Is urban renewal worth the trouble? Northwest activist says it heightens social inequities, can’t be controlled
By Allan Classen
By NW Examiner
Urban renewal west of the I-405 Freeway may not be dead, but it’s on ice, and no one knows if the proposed Central City Urban Renewal District will ever come to life.After 15 months of meetings by area stakeholders, Mayor Sam Adams announced last fall that the evaluation committee would be suspended until mid-year, if not longer. Resurrection-if it comes-may have more to do with Adams’ political traction than the wisdom of launching the far-flung downtown-Goose Hollow-Northwest District renewal area. But in Northwest Portland, key people are wondering if letting the whole effort fade away might be best for all.
That’s not the usual dynamic for proposed urban renewal districts because the communities and property owners within them stand to gain handsomely from the associated corralling of property tax revenues for their benefit.
Scott Seibert, former board member of the Northwest District Association, charged that the self-interest of property owners, developers and other stakeholders serving on the evaluation committee is so obvious that they could not be trusted to provide an honest verdict on whether a new urban renewal area should be formed. He likened it to pigs feeding at a trough.
And yet, some longtime NWDA activists believe the association should, in fact, pull away from the table, ur trough. That hasn’t happened before. Portland Development Commission staff, who administer Portland’s 11 urban renewal areas, couldn’t cite an example of a neighborhood association wanting to opt out.
The association has not yet taken an official pro or con stance and may never do so if the question becomes moot.
But John Bradley, the NWDA leader most responsible for leading that discussion, is increasingly disenchanted with urban renewal in general and the proposed Central City Urban Renewal Area in particular.
“I don’t think we necessarily want the money,” said Bradley. “It comes with a whole lot of strings.” He also wonders, “What would happen if you did nothing?”
Although Con-way’s underdeveloped property in the Slabtown area is a major magnet for urban renewal, there is reason to believe the 20 acres-most of which have been devoted to surface parking lots since the middle of the last century-would develop on their own. The land sits between the Pearl and Northwest 23rd Avenue, after all.
Editor’s Turn Urban renewal: connecting the dots
Urban renewal used to be about rebuilding areas. Whether in Portland or elsewhere, urban renewal programs targeted geographically defined neighborhoods or sections of cities.
Now we have urban renewal properties. Under Mayor Sam Adams’ directives, the Portland Development Commission searches out particular parcels with the potential to multiply in value and then connects the dots into a non-pattern resembling a Rorschach test.
You might call it cherry picking.
Because the targeted properties are scattered here and there, they’ve invented a term-cherry stem-for the required link connecting them to the rest of an urban renewal boundary.
These connecting stems may exist in ether only. In the proposed Central City Urban Renewal Area, there’s a stem going up the center of Northwest Hoyt Street for two blocks to encircle properties near 21st Avenue. Obviously, the street itself cannot be developed; it’s merely a conduit to circumvent the principle and law that urban renewal areas be literally contiguous areas.
While there’s a certain efficiency in picking properties that were about to be developed anyway, the downside is that the ensuing urban renewal areas have no common identity or coherence. The Central City URA would stretch all the way from Portland State University and the riverfront to Northwest 23rd and Vaughn streets. This is not a single community. These are not even abutting neighborhoods. If an attractive public project were built on the far side of downtown, people in Northwest Portland would not cheer for their good fortune; more likely, they would say, “They got theirs; when do we get ours?”
That’s at the heart of how the whole idea broke down among Northwest District activists. They were concerned that their end of the district would get shortchanged as the big money went to PSU or downtown. Some wanted two separate urban renewal areas go ensure an adequate degree of local control. They even talked about wanting three separate citizen oversight bodies so each section of the district would have an advocate. Clearly, this cobbled together contraption was not going to move as one body.
Nor would investment in one part of the urban renewal area lift properties across the board. Investors would rightly conclude that construction three miles away would not bring their neighborhood new life or boost their property values. In that sense, the attempt to handcraft boundaries may be supremely inefficient. By picking out “islands” for development, the mayor’s men also chose islands with little interconnection.
That may be the fatal fault in the cherry-picking theory of urban renewal. There are other strong contenders for that honor.
How do government “experts” know which properties are likely to rise in value? By talking to the owners and learning of their plans. Many property owners don’t wait to be asked; they actively lobby for inclusion in urban renewal. Since City Council took control of PDC’s budget four years ago, the most direct path has been the familiar one paved by campaign contributions and inside connections. If urban renewal becomes the normal channel for politicians and big money interests to feed their mutual ambitions, it is not worthy of the name or its special powers of the purse strings.
Other jurisdictions-public schools and the county, primarily-no longer trust Portland’s urban renewal system to promote their interests. They’ve gotten legislation to protect their share of property tax revenues up front. They don’t believe the original theory that urban renewal only takes tax revenues that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Affordable housing advocates also get a 30-percent share of urban renewal funds off the top because they don’t believe unfettered urban renewal will provide housing for poor and working families. The beast of urban renewal is so weighted down, conflicted and confused that few see it as a champion anymore. It looks beautiful only in the eyes of those who get its money.