Vision brings tensions

Divisions appear in city surveys on how Portland should look
by: , POTTER

Skeptics of Mayor Tom Potter's visioning process have predicted it will produce little more than vague utopian goals for the future.

The vision statements currently being drafted by the project - officially known as VisionPDX - are filled with such language, including numerous calls for a clean, green, diverse city where everyone is valued.

But the project also has unearthed information that suggests many Portlanders are deeply worried the city is moving backward. Among other things, a significant number of the approximately 13,000 questionnaires collected last summer and fall reveal fears that Portland is becoming unaffordable.

This is in part because of large-scale urban renewal projects approved by the City Council and carried out by the Portland Development Commission over the past decade, including the redevelopment of the Pearl and South Waterfront districts.

The comments are included in a compilation prepared for the Data Analysis Work Group, one of several citizen advisory committees working on the project.

The 49-page compilation is divided into nine major categories, ranging from Economy to Public Safety. They all end with lists of 'tensions' over Portland's future identified by staff from the public comments.

'A lot of people are concerned that the city is catering to the interests of big money over the common interests of people. They feel that PDC is driven by the developers' interests, not the community's. They also worry about gentrification,' reads one item.

Although some respondents felt the upscale developments were intended to attract more investments and increase the tax base, the compilation report said, 'the ratio of negative to positive comments was very high,' according to a staff analysis of the comments.

The committees and staff are working to identify such conflicts as 'tensions' to be addressed by the council.

Potter has said that the VisionPDX should result in council adoption of a long-range strategic plan to guide future policy decisions.

Tensions identified so far include increasing density to accommodate population increases without reducing livability; balancing new motor-vehicle and mass-transit projects; finding economic development projects that favor small, locally owned businesses; and helping minorities and the poor cope with gentrification caused by rising property values.

At the same time, the surveys show that Portlanders are deeply split over the best ways to achieve these goals, according to VisionPDX co-leader Sonali Balajee, a member of Potter's staff.

'People are very distrustful of government right now, but they don't see the private sector solving these problems. They are divided over whether government should take the lead, whether government should encourage businesses to solve these problems, or whether governments should support those businesses that share their values and not support those that don't,' Balajee said.

The project schedule currently calls for the VisionPDX staff and volunteers to bring these questions back to the public during a Vision Week that begins May 18.

Surveys not fully scientific

City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who repeatedly has questioned the value of the visioning process, said he is intrigued by the tensions that have emerged.

'I thought the results would be mostly those kinds of things that everyone knows, that we value the environment and want good schools. I think it's interesting that so many people seem to think we're going in the wrong direction,' he said.

At the same time, Leonard said he does not know how seriously to take such comments because the surveys conducted to date have not been scientific.

'Are these comments really reflective of a large number of Portlanders, or is it just pockets of people in certain neighborhoods?' he said.

Balajee acknowledges that answering such questions is crucial to the success of the project. She believes the questionnaires received so far represent a true cross section of the city. At the same time, she and other project officials are negotiating with local pollster Adam Davis.

'The process (has already) been unique and probably the most inclusive I have ever seen, but people have to believe the results are real in the end,' said Davis, a partner of the Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Inc. public opinion firm.

Options being discussed with Davis include focus groups and both telephone and online surveys.

Mayor said council lost touch

The concerns being voiced over the future of the city will not surprise anyone who follows discussion of such topics on local Internet sites and blogs. But their inclusion in a city-financed project is unusual.

Traditionally, city surveys of public concerns focus on how agencies are delivering services, not whether people agree with the results of planning and development policies.

But Potter has said from the start that VisionPDX is needed because the council has lost touch with most Portlanders. He pitched it as including an aggressive public outreach campaign that would use several techniques to solicit opinions, including both written and online questionnaires, and one-time grants to nonprofit agencies to reach their constituents.

So far VisionPDX has cost more than $1.2 million. An additional $546,512 is being sought in next year's budget to help produce both the strategic plan and a community action plan to help ensure it is enacted.

The project is being overseen by a vision committee appointed in November 2005. It originally was composed of 50 citizens and included several subcommittees that took up such tasks as research, outreach and analysis.

They are assisted by staff from the mayor's office and the city Bureau of Planning. Some of the subcommittees have wound down, and about 10 members have left over the past 15 months.

After reviewing the questionnaires and other public comments for several months, the VisionPDX staff and volunteers have decided against drafting a single vision statement to cover all of the emerging issues.

Instead, four separate but complementary aspects of the city have been identified for ongoing discussion. They include the Built City, which covers the infrastructure, buildings, parks and open spaces; the Natural City, which covers how the environment is integrated into daily life; the Economic City, which ranges from neighborhood to citywide to regional and global businesses; and the Social City, which covers such issues as education, health care and diversity.

The goal is to write vision statements for each of the four aspects.

Although Leonard admits that much of the VisionPDX research is more interesting than he expected, he is not sure the project will produce any workable results.

Leonard said he is disappointed with how Potter handled his other priority, the City Charter reform measures that will appear on the May ballot. Like VisionPDX, the measures were developed by a citizen committee.

'We only had one hearing on the measures before they were placed on the ballot by a 3-2 vote. That's hardly engaging the council in a collaborative process,' said Leonard, who, along with Commissioner Erik Sten, voted against the referrals.

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Questionnaire comments

Approximately 13,000 Portlanders filled out questionnaires last summer and fall about their visions for the future of the city. The following VisionPDX staff comments were drawn from the draft Data Analysis Work Group summary of those comments:

• Lack of affordable housing and lack of good jobs are two critical and strong concerns for most respondents that go hand in hand. Many fear that Portland is already out of reach in terms of homeownership for them, both now and for the foreseeable future; many younger workers - 20- and 30-somethings - express concern that they will be forced to move in order to find good jobs and housing that is affordable.

• Portlanders clearly made a connection with the development of expensive condos for the wealthy that get developers rich but do not fit the need of those looking for family housing in the 100-200K ($100,000 to $200,000) range, reads a staff summary in the compilation.

• Many also express they feel that housing is still 'relatively' affordable (almost no one said that Portland was just plain affordable), although they have a strong fear that it will 'turn into' another ultra-expensive city like San Francisco or Seattle in the very near future if nothing is done to alleviate the rampant condo development perceived as catering to the wealthy. Many considered in light of the perceived lack of good job opportunities, affordable housing seems acutely out of reach for many citizens.

• Affordable housing is a huge concern for Portlanders. Both rent and purchasing were cited time and again. There also was a great awareness that the last five years and influx from other places had direct relation to why Portland was not as affordable as previously.

• Gentrification emerges as a particularly significant problem: Residents have been priced out of homes in neighborhoods (Northeast Alberta Street and North Mississippi Avenue, for instance) that have seen a lot of new development as well as the perceived emphasis on upscale development (the Pearl and South Waterfront) at the expense of 'normal' folks.

• Quite a few people specifically opined that the tram/South Waterfront/North Macadam development (not to mention the Pearl, which seems to have become a verb, as in, 'to Pearlize') was a total waste of money; and the resources should have gone to increasing transportation and housing options for a larger group of people.

• There was a great deal of agreement regarding commitment to alternative transportation. However, there also are a few respondents who want more roads because they don't believe cars are going away or that other forms of transportation will work for enough people. A smaller group wanted more roads and more freeways.