WHEN COLUMBIA SPORTSWEAR threatened to pull one of its companies out of downtown Portland last November, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office started making promises.
In text messages between Wheeler, two members of his staff, and the leader of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), Wheeler’s office suggested it would address Columbia CEO Tim Boyle’s concerns by beefing up police presence and blanketing downtown sidewalks with signs prohibiting people from sitting during the day.
“Whatever it takes,” Wheeler wrote in a November 14 text obtained via the state’s public records law. “This story is NOT the final takeaway we want for the holiday season.”
The previously unreported assurances, made to PBA President and CEO Sandra McDonough, show a striking deference to the prominent business group as Wheeler worked to keep Columbia’s Sorel brand headquartered downtown. For years, the PBA has pushed the city to dramatically expand the number of block faces where homeless people aren’t allowed to sit during the day, but the organization has had limited success in convincing officials such a move was warranted.
That looked likely to change on November 14.
“We should have some significant progress on your map before the end of the year,” Jennifer Arguinzoni, a Wheeler aide, told McDonough in the text conversation, referencing a map of block faces the PBA wants turned into no-sit zones. Later, she suggested to McDonough that all of the PBA’s targeted blocks would be approved in 2017.
The conversation offers insight into a dust-up that led to protests against Wheeler and Columbia.
Four days before the text messages, Columbia’s Boyle had lobbed a bomb. In an op-ed in the Oregonian, the businessman threatened to move Sorel headquarters, citing car break-ins and unsettling interactions employees had with people on the street.
“We are so concerned that we brought together senior management this week to talk through the challenges and options for addressing it, including a review of whether to stay downtown,” Boyle wrote.
Wheeler’s office responded by calling a meeting with businesspeople on November 21 and pledging to bolster foot patrols downtown. Wheeler also declared eight downtown sidewalks—including those outside of Columbia’s flagship downtown store—as “pedestrian use zones,” meaning they were off-limits for sitting from 7 am to 9 pm.
Civil liberties and activist groups weren’t pleased. A protest outside of Columbia’s flagship store on December 2 forced the business to close for the day. Homeless advocates accused Wheeler’s office of acting hastily in order to appease business interests.
The text conversation from November 14 shows the role the city’s business lobby played in shaping that controversial response.
In the discussion, McDonough dictates timing she believes is necessary for rolling out no-sit zones (“end of the year is way too late”), and suggests Wheeler create new police foot patrols (“retailers and shoppers love that”), which Wheeler agreed with. Notably, McDonough anticipates the outcry Wheeler can expect when he expands no-sit zones, and attempts to help the mayor’s office strategize to avoid it.
“If you guys just do the Columbia Sportswear corner this month the headline will be ‘big-time business guy complains and the Mayor takes care of him,’” McDonough wrote at one point to Wheeler, Arguinzoni, and Maurice Henderson, Wheeler’s chief of staff. “The Old Town people will be incensed. You really need to do several streets at the same time.”
Arguinzoni hastened to clarify minutes later. In a text sent only to McDonough, she wrote: “Hey. I was just trying to emphasize that [Columbia’s sidewalk] will be taken care of. We should complete the entire map by the end of the year, but are prioritizing the first phase ASAP.”
“I know you are but the backlash could be bad,” McDonough responded. “I am worried about your boss.”
It’s not completely clear what Arguinzoni meant by “first phase.” The most recent map [PDF] of suggested no-sit zones the PBA has given to officials shows some blocks highlighted in blue and others highlighted in red. Arguinzoni appears confused in the texts about which should happen first.
Either way, Arguinzoni’s interest in completing the PBA’s entire map would represent a big change in where homeless people are legally allowed to sit downtown. For years, the PBA has pushed a list of more than 100 block faces where it believes the city should outlaw sitting during the day.
Under a sidewalk use policy the city passed in 2010, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is allowed to prohibit individuals from sitting in areas where doing so could create “a heightened threat to life or safety.” PBOT will also post signs on any sidewalk if the police ask for them. Violations are punishable by a $250 fine.
The existing policy came on the heels of the city’s old “sit-lie” law, which issued a blanket prohibition on sitting on downtown sidewalks. That law was ruled unconstitutional, but critics of the “sit-lie” provision have argued its replacement isn’t much better.
The conversation revealed in the text messages is just a portion of a lobbying blitz the PBA directed at City Hall regarding similar concerns late last year. From October through the end of 2017, records show that the PBA had contacts with city officials over “livability” or “sidewalk management” issues at least 15 times.
Still, it’s clear the city hasn’t acted on the timetable McDonough was told to expect. No block faces have been made off-limits since the expansion in November.
“Jennifer’s text message was written prior to our town hall with downtown businesses and prior to adding signage to the eight block faces,” says Michael Cox, Wheeler’s deputy chief of staff. “Our plans evolved over the days subsequent to her message.”
That’s not to say the expansion is over. Wheeler’s office is currently considering new restrictions on Old Town sidewalks, Cox says, including 10 or so that are on the PBA’s wish list.
McDonough says she’s happy to wait.
“We never requested nor expected that all of the Alliance-suggested areas would be implemented as high-pedestrian zones immediately,” she said in a statement to the Mercury. “Rather, we suggested they be implemented over time based on need and we also suggested the locations could shift over time.”
Meanwhile, the ACLU of Oregon, which has criticized the no-sit policy, was nonplussed to hear of last year’s exchange.
“Pitting Christmas shoppers against homeless people will not solve Portland’s housing crisis, says the group's communications director, Sarah Armstrong. “We encourage Mayor Wheeler to think creatively and with compassion when weighing the needs of businesses against the most vulnerable among us.”