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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Make the PDC serve the poor

On my recent trip home from the Sunshine State, I spent some quality time with the Saturday Miami Herald. It's an excellent paper. One of the prominent stories that day was about complaints that the city's urban renewal agency spends all of its money on toney playgrounds for the rich -- drifting far from its supposed mission of bringing the poorer quarters of the city back to life.

"Hmmmm," I thought as I pushed the seat back on the plane. "Where have I heard that before?"

Back to Portland, I see that there's still serious talk of a proposed charter change that would rearrange the pecking order in the Rose City's urban renewal barnyard. The bone of contention at the moment is how much control the City Council gets over the runaway board and staff of the Portland Development Commission.

I favor more council control rather than less, but what real difference does that make? What's really wrong in Portland is the self-same thing that's wrong in Miami. Programs originally designed to help the poor are being subverted to create rich enclaves with all sorts of fancy amenities that even the average Portlander, much less the downtrodden, will never get to enjoy.

If we're going to have a charter change about urban renewal, Portland, let's make it a meaningful one. Rather than debate the deck chair locations on the Titanic, why not get to the iceberg that we've hit? Let's change the city charter to require that no major PDC project be undertaken unless it is demonstrated that the primary purpose and effect of the project will be to make a substantial improvement to the lives of Portland residents who are living in poverty. Without a clear re-direction such as this, it doesn't matter who's the budget boss -- all we'll get is one SoWhat after another, until the municipal bankruptcy hits.

Comments (19)

Like how about a citywide vote on the creation of new urban renewal districts?

Four major changes should occur regarding PDC.
First, as stated above, there should be a city wide vote on the creation of any new urban renewal districts with a stipulated district program, identification of projects within the proposed district, and actual project budgets including ALL costs over the projected life of the URA, including financing costs presented to the voters.

Secondly, if the program(s)and project(s) change through the course of a URA designated period by over 10% (in substance and/or costs), a public vote is required.

Third, if the URD is extended beyond it's projected completion date, then a public vote is required for the extension with all the above mentioned requirements.

Fourth, if any program/projects of any URA changes by over 10% without a public vote, then any public official that is accountable (board, council, committee voting, order signing, public endorsements, etc.) for such "oversight" is accountable for the costs of the "oversight". Now, that will make sure there is no "under-the-table accounting", "number fudging", etc.

What is amazing is that even Gresham rquires public voting on Urban Renewal Districts. And if you research Urban Renewal throughout the US you will find much more control of the use of Urban Renewal to meet the intent/legislation that has been enacted for Urban Renewal.

Read Oregon Urban Renewal statutes and you will be hard pressed to find most of Portland URD's meeting the criteria within the ORS. We already have laws that are being misinterpreted. Where is our state legislature, besides our City Councils?

First, as stated above, there should be a city wide vote on the creation of any new urban renewal districts with a stipulated district program, identification of projects within the proposed district, and actual project budgets including ALL costs over the projected life of the URA, including financing costs presented to the voters.

How exactly could you ID projects and project budgets when that's not how URAs are created? You don't know ahead of time what projects will make use of tax-increment financing over the course of the life of the URA.

the PDC, when i examine it, seems a borderline criminal organization. it has falsified documents and creatively cooked books on a number of occasions.

how can this be allowed to happen, without even so much as a penalty, or legal consequences?

I'm not sure that regularly running to the voters is necessary. What is necessary is that some sort of study be done before each project is undertaken to gauge the impact of the project on the agency's goals. Sort of like an environmental impact statement, which is common.

And the goals need to be tightened up. They should be tied to helping people who need help -- not just "areas," which fat cat developers can glom onto, but people.

Getting decent retail on MLK Blvd. is what urban renewal is supposed to be about. Theaters and aerial trams in yuppie condo forests are not. The voters do need to make that clear, and soon.

Jerry, if there was a city-wide vote for urban renewal areas, nobody outside the proposed area would vote for it.

I like Jack's idea about helping people, not areas, but we wouldn't be talking about this if the PDC staff were honest, responsible stewards of our tax dollars. Instead, it seems that they simply find ways to give our property taxes to "fat cats" in exchange for better jobs with the same fat cats.

The tools (no pun intended) are already there to solve the problems at PDC. The Mayor and City Council can put anyone they want in charge there. We should vote them out if they don't fix the PDC.

