LAST YEAR, Mayor Charlie Hales opened his first-ever State of the City speech with a wave of his tool belt and an earnest, down-home parable about how improving the city he loves would be a lot like this one time when he and his father built a house out of stone.
This year? The tool belt stayed behind. Although maybe it shouldn't have.
Yes, Hales made one major announcement when he took the stage at the former Governor Hotel (now the Sentinel) on March 14: Vacation rental listing site Airbnb is building a hub in Old Town, one of the mayor's reinvigorated priorities. Yes, his tough medicine during last year's budget fight has apparently forestalled new cuts this year. And, yes, he could point to some steady progress in police reform (although he's also been criticized for not gunning it on some of the most controversial changes sought by the community).
But those were the rare bricks in a speech that mostly still dealt in blueprints. Just like last year's. Even the theme of this year's speech was the same: "back to basics." And it's clear that many of the issues that vexed the Hales administration in 2013 will be just as vexing in 2014.
So here's a quick look at some of Hales' rhetoric—and the reality that's driving it (and just as often threatening it).
Urban Renewal: Hales, in his speech, put his stamp on a huge shift in urban renewal: He wants to ditch an urban renewal area for Portland State University, which was promised by the previous city council, and also put something like $1 billion in property, citywide, back on the regular tax rolls.
But he also promised he won't forsake PSU—his wife works there, he noted, and if he does he'll come home to find "all the locks in my house will have been changed." His idea is to expand urban renewal land near the university.
Keeping that promise, however, won't be easy.
First, Hales has to keep the trust of PSU's administration. As the Mercury first reported, Hales' doubts about PSU had become serious enough by last October that the uncertainty complicated a long-planned streetcar project in the district ["Streetcar Collision," News, Nov 6, 2013]. But Hales, the Oregonian just reported, didn't meet with PSU's president to air those doubts until mid-November.
Canceling the district will gut some $50.3 million in projects at or around PSU. It also needs city council approval. The city and PSU are negotiating how much the city will spend instead. And this time, the O is reporting, President Wim Wiewel is asking for a written guarantee the city won't change its mind again.
Homelessness: Last year's State of the City appearance brought talk of an "epidemic" of homelessness and promised a two-pronged approach: sidewalk enforcement and social services money. The issue wound up dominating the second half of Hales' first year—after the sweep of a months-old camp outside city hall and controversy over a plan to move Right 2 Dream Too into the Pearl.
Homelessness wasn't mentioned much this year, despite ongoing policy work by Hales' office (led by Jackie Dingfelder) and complaints by Hales' police chief, Mike Reese, that homelessness and related issues are unsettling the tourists and workers who fill our downtown.
Hales nodded to a $1.7 million infusion of one-time cash last year meant for helping homeless families and people of color—but he didn't mention that the money only followed sustained outcry over sweeps. Later, when asked a question by the crowd, he mentioned a homelessness summit attended by West Coast mayors.
But Hales said something else just as interesting about homelessness, even if it was unintentional. Despite the police bureau's concerns about social disorder downtown?
"Tourism," Hales said triumphantly, "is at a record high."
Transportation: Weeks after Hales took office, the city auditor handed him a beautiful political gift: two reports blasting the city's spending on street maintenance and paving, one of Hales' campaign issues.
The reports gave him cover to shift a few million around the Portland Bureau of Transportation—and acknowledge, sanely, that there just isn't enough money in Portland to catch up on street paving, pay for big-ticket projects like rail, and have anything substantial left for bike infrastructure and safety fixes like sidewalks and crosswalks.
This year, the mayor spoke eloquently about the moral crisis spilling from our neglected infrastructure—traffic crashes and people dying where crosswalks had failed them.
But months after the Mercury first reported Hales explicitly promising, "yes, we will raise your taxes" to pay for transportation ["Tale of the Grip Tape," June 5, 2013], Hales has yet to figure out just how he'll do that.
Hales and Transportation Commissioner Steve Novick have paid for polling and attended town hall meetings. It turns out they might not ask voters for all of that new funding—just for some of it. Some revenue measures, Hales confirmed during and after his speech, could be handled by the city council. And he says that's what he and Novick are hearing from citizens.
"There's a strong current of 'do your job,'" Hales says. "That would capture it."
Which does sound about right, doesn't it?