frequent big-name appearances by stellar authors. A local commission for the arts could pave the way.
When it comes to filmmaking and cinephiles, Portland is a great town to live in. Then why are our local film festivals—specifically the Portland International Film Festival (PIFF)—so lackluster? Film festivals from Brooklyn to Telluride to Seattle do bang up business, get national coverage, and bring in huge tourist revenue. Though it's easy to blame entrenched and unimaginative leadership at the Northwest Film Center (and they are largely to blame for catering primarily to West Hills blue-hairs), Portland should have a vibrant arts commission to provide this non-profit with marketing advice and assistance. This same advice and assistance could also be doled out to local filmmakers—so that their latest work won't premiere to underwhelming crowds at the Hollywood Theater or Clinton Street (who could use some help from the Arts Commission as well), and then disappear forever. Film production and festivals can be significant cultural boons and moneymakers for any city. Why should Portland be left behind?
And speaking of festivals: While they're great, Portland seems too dependent on them for our cultural fix. Instead of pouring such a disproportionate amount of effort into a few great festivals—Wordstock, TBA, Affair at the Jupiter—it'd be nice to have a more sustainable arts and entertainment scene, year round. You don't do all of your dining out one week each year—why should you be expected to consume all the best art and culture in concentrated doses?
There's a litany of line items—many of them cultural—that are key to our vision of Portland, as well: Officially legalize posters on utility poles, find a way to fund the skate park network, encourage murals (without proliferating billboards), expand the bike trail and boulevard network, and stop overreacting to graffiti.
How We Get There
It's going to take a lot more than a visioning process to push Portland into the 21st Century, and toward becoming a real city.
In order to affect real change in Portland, the city government structure has to be shaken up.
Under Portland's existing and uniquely wacky government, city council members are also the commissioners of city bureaus—meaning that most of their time is spent managing services and utilities. On one hand, since the bureau heads are also elected officials, this gives citizens direct access to those bureaus. (If, for instance, you have a transportation-related problem, you can take your gripes to Sam Adams, who theoretically would be more responsive than an unelected bureaucrat.)
But on the other hand, these duties distract commissioners from developing legislation that will shape the city. If the bureaus were handed over to, say, a city manager (who would be accountable to the council and the mayor), it would free up council's time for more pie-in-the-sky ideas. Meanwhile, if the council members were elected by district, they'd still be accountable to their constituents—and residents would know exactly who to call if, for example, they were pissed off about something happening in their neighborhood.
Also, the mayor currently has little more power than the rest of the commissioners. He or she is a regular voting member of the council and doesn't have any veto power. If the mayor was strictly the "executive" and the council was strictly the "legislature," we'd see far more head-butting—which is entertaining as all hell. Plus, we deserve a mayor who has his own vision (instead of one produced by a mayoral committee).
Elsewhere in the political arena, new Police Chief Rosie Sizer seems poised to enact some real community police reform in the bureau—which could make a huge impact on race relations in Portland. Race relations are a crucial area of concern for Portland, especially if we're going to absorb so much growth—new residents will hopefully be from a diversity of backgrounds, and we need to make them feel welcome in Portland (as previously mentioned, the whitest city in the US).
Meanwhile, the school funding crisis needs to be solved, once and for all, so Portland's young families—and those who'd like to start families—can be confident in their choice to settle in this city. The streetcar should be expanded to the east side, connecting the busiest neighborhood districts to each other, and in turn to downtown. And Portland needs to do all it can to combat backwards state laws like Measures 36 and 37.
None of these ideas are radical—indeed, most are slight tweaks and enhancements of what we're already rocking. That's our Portland vision: a city with higher expectations for ourselves.
The Mercury's editors contributed to this manifesto.