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Revise River Plan to encourage jobs

Our Opinion

A state decision that Portland's River Plan needs more work is no defeat for this city. Instead, it's an opportunity for Portland to reconsider how it can plan for both the economy and the environment by protecting land to be used by industry.

In a city whose residents desperately need better-paying jobs, immediate progress toward making land available for high-value employment should be the city's primary focus. What better place is there to accommodate industry than along the north reach of the Willamette River harbor - a doorway to international trade?

The first phase of the River Plan, which provides a comprehensive framework and new regulations for development in the Portland Harbor area, was approved by the City Council in April. At the time, businesses along the river opposed portions of the plan, arguing that its requirements went too far in restricting the availability and use of industrial land.

As a result of the concerns, business interests appealed the River Plan to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, which, on Jan. 21, agreed with businesses on several issues and remanded the River Plan to the city for reconsideration. In particular, the appeals board noted that Portland was unable to guarantee the plan would allow for an adequate supply of vacant industrial land for the future, as required by state land-use policies.

Without land, jobs won't come

To some, the state ruling may seem like a victory for industry over the environment. But we believe such a juxtaposition - jobs vs. nature - is a false choice. For Portland to have the community wealth necessary to enhance its environment and livability, it also must have the high-paying jobs that a working waterfront can help provide.

The latest battle for the River Plan comes on the heels of a recent study by the Portland Business Alliance showing that Portland not only has high unemployment, but it also has fallen behind comparable cities in per-capita income. Gov. John Kitzhaber also has identified this growing wage imbalance as a root cause of the state's economic and budget crisis. The governor has made lifting the wages that Oregonians earn a central part of his turnaround strategy.

We believe that the PBA study and Kitzhaber's leadership agenda should compel the city to sharpen its concentration on making land available for quality, high-paying jobs.

As it pertains to the waterfront, Portland has opportunities to attract the traditional water-based industries that built this city's economy in the first place, as well as new waves of manufacturing and other employers that would benefit from proximity to the harbor.

But Portland doesn't really know how much industrial land it has that is available in the near term for development - and that's where the state's decision opens up an opportunity for Mayor Sam Adams and the City Council.

Brownfields aren't the answer

The mayor and city commissioners could appeal the LUBA ruling or attempt to adopt new findings and make a legal argument that its river plan does comply with state law. Instead, we urge city leaders to take the state's critique to heart and make changes in the plan that allow the private sector to create the jobs that Portland needs, while also enhancing the valued waterfront environment.

The council also should focus its attention on the question of providing land citywide that's immediately ready for high-paying industrial jobs. Much of Portland's industrial land supply is contaminated property - so-called brownfields that can take years or decades to reclaim. Those lands are important for use in a more distant future, but they are not going to attract quality industries that are looking to expand today.

The mayor and city commissioners have said the economy is important, and they've even been willing to inject public dollars into job creation. What's needed now are real industries that pay good wages.

One requirement for attracting such industries is to make sure they can find the property they need to operate in places that have tremendous assets such as access to rivers, ports and other infrastructure.