In his first State of the City speech, Mayor Ted Wheeler broke with "back to basics" theme of his predecessor, Charlie Hales. Instead, addressing the City Club of Portland on Friday, Wheeler unveiled a number of sweeping initiatives, ranging from creating an Office of Landlord Tenant Affairs in his first budget and studying options for removing the I-5 freeway along the west bank of the Willamette River if money becomes available.
Wheeler also repeatedly said that Portland was undergoing growing pains as it transitions to an international city, most notably an affordable housing crisis that is increasing the number of homeless people living on the streets. He promised the city will continue working with Multnomah County to address both issues.
"We are transitioning from being a big city with a small city feel, to becoming a global city with all the opportunities and difficulties that come with it," Wheeler said, explaining that he was excited by the challenge and enthusiastically promising that Portland's best days are ahead of it.
Among other things, Wheeler said he has created a Stakeholder Advisory Work Group to help effectively spend the money remaining from the affordable housing bond approved by voters last November. Over the coming months, the city will finalize a strategy to create 1,300 affordable housing units, which will house 3,000 people. Of those units, almost half will be affordable for families of four earning less that $22,000 a year. And half of the total units will be sized for families, he was prepared to say.
One of Wheeler's big ideas reflected his previous experience as Oregon State Treasurer. He said Portland has a $270 million a year infrasrtucture funding gap that he wants to partly address by dedicating to property tax growth about to be returned to the city from expiring urban renewal districts to backing revenue bonds. Wheeler said the money generated by the bonds could be used to fund road, park and other infrasructure projects as soon as next year, although he did not estimate how much would be available. Such a program would reduce the amount of future general fund dollars availabe to the city, however.
Another big initiative to be announced by Wheeler is the creation of a process to redesign the Rose Quarter to transform what he called What is "a concrete desert that is mostly quiet by day" into "a vital hub of economic and cultural activity." Wheeler said he has been approached by several people with different ideas for the area since being elected mayor, and want to discuss all of them publicly before making a decision.
Likewise, Wheeler said he will also appoint a citizens committee to help the Portland Development Commission master plan the future development of the U,S, Post Office site in Old Town the city has bought. Wheeler said it will become a new neighborhood planned from scratch in the heart of the city that can demonstrate Portland's green, income equity, racial justice and other values.
During the question and answer period, most of questions concerned the relationship of the police to protesters and minority communities. During his speech, Wheeler said wants to improve the relationship between the police and the city's minority communities, noting the Portland has a long history of racism that needs to be overcome. He repeated that in his answers, calling for a return to community policing, but also said policing protests in a "balancing act" that requires protecting the rights of law-abiding protesters and people needing to use roads and mass transits to go about their business.