Portland’s City Council unanimously agreed Wednesday to speed up the permitting process for businesses looking to install gates and lighting amid a reported uptick in vandalism and burglaries.
The emergency ordinance vote came over a strong objection from the city’s preservation-minded commissions, which warned the unwelcoming design elements could backfire and deter visitors from returning downtown.
The rule, introduced by Commissioner Dan Ryan and Mayor Ted Wheeler, will allow businesses in many of the city’s commercial districts to skip the lengthy design review on new security measures through the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency.
The rule applies to any business in one of the city’s design overlay zones.
Both Ryan and Wheeler framed Wednesday’s ordinance as a necessary fix to reinvigorate the city’s commercial areas after foot traffic has dropped and broken windows and graffiti have risen. The design review process can take anywhere from a few weeks to months.
“We need to have our major employers and our major retailers and those that make the wheels turn have confidence that this is still a place to do business,” Wheeler said. “It is still a place to expand operations.”
Some businesses had been pushing for the change. Willamette Week reported last month that the management at the downtown shopping center Pioneer Place, while looking to install security gates, faced an approval process of up to 103 days.
Amy Rathfelder, director of government affairs for the Portland Business Alliance, said the business group wanted City Hall to now go even further than the temporary adjustment.
“We strongly encourage council to make common sense reforms like this permanent,” she testified.
“Waiting more than 100 days is far too long for businesses and property owners to get approval for improvement projects”
While business will now be able to bypass the design review process, there are still a few aesthetic rules they must abide by: the ordinance requires lighting be directed downward and gates be mostly transparent. The ordinance does not apply to historic landmarks and businesses will still need to go through the rest of the permitting process.
But appointees with the city’s design review commission and historic landmark commission worry that’s not enough regulation.
“We ask that you abandon this ill-conceived strategy,” said Kristen Minor, chair of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
In a joint meeting Tuesday afternoon, members of the two commissions expressed outrage at the ordinance, which they called short-sighted and counter to basic tenets of good design.
The commissioners said they were concerned that the gates and lighting would remain even after the pandemic, marring downtown as the area attempts to make a post-COVID recovery. One commissioner referred to it “a militant strategy.” The state of emergency has been extended every two weeks since March 2020.
Some critics of the policy change also took offense to the ordinance’s reference to “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design principles” — an urban design theory aimed at discouraging crime that urbanists have found to disproportionately target people of color. The council ultimately decided to strip the language from the ordinance.
But the expert testimony against the ordinance did little to dissuade city leaders, who ultimately voted unanimously Wednesday to cut the design review commission out of the permitting process for the time being.
“We’re going to do all we can to get the currency flowing and open up,” Ryan said.