Top Stories 2023

The Biggest Portland Transportation News of 2023

PBOT struggles, Rose Quarter snags, and deadly crashes marked a busy year in Portland transportation.

The Biggest Portland City Hall News of 2023

This year, the city managed to help and harm the unhoused, while leaning on pre-pandemic work models to try to revitalize downtown.

The Biggest Portland Labor News of 2023

Move over "hot labor summer." 2023 was a hot labor year for Portland workers.

Portland's Top VILLAINS for 2023—Ranked!

Portland's villains were especially busy this year... here's who caused the most trouble.

The Biggest Portland Police News of 2023

Big police settlements, a new top cop, and whatever happened to oversight? All that and more in the biggest police stories of 2023!

The Biggest Portland Environmental News of 2023

Oil company lawsuits, asbestos rain, and Rubio disappoints activists: A lot happened in 2023's environmental news.

This year, much of the most impactful policy decisions to come out of city hall centered around homelessness and the conditions on Portland’s streets. The city opened more shelters, while approving rigid measures to limit homeless camping. City leaders also floated a new tax incentive for businesses downtown, which centers on mandating workers to return to those downtown offices, at least half time. As the city prepares for a new governing system come 2025, moves are already underway to start transforming city hall, but transforming city government is proving far more difficult. 

New shelters opened

This year saw the opening of two more Safe Rest Villages for the city’s unhoused residents, both in North Portland, with talks of expanding an existing village in Southwest Portland.

The Peninsula Crossing Safe Rest Village opened on N. Syracuse Street in May, offering 60 pods. 

In July, Commissioner Dan Ryan’s team announced a village for RVs, dubbed the Sunderland RV Safe Park site, opened with space for up to 55 large, recreational vehicles.

Most importantly, 2023 saw the opening of the first Temporary Alternative Shelter Site (TASS) location, in inner Southeast Portland.

The site is the largest temporary, outdoor shelter in Portland, with 140 sleeping pods, akin to tiny homes. The TASS site was initially pitched by the mayor’s team as a mass shelter site that would accommodate up to 250 people in tents, offering little distinction from the “unsanctioned” camping the city was trying to end.

With a nudge from Gov. Tina Kotek, who said the state wouldn’t fund a site without real shelter, the TASS unveiled in July was the same model as the Safe Rest Villages.

Homelessness policies met with legal trouble

While the city worked in earnest to create more shelter capacity in 2023, elected leaders also showed how badly they want the homelessness problem to just go away. 

In June, the Portland City Council approved an ordinance that puts “time, place, and manner” restrictions on homeless camping in most areas of the city. The ordinance, which was set to take effect in fall, made it illegal to camp or rest outside between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm, with violators subject to written warnings by police, followed by potential fines or jail time. The ordinance was met with heavy backlash from homeless organizations and advocates, and before it could be put in place, it was also met with a class-action lawsuit.

The ordinance has since been placed on hold by a judge, after a lawsuit argued the city’s ordinance violates state laws meant to protect unhoused people from facing fines or jail time. The lawsuit also notes that a city cannot punish people for living outside if it lacks adequate shelter capacity.

Return to office, return to glory.

This year, city leaders talked ad nauseam about how to bring the city's downtown core and surrounding areas back to their glory days, when restaurants and food carts were packed at the lunch hour with downtown workers, and tourists filled the streets on weekends.  

The council’s efforts to revitalize downtown have largely hinged on removing visible homelessness, cleaning up trash and graffiti, and luring people (namely, workers) back to vacant office buildings.

In September, Commissioner Carmen Rubio and Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a tax incentive program for businesses that sign new leases or extend leases for four years or more, and require workers to be in the office at least 20 hours a week.

The city said the move would “accelerate Portland’s road to recovery” by boosting foot traffic downtown and encouraging shopping in small businesses.

“We have acted in a number of ways to help Portland recover. But bolder action is needed right now to be responsive to the moment we are in,” Commissioner Rubio said in the city’s announcement of the program terms. “Know that your city government is willing to consider a lot of things — in balance with maintaining the services people rely on every day.”

Charter reform’s growing pains

In 2022, Portland voters approved a ballot measure to overhaul the city’s form of government with major changes to the city’s charter. The changes called for an expanded, 12-person council, with city commissioners elected by district, using a ranked choice voting system. It also called for the city to be managed by a professional city administrator, rather than the elected mayor and commissioners overseeing bureau operations. 

Everything needs to be in place by January 1, 2025.

The city accomplished quite a bit this year on that front, releasing new maps of Portland’s geographic voting districts, a salary schedule for future commissioners and city managers, and a new command structure for managing the city.

But it turned out, not everyone on the council was eager to begin the charter transition process, or even accept the changes voters approved.

Over the summer, commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan floated major tweaks to the new governing structure that would have reduced the council from twelve to eight people, changed the ranked choice voting system, and created a mayoral veto power that wasn’t called out in the ballot measure voters approved.

None of that came to fruition. 

Instead, the public essentially told the commissioners to go pound sand and keep their hands off charter reform. 

Their plans may not have worked, but that didn’t stop them from halting progress on charter transition efforts. This fall, the city council shut down Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s attempt to start moving toward the new management structure by mid-2024, citing outrage about major cost overruns associated with the new governing system. 

The delays could prevent city employees and the public (including prospective future city commissioners) from getting acquainted with the new system before it gets adopted.

The move out

While the council wasn’t willing to give up control of city operations, elected leaders did have to give up meeting at city hall. 

Starting in January, Portland City Council will hold its meetings in the city’s 1900 Building, while the council chambers at city hall undergo renovations. It’s not that the current chambers aren’t good enough…actually, they kind of suck for myriad reasons that could be listed like grievances on Festivus, but the main reason is the chambers aren’t big enough. The current room wasn’t configured for a 12-person council, which Portland will have in 2025. The chambers also lack up-to-date technology, and full access for people in mobility devices. 

And just in case the contractors are reading, could we please replace that awful yellow lighting that blankets the council like a ‘90s-era Polaroid? And can we give the commissioners chairs that come up higher than the computer screens they stare into during council meetings?