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The masterful Mazziotti

• Development boss demands big things of his staff and of his city

Don Mazziotti is formidable.

Both in stature Ñ he's 6 feet 4 inches tall Ñ and in reputation.

City Commissioner Randy Leonard discovered that when he challenged the executive director of the Portland Development Commission about the agency's budget and how well it was monitoring tax breaks to condo developers in the Brewery Blocks.

Mazziotti was frustrated with the new pit bull from City Hall; Leonard called PDC's staff 'hostile and unapproachable' and acknowledged having a 'rocky start' with Mazziotti.

'There was a bit of misfiring,' says one PDC insider.

By the time the two men returned last week from a business recruitment trip to Las Vegas, however, Leonard had become a Mazziotti admirer.

'I appreciated his style, forthrightness and knowledge of Portland,' Leonard says. 'He seemed to really understand the elements of what these businesses really wanted to know. It was mind-boggling and very impressive. He had that mastered. Now I understand him better, the agency better and the role better.'

The 57-year-old director of the semiautonomous PDC, whose budget this year will top $222 million, is widely acknowledged to be a high-octane achiever who is not afraid to ruffle feathers.

'Don doesn't suffer fools lightly,' concedes PDC Chairman John Russell. 'He has the reputation of being demanding.'

Ask city Commissioner Erik Sten, who's been arguing with Mazziotti over the development agency's desire to relocate Fire Station 1 on Southwest Oak Street to make way for new waterfront housing.

'He's a very decisive leader,' Sten says. 'He has a style that is very independent. He makes it clear the buck stops with the commission. At times that makes people angry, but I like working with him. He's strong and passionate.'

PDC staff members say Mazziotti's tough exterior does not translate into inflexibility. If anything, he's cultivated a camaraderie among senior staff that seems to make the excessively long hours more tolerable.

His intimidating appearance is fostered by a close-cropped haircut and a scar that runs from his jaw line to the back of his neck Ñ a remnant of a motorcycle accident when he was 17. He rarely makes wisecracks at PDC meetings, although he's known for a wry sense of humor. He favors black suits and authentic Italian restaurants such as Piazza Italia, where he revels in his Italian-American heritage as much as the cannoli.

Few public officials have as much leverage over the city's economic fortunes as Maz-ziotti and his agency.

It is the PDC that will oversee restoration of Meier & Frank's downtown store, push for a more viable retail environment in the Midtown Park Blocks, midwife the emergence of the North Macadam neighborhood as a secondary commerce and housing center, and possibly even help fund a new major league baseball stadium.

Any new business recruited to the city Ñ a top priority in today's lackluster economy Ñ will almost certainly appear at the PDC's door. The Las Vegas journey brought several major retailers to Portland's doorstep, although Leonard would not disclose their names.

'He has had the ability to get stuff done,' the agency's Russell says of Mazziotti. 'He's a very, very hard worker and expects the same of others. We have very ambitious goals for what we want to see happen.'

The Italian connection

Mazziotti Ñ whose circle of close friends includes former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt Ñ grew up in a half Irish, half Italian neighborhood in Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad center between Kansas City, Mo., and Chicago.

His grandfather Ñ who hailed from central Italy Ñ was hired to recruit 2,500 Italians to work on the railroad. The railroad gave him the rights to develop a company store, California Fruit Co., which grew into a small group of companies Ñ including a bakery and a sausage and meatball packing operation.

'I grew up next to the air compressor that kept the meat locker cool,' Mazziotti recalls.

At age 6, he began delivering groceries in a wagon. Then his family's world changed when chain stores arrived.

'We couldn't compete on price,' he says.

At 17, wanting to become a lawyer, he headed off to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. It wasn't any kind of American dream story, Mazziotti says: 'I just wanted to be a lawyer connected to politics,' much like his Italian relatives.

He got his law degree, as well as a master's degree in planning from the University of Iowa. His first job was as a consultant to the city of Cleveland, where Ernie Bonner was planning director.

Mazziotti had met Bonner Ñ then on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin Ñ at a party. Bonner was later hired by Goldschmidt as planning director, and Mazziotti followed him to Oregon in 1971 to work as a conservation consultant for the late Gov. Tom McCall. Shortly thereafter, Mazziotti was hired as a lawyer/planner for the city of Portland.

Within weeks he'd met Goldschmidt, then a legal aid attorney, 'and it took me three minutes,' he says, 'to figure out this is a really unusual person with great vision and skill and aplomb.'

Mazziotti was chief planner under then Mayor Goldschmidt from 1974 to 1978. At the end of Goldschmidt's City Hall tenure, Maz-ziotti went to work as economic development director in Vancouver, Wash., and was in the process of buying a house there when Goldschmidt Ñ the newly named secretary of transportation under President Jimmy Carter Ñ gave him a call.

It was on a Sunday, Mazziotti recalls, and the newly minted transportation chief said, ' 'I'd like for you to work in my administration.' Within three days I was in Washington.'

Mazziotti counts the years in D.C., where he worked as deputy assistant secretary of transportation, as among the greatest experiences he ever had. He worked with such Democratic luminaries as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Vice President Walter Mondale and Sen. Albert Gore Sr.

After Goldschmidt returned to Portland, Mazziotti was recruited to start a business roundtable in Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg. He stayed on as the state's acting secretary of commerce before leaving to form a consulting group for developers, communities and real estate companies called the Delta Development Group.

Mazziotti sold the firm in 1997 and spent a year traveling around the country searching for places to retire before he and his wife, Alexandra, decided to return to Portland.

During a visit to Salem to see his old buddy Bill Wyatt, then chief of staff to Gov. John Kitzhaber, Mazziotti was persuaded to sign on as the state's technology director. He gave up that job in November 2000 to care for his wife shortly after the birth of the couple's second daughter, Gabriela. His oldest daughter, Juliana, is 5.

Two years at the top

The PDC hired Mazziotti in May 2001, when the 45-year-old redevelopment agency was changing its focus from the downtown to outlying urban renewal districts such as North Interstate and Lents, in Southeast Portland.

Mazziotti has helped redefine PDC's mission to emphasize housing development and resource development, largely because of the shift in Oregon's economic health.

Though Portland does not have the scale of blight of, say, Gary, Ind., Mazziotti says the city does have serious shortcomings in the quality of its housing stock and the supply of affordable housing.

At the same time, Mazziotti has been confronted with vociferous grass-roots opposition to urban renewal projects Ñ and property tax abatements to wealthy developers and tenants Ñ along with deep concerns about the PDC's power.

Parkrose activist Craig Flynn's views are reflective of those concerns. The development agency, he says, is 'the fastest-growing government in the city, and it's a government we don't elect, and it's appointed by the mayor, but she doesn't have total control,' he complains. 'They're letting this government agency run wild.'

Still, Mazziotti seems to be negotiating his way through the minefields of discontent. The agency settled a lawsuit with Shilo Inns this spring, after an Oregon Supreme Court decision in the case severely threatened the PDC's tax-raising ability.

Contact Kristina Brenneman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..