My View: Respect, don't suppress, neighborhood dissent
Recently a remarkable op-ed ran in the Portland Tribune, supporting the city's West Quadrant Plan and personally attacking several people who have criticized it ("Process on West Quadrant Plan worked," Oct. 3). The op-ed was remarkable both for the personal nature of the attacks, and — more importantly — for the perspective on Portland's public process that was expressed by the author. Because that perspective may be part of a troubling school of thinking within the city just now, I think it is worth critically examining and debating.
As it happens, I was one of the individuals singled out for personal attack, so I have a particular interest in responding. As it also happens, the claims made were factually incorrect.
I am not an owner of a condominium as the author alleged, but a renter. I do not have any views that are under threat from the West Quadrant Plan, as she alleges. I was not on the Goose Hollow Neighborhood Association board in the wake of the Block 7 controversy to which she refers, and have had almost no interaction with anyone on the previous board from that period, so therefore I could not "have spent years attacking the former GHFL board members" as she wrongly states.
Far from being "unwilling to collaborate with others," as she also alleges, I serve on a number of international boards, work closely and regularly with dozens of clients and hundreds of stakeholders, consulted to U.N.-Habitat for the New Urban Agenda, and am part of a remarkable (and large) network of concerned citizens in Portland.
It is true that I have outspoken views about what makes Portland a great city and how we can (and lately do) damage it, through shortsightedness, ignorance of the evidence, and self-interest arising from potential conflicts of interest. I also think it is in the vital long-term interest of the city to encourage such lively and even passionate civic debate on these and related issues. To that end, I, with my colleague Suzanne Lennard of International Making Cities Livable (IMCL), operate the Livable Portland blog where we discuss these and related matters (livableportland.org).
However, more disturbing than the personal attack on me is the fundamentally undemocratic undertone of the article, which, remarkably, was made by a City Council candidate. Even more remarkably, the notable fact of her candidacy was not disclosed. I say the undertone is undemocratic because, in her mind, those who dare to call into question the outcome or propriety of a public process — raising concerns that were substantiated by the city ombudsman, in fact — are "bad actors," "have an ax to grind," and should be marginalized and even attacked personally. They should not be respected as legitimate participants in a vigorous and sometimes passionate debate.
The author also attacked my colleagues on the Goose Hollow board, perpetrating the false claim that they, too, are all condo owners only interested in protecting their views. Aside from the fact that this claim also is false — half our board are renters like me, and most do not have views to protect — it insinuates that there is something improper with neighborhood associations doing what they were in fact created to do. That is, to serve as "the loyal opposition," as PSU historian Carl Abbott has recounted, and to challenge the city and developers when impacts threaten the livability of their own neighborhood. Doing so is not a conflict of interest, but goes to the very heart of what their interests actually are.
Instead the author wants to attack these "bad actors," name them in print with false allegations, even threaten to remove their democratically elected neighborhood association board from a city-funded coalition that she chairs — another episode that only warrants mentioning here. Most dismaying, she seems not to understand what neighborhood associations are actually for, and what neighborhood activism is for. Perhaps we have all forgotten, and we need to be reminded.
It was activist dissent that triggered Portland's renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s, by committed, passionate citizens and neighborhoods, and we need nothing less to sustain it now. It was a willingness to demand accountability, transparency and a government that would be more than yes-men and women to campaign to donating developers of the day. Today, once again, we have considerable challenges, and we surely need the same vigorous, open debate, examination of the evidence, and demand for accountability.
We can respectfully disagree on the wisdom of raising building heights as well as losing iconic views — actions that also were opposed by a wide group of citizens, the Architectural Heritage Center, the Japanese Garden, Restore Oregon, the AIA Historic Resources Committee, and the Northwest District Association, among others. We can and also should be open to criticism of a public process that the City Auditor's Office itself found was improperly constituted, and in which property owners were allowed to vote to allow higher buildings on their own properties. We also should be free to state that we find this ethical lapse on the part of the city to be shocking — and it is no less shocking that a City Council candidate thinks such a process "worked."