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.