Urban renewal should happen where citizens not PDC fat cats think it should happen. Funds should be should be based on need and preferrable given only once. We should nix given large sums of money to any high-rise condo developer in this city. Our city councilors are right to rein in the PDC.

b!x: All proposed URDs in the CoP must have proposed budgets in the consideration by City Council to adopt an URD. The problems has been that the proposed budgets have been fictional and additional projects/costs can easily be added, many times without Council approval. All projects within an URD must have identified sources of funding such as TIF, or federal or state sources.

In the SoWhat URD there has been eight amendments to the original URD adoption. We all know about the tram cost increases from the original "idea cost" for the tram at $3M, then $8.5M , then.......Plus, there has been several project additions and cost increases for other item. Example, the trolley extension just on the second phase to Bancroft cost taxpayers an additional $3M from the orignal project budget. Admentment 8 cost the Portland taxpayers an additional $43M for tram cost overruns and other cost overuns, all from the general fund. I was only throwing out concepts to try to get a handle on the problems of urban renewal. Maybe the 10% number might be too restrictive. And I didn't mean to imply that we should be "running to the voters" all the time. Just once would be a gain.

Jim, your theory that no one outside a proposed URD would vote for a URD is not necessarily true. Gresham and other cities when all voters vote on a URD have passed the creation of URDs; and nationally too. And since all the voters/taxpayers of a city pay for an URD, doesn't it make since that the voters should decide if it is feasible, makes good social sense, and the projects meet the intent of state statutes concerning UR? Since City Council, PDC, and other city bureaus are so politicised, I think we should consider having a check and balance from voters/taxpayers. Sorry, they have not administered the use of urban renewal for the greater good, but only for some. Even the economic "trickle down" theory applied to urban renewal has not shown great results here in Portland. Claiming that a project has created so many dollars of other investments without any kind of auditing as we see so often by PDC and the press is suspect.

Jack, you wrote... "If we're going to have a charter change about urban renewal, Portland, let's make it a meaningful one."

Then, you wrote... "no major PDC project be undertaken unless it is demonstrated that the primary purpose and effect of the project will be to make a substantial improvement to the lives of Portland residents who are living in poverty."

Even within these two good points I see a "Grand Canyon" worth of wiggle room for our existing CoP and PDC leadership. I would anticipate their interpretation of "a substantial improvement" would include helping their favorite developer, and assert, loudly for everyone to hear, "THIS HELPS PORTLAND" when it CANNOT be shown to "make a substantial improvement..."

Let me vote... besides, my kids are still upset that a part of their allowance is going to the Tram Tax.

C'mon, Jack... They'll just continue what they're doing and call it "trickle down".

We need a ward system, by population, for the council, and city-wide votes on each URD. They should be required to provide auditable impact statements that tell voters how much in basic services the rest of us will be giving up in order to set aside those TIF funds for fancy new development.

Studies are useless because they are all cooked to order. Remember how they did a study on the impact of a big box store in industrial NW and the finding was that it would suck the wind out of neighborhood retail such as that on 23rd and 21st? Then a few years later they are proposing to put big box retail in industrial inner East. Another study is done, and, what do you know? The finding is that it will NOT suck the wind out of nearby neighborhood retail.

Another great 180 was the reservoir burial. First a study is done that says only burial will make them safe. But, against all odds, the denizens of city hall eventually figure out exactly how unpopular this idea is. A new study is commissioned for a sum at least equal to the median Portland household income. What do you know? Leaving them open is the best approach.

They'll just continue what they're doing and call it "trickle down".

So we should just let them continue to do what they're doing to Portland without any justification at all? At least let's force them to expose themselves as the liars they are.

How is the public going to be represented within the UR world, if we can't occasionally vote on UR that takes over 1/3 of the Portland's city budget, and additionally takes millions of tax dollars from police, fire, schools, road maintenance, etc.? Are we to depend on City Council? Are we to depend on Urban Renewal Advisory Committees made up of mostly the property owners/stake holders within an URA? Where is the public represented?

Take for example a recent change in process by the City Council on UR budgets. For the SoWhat URAC, who is suppose to review the budget, ask questions, define budget expenditures, etc. The Council has decided to review and make final PDC/URD budgets in less than a month without SoWhat's URAC response to a budget proposal that isn't even established in even near-final form. Citizen involvement? Get real.

The thought that all we need to do with PDC, urban renewal is to cinch up the belt a little tighter is false. It makes sense, if we are going to make a change, to make it a "meaningful one" as Jack writes. But I feel that I may be in support of a more meaningful, deeper change than Jack envisions.

Thank you Jack.

If you ask, your ears will burn to the stories out there regarding PDC and the “help” given low income people and minorities over the years in Portland.

