Ted Wheeler took office this week as Portland’s new mayor. We’ve been going over what Ted Wheeler said in January 2016 at the Candidates Forum for Arts and Culture about his arts agenda.
At the debate Wheeler talked about two priorities close to developers’ hearts for influencing the city’s architecture and design.
But how will he handle things now that he’s in office, juggling big plans for economic, policing, and housing issues?
We reviewed Wheeler’s bureau assignments for arts (Commissioner Nick Fish) and planning (new Commissioner Chloe Eudaly), and talked to three bright people in design, architecture and planning who recently met with Wheeler to discuss industry issues:
- Jean-Pierre Veillet, founder of the design/build firm Siteworks, campus master plan chair for PNCA, and chief of NW Sustainable Properties.
- Mike McCulloch, an urban designer and architect in Portland since 1981. He just finished the vision plan for Lake Oswego and was chair of the Portland Design Commission for a number of years, finishing in 2007.
- Architect Tony Belluschi maintained a practice for 35 years in Chicago before moving back to his hometown of Portland four years ago. He does some consulting work now, and is involved in non-profit boards retained to architecture and design.
(This is a condensed version of our interview. For the full conversation, listen to the clip above.)
First Impressions of Ted Wheeler
April Baer: The three of you had an opportunity to sit down with Mayor Ted Wheeler before he took office. What were your impressions?
Jean-Pierre Veillet: My sense with Ted is that he’s data driven. I think he’s going to do a great job. He’s going to have people that he’s going to hold accountable. He’s really interested in getting this right while Portland has an opportunity to succeed.
Baer: What kinds of things was he saying that gave you that impression?
Veillet: I think he’s very open to the idea of leveraging the collaboration between the development community, the architect community and the construction community forward into a really positive outcome for the city. I also know a lot of things are getting passed through City Council before he takes office. And he was very clear that that was being passed too quickly, people would be held accountable.
Mike McCulloch: I was impressed by how open he was — I agree with you, Jean-Pierre. And I think he’s really looking seriously at some of the problems that he’s heard about. How long it’s taking to get through entitlement processes. How long it’s taking to get permits. And is that affecting the market here in Portland. Are people in the development thinking about going to other places because there’s just too much resistance or bureaucracy or indeterminacy about our processes?
Baer: Tony, you’ve worked with a lot of city administrators. What were your impressions?
Tony Belluschi: Well, I was impressed at first blush by his intellect. I think he has a very strong grasp of all the issues he needs to prioritize. Unfortunately, I’m not sure which ones are going to be at the top of the list. We focused — or at least he focused — in the meeting that we attended were focused very much on cutting the red tape in the building and planning process. But we know he’s got other priorities. Personally, having come back to Portland, I’m looking at more of the bigger issues, from 30,000 feet in the air. I would have preferred to have seen some issues like the master planning of the city, such as the North Park Blocks. As a board member of PNCA I’m very interested in making sure we [at PNCA] are connected in the design and the master planning. I think there’s a huge opportunity there. And I’d like to see that and the Rose Quarter and other major areas have some attention in the near future.
Baer: What do you see Portland needing Ted Wheeler to do right now?
Veillet: I really think we need a strategic plan that starts at the building level. I think we need to build on the culture and civilization we have in Portland and continue to make that great. I’m concerned the way it’s going now, without a lot of direction and vision, we could slip into [becoming] Everywhere, America. You lose the vitality of what made Portland great. We have a really great food scene, great access to nature — to the mountains, to transportation. We need to invest in that in every way possible. I don’t see those moves happening. I see rents going up. I know good food, good art, good creativity follows cheap rents. We need to find a way to subsidize the missing middle. We’re taking care of humanitarian needs on the homeless front as best we can. We’re building lots of luxury housing that’s easily filled, because good jobs are coming here. We need to focus on the missing middle: the $40,000 to $60,000 job — the chef, the artist, the teacher, the social worker, and figure out how to keep that really strong in this community. I think Ted’s going to have that challenge of really re-energizing this public and private process and getting in front of that to make a city we want to have long into the future.
