Is PDC Really Listening? 

Development Commission Verges on Losing Public Faith

On Saturday afternoon, about 150 residents piled into a sterile conference room at the Convention Center. They were there to continue the ongoing discussion about a pending development along the eastern edge of the Burnside Bridge, which over the past few months has grown into one of the most cantankerous debates in city politics--a sprawling discussion that many see as a glimpse into Portland's current soul and sensibility.

The most pointed question is whether Portland Development Commission (PDC) will approve a Home Depot as the core to the pending $150 million project, or if they will push forward a plan to foster small, locally owned businesses. But because the question remains unresolved, it has raised another, more general concern: That PDC is an aloof and stubborn organization determined to push forward unimaginative projects favoring national chains and high-end retail; public concerns be damned.

Until last November, the plan to place a major big-box store alongside the Burnside Bridge was steamrolling along. But public outcry forced a series of workshops and opportunities for residents to express their opinions about the development.

(On Saturday, several allegations floated around the room that the entire development project grew not from a vision to reinvigorate the inner eastside, but from a plan to open downtown to Home Depot. Allegedly, while attending a trade conference in Las Vegas a year or so ago, PDC representatives met with Home Depot developers and hatched the Burnside Bridgehead plan.)

Saturday was one of the final rounds of public input before PDC determines the fate of the five-block site. Residents listed their "hopes" and "concerns" for the project and presented them to PDC commissioners. As expected, many residents are worried about the project's impact on the local economy--namely, the dozen nearby hardware stores that would be affected by a Home Depot.

But participants also began to expand the discussion past the immediate project itself, bringing up PDC's general attitude and operation as one of their concerns.

"We feel we should have been doing this at an earlier stage," said one participant, referring to the recent rounds of public input that have come late in the process. Other residents remarked they were worried that PDC was not listening to "local demands."

That sentiment underscores a wider criticism of PDC. Last week, the City Club released a scolding report against the PDC, urging the agency to open up its ears to more public input and accountability.

But with this series of public meetings, PDC has seemingly backed itself into a corner: Public opinion is dead set against Home Depot and for environmentally sound engineering; if PDC storms ahead with plans that differ from that vision, they will further aggravate the tension between the agency and city residents.

The answer to that question will be revealed as early as February 23, when PDC announces its decision for a developer and a plan for Burnside Bridgehead.

The next public meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 9, OMSI, time to be announced.

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