Mayor believes city's future bright
After 18 frequently-bruising months in office, Mayor Ted Wheeler is still enthusiastic about Portland's future, even though he admits problems like homelessness, the affordable housing crisis and traffic congestion worry many residents.
"Portland is a fantastic city," he says. "Mostly, things are going pretty well. A lot of people want to live here."
Wheeler spoke to the Portland Tribune editorial board and reporters last Friday. The wide-ranging conversation came after a year-and-a-half of sometimes contentious City Council meetings and public events.
Although he's leaning toward running for reelection in 2020, Wheeler says he will not decide until about a year before, and only after talking it over with his family.
Protesters have occassionally disrupted council meetings and many Portlanders believe the city is growing too fast. Despite the turmoil, Wheeler repeatedly said his administration and the council are responding well to problems, such as homelessness, that are largely the result of national policies, including large and ongoing cuts in federal spending on affordable housing projects.
"Homelessness is increasing in all major West Coast cities. It actually increased less in Portland than San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle last year, and our unsheltered population was the only one that declined," Wheeler said.
Although Wheeler admitted that many people are angry and frustrated about the number of people they see camping outside, he insisted the situation would be far worse if the council had not substantially increased spending on homeless services and new affordable housing projects in his first two budgets. Much of the money has gone into prevention and transitioning people from shelters into permanent housing.
"We've kept 6,000 people from becoming homeless and moved another 5,000 off the streets. There's much more to be done, but I'm convinced we have the right strategy," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also defended the Portland Police Bureau in response to reporting by the Oregonian that a little more than half of all people arrested in 2017 were homeless. Wheeler denied that officers were profiling the homeless, saying that they were largely responding to citizen calls about criminal activity, including tresspassing.
"We have not criminalized homelessness — we have criminalized criminal activity," said Wheeler, who supports Police Chief Danielle Outlaw's request that the Indpendent Police Review Division of the City Auditor's Office investigate the situation.
Density a big issue
Another issue generating a lot of public concern right now is the future of the city's single-family neighborhoods, Wheeler said.
The Residential Infill Project (RIP) initiated by former Mayor Charlie Hales has recommended that about 60 percent of them be rezoned to allow for relatively small multi-family housing projects, including duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes. It is supported by density advocates but opposed by many homeowners and historic preservationists.
Wheeler says he supports increasing density to help accommodate the additional people expected to move here over the next 20 years. He voted to raise maximum building heights in downtown and the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood as part of the Central City Plan update recently approved by the council.
But Wheeler is not convinced the RIP recommendations currently being considered by the Planning and Sustainability Commission srike the right balance for single-family neighborhoods. Although the council had originally been scheduled to take them up by the end of the year, Wheeler said the vote has now been delayed until March 2019.
"I'm in no rush," Wheeler said of the postponement.
Also put on hold are bureau reassignments Wheeler had originally been thinking about making after the new budget was approved by the council in May, but delayed to accomodate commissioners' vacation schedules and see who fills the vacant council seat in November. Assigning bureaus to the five council members is one of the few powers the mayor has under Portland's unique form of government.
"I've told the council we're all going to have some reassignments, including me," Wheeler said.
Wheeler has not yet decided which bureaus to reassign. But he said one candidate is the Bureau of Development Services, which accepts and processes building permit applications, including referring them to the other construction-related bureaus that must approve them, such as the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
"There's a backlog of permit applications at BDS that needs to be reduced. I'm thinking that could be done by clustering it with the Housing Bureau and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainabilty," he said.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is currently in charge of BDS, while Wheeler oversees the housing and planning bureaus.
Major projects on horizon
Much of Wheeler's optimism about Portland relates to large redevelopment projects that are moving forward. They include the ongoing master planning of the Broadway Corridor at the west end of the Broadway Bridge, which includes the former U.S. Post Office distribution center that was purchased by Prosper Portland, formerly known as the Portland Development Commission.
"That's an opportunity to create an entirely new, sustainable neighborhood in the middle of the city that will attract national attention. I think it will interest a Fortune 500 company or educational institution," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also said he is not discouraged because negotiations have broken down between Prosper Portland and the Zidell family over the redevelopment of their former barge-building facilities in the South Waterfront neighborhood. Wheeler believes the parties will eventually reach agreement on who will pay what share of the infrastructure costs necessary to support the project.
"I'm not going to negotiate on something for 18 months just to give up on it," Wheeler said.