Wealthy developers, secrecy & failed projects: time to end PDC?

by Dave Lister

Sometimes I yearn for good old-fashioned, New Jersey-style corruption here in Portland. It would be so much simpler.

City commissioners being slipped envelopes of hundred-dollar bills inside of construction proposals, or county crews depositing fresh asphalt on the driveways of elected officials. Everyone would know it went on, and it would be considered business as usual.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way we do it here.

Here in Portland the ability of the powerful and well-connected to plunder the public treasury was approved by the voters themselves, more than 50 years ago, when a charter amendment created the Portland Development Commission and tasked it with urban renewal.

In 1958, by a very slim margin, Portland voters created the PDC. At that time, Dwight Eisenhower was president, the four-door station wagon was the family transportation option of choice and ranch-style houses in suburban developments were selling like hotcakes.

While the more affluent emigrated to the suburbs, the less affluent remained behind. The popular thinking at the time was that those inner-city neighborhoods were “blighted.” The goal of urban renewal was to economically reinvigorate them.

The PDC sank its teeth into the task with zeal. Its first action was to eradicate a predominantly Jewish and Italian immigrant enclave in Southwest Portland to create the Auditorium District. It then proceeded to raze a predominantly African American neighborhood to create the Coliseum District. Low-income residents with little political clout were defenseless against the juggernaut. In the half-century that has followed, the PDC has picked off neighborhood after neighborhood, with gentrification pushing lower-income families out to the suburbs sought by the wealthy back in the 1950s.

Despite this flip-flop of populations from one region to another, urban renewal has accomplished something else. It has enriched beyond their wildest dreams the chosen developers who have been lucky enough to feast at the PDC’s trough.

Of the property tax bill I just received, more than 10 percent of the total, and about 25 percent of Portland’s share, went to urban renewal. When you consider miles of unpaved streets, countless potholes and underfunded schools, that’s obscene. And, when it comes to picking projects, the PDC isn’t particularly effective.

The PDC has written off $9.6 million in bad debt on misbegotten projects in the past 10 years, including $1.8 million for a failed condominium project overseen by Judy Shiprack, who later was elected to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. The agency also promotes a culture of secrecy. As reported in The Oregonian, two high-level PDC staffers were recently awarded severance packages totaling $150,000 on the condition that they leave quietly and not disparage the agency.

When asked why the PDC has backed these failed projects, its answer has been that the projects were too risky to obtain conventional financing. If that’s the case, why were they backed at all? Why are Portland’s taxpayers in the banking business? Is it really the city’s role to select winners and losers?

Ultimately, that is a question for the city’s voters. Maybe it’s time to do away with the PDC. What the voters did in 1958 can be undone.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Portland Politics | 13 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Bob Clark

    The PDC prospects are even worse than suggested.

    The PDC is only part way through writing down its loan portfolio, betting worse than a blind monkey on one horse in horse races sporting many horses. 

  • HBguy

    Crony socialism.

  • HBguy

    Crony socialism.

  • HBguy

    Crony socialism.

  • Gcoe

    PDC is a minor problem compared to out of control and nearly bankrupt TriMet.
    The there is Metro, supported by a hidden tax on the populous through our garbage bill.
    If Tom Hughes is a real leader he will lead the dismantlement of Metro.

  • Gcoe

    PDC is a minor problem compared to out of control and nearly bankrupt TriMet.
    The there is Metro, supported by a hidden tax on the populous through our garbage bill.
    If Tom Hughes is a real leader he will lead the dismantlement of Metro.

  • Gcoe

    PDC is a minor problem compared to out of control and nearly bankrupt TriMet.
    The there is Metro, supported by a hidden tax on the populous through our garbage bill.
    If Tom Hughes is a real leader he will lead the dismantlement of Metro.

  • Anonymous

    You are talking about Portland here. Why are you surprised? 

    Strung together tents made from tarps and rope is the way we build then now in Portland. I’m sure the PDC will be voting the “occupiers” a couple of million bucks any day now.?

  • Anonymous

    You are talking about Portland here. Why are you surprised? 

    Strung together tents made from tarps and rope is the way we build then now in Portland. I’m sure the PDC will be voting the “occupiers” a couple of million bucks any day now.?

  • It is not only Portland but take a look at the government failings in Salem.
    The new ODOT headquarters is being remodeled for $450/sq ft. The remodel doesn’t add one square foot of new space. With the structural reinforcement it is likely to even reduce the amount of space.
    Then there is the $45 Million dollar County office and bus mall that is crumbling under its own weight. The building and mall are sitting vacant waiting for the next earthquake to bring it down. It is only 10 years old.
    As for Salem Urban Renewal common sense ran out many years ago.
    Today we have a multistory highrise overlooking Riverfront Park a totally see through building at any angle.
    Then there is the Meridian Park project at $45 Million dollars that was foreclosed and written down to $7 million give or take.
    Now they got a bunch of college student rummaging about the city trying to find more projects for this insanity.

    Oregonians should pass a law prohibiting public private partnerships. No better yet, the citizens should take control and pass an initiative to prohibit these sweetheart deals. 

  • It is not only Portland but take a look at the government failings in Salem.
    The new ODOT headquarters is being remodeled for $450/sq ft. The remodel doesn’t add one square foot of new space. With the structural reinforcement it is likely to even reduce the amount of space.
    Then there is the $45 Million dollar County office and bus mall that is crumbling under its own weight. The building and mall are sitting vacant waiting for the next earthquake to bring it down. It is only 10 years old.
    As for Salem Urban Renewal common sense ran out many years ago.
    Today we have a multistory highrise overlooking Riverfront Park a totally see through building at any angle.
    Then there is the Meridian Park project at $45 Million dollars that was foreclosed and written down to $7 million give or take.
    Now they got a bunch of college student rummaging about the city trying to find more projects for this insanity.

    Oregonians should pass a law prohibiting public private partnerships. No better yet, the citizens should take control and pass an initiative to prohibit these sweetheart deals. 

  • It is not only Portland but take a look at the government failings in Salem.
    The new ODOT headquarters is being remodeled for $450/sq ft. The remodel doesn’t add one square foot of new space. With the structural reinforcement it is likely to even reduce the amount of space.
    Then there is the $45 Million dollar County office and bus mall that is crumbling under its own weight. The building and mall are sitting vacant waiting for the next earthquake to bring it down. It is only 10 years old.
    As for Salem Urban Renewal common sense ran out many years ago.
    Today we have a multistory highrise overlooking Riverfront Park a totally see through building at any angle.
    Then there is the Meridian Park project at $45 Million dollars that was foreclosed and written down to $7 million give or take.
    Now they got a bunch of college student rummaging about the city trying to find more projects for this insanity.

    Oregonians should pass a law prohibiting public private partnerships. No better yet, the citizens should take control and pass an initiative to prohibit these sweetheart deals. 

  • anon

    Look at the board members, officers, and executives of the major developers profiting from urban renewal – lots of ex planning commission employees.

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