A few examples:

1. The grandchildren of families moved from the Coliseum area have long and bitter family stories of the moves of houses, businesses and churches. Key to that is the belief that promises made were not kept and low prices given families for “black removal” … errr … “urban renewal”.

2. Yes Emanuel Hospital now owns the block from Williams to Vancouver on Russell… But what most don’t remember is that that block, once a center of Black business in Portland, has been empty since the mid 1960’s even though it was supposed to see “economic development” long long ago.

3. Story after story revolves around preference for new out of area businesses getting loans quickly after years of locals trying to get support. The other common element: the businesses trying to get help represent low income communities, especially minorities, but not exclusively racial minorities.

4. Want a loan along Mississippi Avenue during the last three decades? Better wait until someone tracking their tanning capability buys the property, especially if they are from out of state.

5. The Delta’s, a chapter of a black sorority, owns property at the corner of Albina and Ainsworth. They’d like to put a community center there on the old gas station. Gee wonder why they can’t get support or loans for what is becoming a hot property area?

6. For some reason a development/enterprise zone moves along NE Killingsworth to 14th then skips over to 17th to continue. Several of the owners of the properties in that gap have noticed that they share a common heritage as well as a historic difficulty in getting loans and business support from the powers that be downtown.

Yes there is a race card played here. It fits the experience for so many people over the years it can simply not be ignored. And the PDC and other in Portland are long overdue in addressing it directly.

“help” given low income people and minorities over the years in Portland.

The South Auditorium Urban Renewal Area destroyed a working class Italian neighborhood...replacing it with sterile high rises (I used to live there) that have now thrown out their long-term renters to convert the units to more profitable condos.

Serve the poor?

Sounds like that old Twilight Zone episode where the aliens arrive on earth to "serve mankind"...on their menu!

I went to a journalism workshop last summer with two dozen reporters and producers from all over the country, and one remarkable thing about it was that in every city represented at the workshop a "Development Commission" had been busted for stealing money and/or misrouting tax funds for illegal purposes. And the guilty parties were actually prosecuted.

About 20 different cities in total. We're talking coast to coast corruption kicked over into the realm of law enforcement. As opposed to the sort of "philosophical corruption" we're talking about here (rich v. poor?), which is entirely legal.

There's just as much dirt as there is cash in them thar renewal districts....

Maybe we should deputize each other and start issuing toy guns?

Lisaloving: there must not have been ONE Oregonian reporter at the workshop. They can't even connect the dots. Consider last two weeks and especially last weekends Oregonians coverage on the tram. It was a totally PR job with no referral to the fact that it has been the most controversial project of the decade that symbolizes so many things about our region and city government. "If you don't write about it, it is not news"-this is the Oregonians motto.

Jack, don't be a sell out. All urban renewal is bad. If you require that it substantially help people living in poverty, they will just dress up projects to look like they help the poor. But who will make the profits building the projects? Who will make the profits on the real estate deals? Not people living in poverty.

If you require that urban renewal promote retail on MLK, you will create subsidized competitors against existing retailers and no one will ever build a retail shop on MLK again without subsidies.

Urban renewal lets government pick winners and losers, and when you give government that kind of power you are asking for trouble. Columbia Sportswear gets run out of town but Homer Williams wonders why anyone thinks Portland has an unfriendly business climate.

Even requiring that people vote on urban-renewal projects before they can be approved won't necessarily help. Planners will just design enough projects to help enough wealthy interests so that they can finance an expensive campaign for the program.

Urban renewal and tax-increment financing should be banned, period.

It was a totally PR job with no referral to the fact that it has been the most controversial project of the decade that symbolizes so many things about our region and city government. "If you don't write about it, it is not news"-this is the Oregonians motto.

Oh, I don't know. The couple of billion or so that we're spending to tart up the transit mall has to count as "controversial" too...though, like you say, if it ain't in the Oregonian it ain't news.

I protested to them that not only didn't they talk about my bus line's service being gutted (#14), but they even left us off their map that showed bus changes...and the argument I got back was there wasn't ROOM to include the 2nd Avenue route to which we've been exiled. (Exile on 2nd Avenue? Isn't that a Stones hit? Help me out here, McDonald.)

You gotta laugh. But the really funny thing is I'm reading "Urban renewal lets government pick winners and losers, and when you give government that kind of power you are asking for trouble." and I'm nodding yup, uh-huh...but then I read who posted it and no way can I agree with that guy.

Except maybe sometimes I can.


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