The 99 Percent Solution?

Has Portland's plan for the future gotten lost in the consensus?

By Randy Gragg December 23, 2011 Published in the January 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

LIKE FEW INDIVIDUALS since the early days of Portland history, Homer Williams has shaped the city we now enjoy. Known as a “horizontal developer,” he rounds up politicians and investors for huge land deals from which entire new districts rise.

In the ’80s, he tilled and seeded Forest Heights, a middle-class bastion and key provider of Portland’s tax base. In the ’90s, he laid the foundations for the streetcar-laced, park-dotted Pearl District. In the ’00s, he led Oregon Health & Science University to leap I-5 to the river with the aerial tram, spurring the new high-density neighborhood of South Waterfront.

Yet, asked whom he thought we should include in our list of the “The 50 Most Influential Portlanders”, Williams snorted, “There is no power in the city anymore. It’s almost impossible to get anything done.” Indeed, his last Portland project was a mini-storage facility in the Pearl District. Next on his local horizon: a Residence Inn on a prime property between Ziba’s headquarters and Union Station.

While the recession certainly sucked much of the wind out of Williams’s sails, so too has the changing nature of influence in our city. In the reporting for “The Shape We’re In”, virtually every one-time local power player we asked agreed with Williams’s view that how things get done has fundamentally shifted. As our list attests, the city increasingly is being shaped by a new generation of consummate networkers, coalition builders, upstarts, and start-ups while many of the city’s one-time elites watch from the sidelines.

Yet when it comes to the question of how the city will grow, I worry that Portland is excluding an important element. For an example, look no further than the drafts of the new Portland Plan, the first blueprints for the city’s future since the ’80s, released in October. Amid lofty hopes for school equity, job growth, and urban ecosystems, there is little in the way of old-fashioned physical planning. Though both efforts are supposedly intended to guide the city’s development decisions for the next quarter century, the two task forces, together numbering 83 citizens appointed by the mayor, included only one major developer and no major property owners at all.

To venture down a path sure to court arguments with my liberal Portland friends: once, a certain 1 percent (some rich, but most just invested) planned and built the city for the other 99. Now, the 99 is planning the city—largely without the 1 percent.

For sure, Portland has not always planned well, particularly for historically African Americans neighborhoods or anyone living east of 82nd Avenue. But the successes of downtown and the thriving neighborhood business districts were the direct result of 40 years of planning, nearly all of it including, if not initiated by, landowners, developers, and businesspeople looking to protect and grow their investments.

Naive or visionary, our new direction is exciting to many, but it’s also an experiment. With a million new residents arriving by 2035, we’ll see how successful Portland can be with fewer of Homer Williams’s ilk divining the opportunities ahead that the herds can’t always see.

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