Baer: Charlie Hales spent no small amount of time putting final touches on the city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan [a roadmap for long-term development over a period of 20 years]. How is that different that what you want to see materialize?
McCulloch: I think taking advantage of the 2035 [Comp] Plan — what that is is a really big-picture series of regulations. Well, what do you do with those regulations? When you market Portland as a great place where developers come and build, I think it’s incumbent on us to say, Here is a way in which you can build. This is what your neighbors are doing. Start with a small district of 10 blocks, say, and have the city advocate for what should happen there. I’ve worked with two large developers who are spending a grand total of, like, $2 billion in our city, and they were never really talked to by the city to get them to coordinate. And they’re three people. One and one and one could make five, or 10. They were all left on their own, wondering how do we deal with this system, and what do we envision?
Baer: What is the difference between an area with scattershot development, where developers don’t work together, and a more coordinated effort?
McCulloch: Well usually there’s an agency that’s actually doing that. PDC used to do that. PDC has been sort of eviscerated over the last decade. Because of the reduction of urban renewal funding and the other economic vehicles that used to support PDC, we’re losing that function. If Planning [the city’s Planning Bureau] could do that, that’d be great. another way would be to reinvigorate PDC. When I got here in 1981, I was involved in the first condominiums downtown at KOIN Center. People thought the market was crazy. But PDC made that decision. And look what’s happened since. I think Ted’s looking at that seriously.
Baer: Tony, when you think about a 10,000-foot view, what do you want Ted Wheeler thinking about?
Belluschi: To put it very simply, good architecture and good design makes good business … . We have a tendency not to be able to look from 10,000 feet. I’m interested in how we promote Portland, the great series of things that happened here in terms of architecture and planning: the North Park Blocks, the old Post Office — that’s going to be an opportunity — what’s happening across the river. Maybe there could be a connection between the two? I think there are major projects like that. We could have an international competition to really put Portland on the map, with the next Wrigley Tower or the next Vietnam Memorial — Maya Lin’s wonderful design. My biggest concern is no one’s really thinking that way. There’s not enough planning for that kind of opportunity for Portland.
Baer: Some sort of showpiece that demonstrates to the world the values of the city?
Belluschi: Exactly. And I think Portland is one of the most favorable for people to want to move to. Perhaps most affordable [sic] but it’s got everything else going for it. And unless we really take advantage of that — and we can — there’s no reason why we can’t be doing that.
McCulloch: I think there’s a belief in Portland that if there’s enough regulation in Portland, and if that regulation is clearly articulated, you’ll get what you want. And the problem is that there’s mission vision about who to connect these regulations. That vision takes courage, experimentation, a willingness to fail — all those things creativity engenders. And I think [the city] Planning [Bureau] has been in the position of creating rules and regulation without following up with clear vision for, “This is exactly where we want the city to go, or this neighborhood or this district.”
Baer: What questions did Ted Wheeler have for you three that might shed light on the challenges he’s ready to take on right now?
Veillet: Ted wanted to know specific issues we’d encountered in the recent past. So we talked a lot about the time it takes to get a permit, the time it takes to go through land-use issues. The time it takes to get consolidations done. And again, these are for very thoughtful projects. When you have a city that has immigration at the rate we have, you obviously can’t build a wall around the city and stop that. We want to encourage that. I’m a Portland native, and I believe we can build this community right, and remember what our values are. As you pass more taxes, a development tax or inclusionary housing, you’re not solving the cost issue. And I think you really have to focus on the cost issue. In the development world, the distance of time from vision to completion is getting longer. The way the banks think about that is larger contingency. Those larger contingencies are more cost of the project. That said the crystal ball is foggier, the longer the distance you have. So if we want to control costs, we have to work together. We have a very collaborative community of developers. We have a very collaborative community in architecture. We should be leveraging that forward, and working with BDS to find ways to cut costs. That’s what’s really going to help us succeed here. It’s not going to be through taxation and other programs.