In an exclusive interview, the Business Tribune sat down with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler at his office earlier this week.
We discussed his views on hot development policies including seismic retrofits to historical unreinforced masonry buildings, the recently passed inclusionary zoning, the ongoing design overlay zone assessment, and the balance of social services with business development during the housing crisis.
BT: How do you think Portland can find balance between shelters and services, and permanent housing and business development solutions in urban renewal areas?
TW: "The City Council made that (Clark-Shiels No Net Gain) agreement and that's part of the reason we're looking for housing and service opportunities all around the city. To give an example, last week I was in the Kenton neighborhood pushing hard for tiny home village and was really pleased to see the community overwhelmingly accepted. When that project was completed at the end of one year, it will be a permanent, supported housing community for very low-income residents.
"We're making the effort to spread these types of communities around the city. Homer Williams is trying to site a homelessness intervention facility, looking all around the city for potential sites.
"I'm sympathetic to the concerns of Chinatown."
BT: Should the owners of historical unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs) be burdened with saving historical aspects of a building with expensive seismic retrofits that may not save the building in case of a quake, instead of building something brand new?
TW: "In my view yes, ultimately the owner of the building is responsible. Portland has the highest concentration of URMs in the U.S. — an excess of 700. They will not withstand even a relatively large quake that isn't a Cascadia fault earthquake. It's an ongoing public safety concern. City Council is working on a thoughtful balance between regulatory requirement and incentives for building owners to be able to retrofit those buildings.
"It doesn't have to be done all today, but ultimately I do believe it's the owner's responsibility. We value historic preservation."
BT: How do you think the Inclusionary Zoning policy will affect the future of Portland's development?
TW: "In theory, it's going to increase the number of workforce and lower-income housing units in the City of Portland. Commissioner Saltzman and others worked very hard last year to balance the regulatory requirements in terms of affordability, with incentives to help ensure that affordability will exist. The goal was that it would be neutral, and yet Inclusionary Zoning policies by definition are often very complex.
"At some point in the future we're going to evaluate the inclusionary zoning policy to make sure we have the policy correct: to incentivize workforce housing. We don't want to be San Francisco, we don't want to have our city become so unaffordable the people who work here, who are involved in the service industry, hospitality, working in our restaurants and other core businesses aren't able to live here.
"That's why I think it's very important that at some period in the future we haven't defined — (maybe) 18 months out — we do an individual analysis of inclusionary zoning to see if we got the formula right.
"As you would expect, in anticipation of the (Inclusionary Zoning) ordinance taking effect, there was a rush to the door to get permits in, so we have something like $5 billion in housing value already in the process, and one of my primary objectives is to make sure as many of those permits as possible lead to development.
"We are working hard on that through our efforts to reduce time, cost and hassle associated with design review, pulling all those bureaus together to play a role in that to make sure it happens."
BT: How do you think revamping the design process with the Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA) project will affect development in Portland, and affect available housing?
TW: "It will allow for more flexibility in the kinds of housing that is available in the City of Portland: duplexes, garden apartments and other types of housing available in the communities around the country will be available here, too. That creates more opportunities for affordability and increases density that's appropriate for outer neighborhoods.
"Here's how I view it. We already made a decision a long time ago that we were going to be densely populated when we drew the urban growth boundary — we want to protect farmlands and wildlands. By definition, we are willing to accept more density inside the urban growth boundary in that trade-off.
"I support appropriate density. Within the neighborhoods themselves there are places more appropriate than others. The 2035 Plan accurately reflect that belief with more higher-housing in the urban core, along transit corridors, in the town center areas — that is appropriate. In the neighborhoods, there has to be density, too — and can include (accessory dwelling units), garden apartments and duplexes that can be done in an architecturally desirable way that fits in with the feel and character of the neighborhood."
BT: If Oregon is funded federally or by legislature for transportation, what projects are shovel-ready?
TW: "Top priority as far as freight mobility are I-5 and I-84. That will be first. The Southwest corridor is ready to begin the planning process for that — it's not shovel-ready, the process takes 10-15 years from beginning to end. We have a lot of head work done on that ready to go to the design phase. Locally, we certainly have our interest: the east-west roads, Division, Powell and others are a significant choke point in our community we'd like to see addressed. It's been on the radar a long time.
"We also have to acknowledge that our transportation infrastructure is already overwhelmed. We're not going to be building new streets through downtown Portland, there's nowhere to put them. We have to think about alternative means of transportation: better transit that's convenient and affordable, bus service, rail, we have to talk about car sharing, we have to talk about active transportation, walking, biking — making those safe, viable options for those who choose to use those options.
"In areas where we are building density around existing transit and transportation infrastructure, we need fewer garages. Keep in mind the trade-off is parking or housing. Parking is very expensive, and what we really need right now is housing — not to say there shouldn't be a good balance.
"Long term, if Metro is correct, 2-300,000 extra people will be moving here. We can't build enough parking or roads to accommodate that additional congestion, we have to start talking about long-term transportation (options) and these are regional questions.
"We're in a transitional period, no question. Urban planning and development has to reflect we're in a transition: 40 years from now, transportation and transit infrastructure are going to look very different — I'm already seeing commercials on TV for self-driving, autonomous vehicles, and pretty much everybody in the transportation sector, in the innovation sector, believes that will become a reality and dramatically change the way people view transportation.
"It's no longer pie-in-the-sky, I wonder if it's going to happen. A lot of private sector, public sector, universities and philanthropies are interested in these new technologies and they're all coming from the same place I am: we cannot build enough road infrastructure for the population moving into West Coast cities like Portland, we have to come up with better, smarter way to get transit.
"We still need freight mobility, interstate commerce and whether people like it or not the Columbia River crossing, a major interstate, is held up by 90-year-old stumps rotting away at the bottom of the river. We have two dozen choke points along the I-5 corridor in Oregon. I'd encourage us to think larger than smaller."
Smart transportation for tech-centric West Coast
TW: "I'm going to go on a mini-rant. The transportation package at the legislative hearing will be between $300-600 million. The thinking is that the truckers' associations and AAA will accept. We're doing the minimum we can do that we think will allow passage in the legislature."
"I want to compare that to what L.A. did, and Seattle.
"In L.A. they just passed a forty-year, $26 billion dollar transportation vision, and in the first year it will lead to something like $860 million going toward all modes of transportation: freight, road improvement, rails, bus service, bicycle lanes, improving crosswalks, pedestrian safety and other things. And it went to their taxpayers: their voters overwhelmingly approved it. It's a multi-generational, multi-billion dollar vision for transportation that gets at everything from economic competitiveness and addressing concerns about global climate change to improving bike safety through separation. They went big — here's a big, 40-year vision, and they inspired the public to support it.
"Compare that to the vision we currently have on the table here in Oregon, which will address maybe a few of those items in the short-term.
"Seattle has a completely different method of financing needs: they can bond against their sales tax. Two years ago, while we were still in the tail end of the Recession, they went to their voters and passed a half a cent increase in gas tax, bonding that for $1.6 billion in local transportation improvement in the Seattle area.
"Portland has no equivalent. The only thing we've got is a gas tax increase, voted temporarily. L.A. and Seattle are using modern financing tools and big-picture visions about economic competitiveness and community livability.
"We're still in the era of the steam engine trying to figure out how to fill the potholes. We need to be more like them. We need to work together as a region and paint a big picture vision and sell it to the public and at the end of the day let them decide whether or not the vision is worthy of their tax resources. I believe if we do that hard work, we could actually do much more around transportation infrastructure than we're currently doing."