Think Out Loud

Portland task force makes recommendations for revitalizing downtown

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Dec. 12, 2023 6:33 p.m. Updated: Dec. 19, 2023 1:31 a.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Dec. 12

Many stores are still boarded up in downtown Portland. Oct. 6, 2023

Many stores are still boarded up in downtown Portland. Oct. 6, 2023

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

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Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek convened a task force in August to make concrete and actionable policy recommendations to revitalize downtown Portland. The task force issued its recommendations on Monday, including increasing police presence in downtown Portland, outlawing public drug consumption, removing protective plywood from buildings, and increasing social services for those living on the streets. The governor also wants tax relief for downtown businesses and a 90-day state of emergency to address the fentanyl addiction crisis. We get more details from one of the task force committee chairs, Nolan Lienhart, principal and director of planning and urban design at ZGF Architects.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Over the last year, residents and business owners in downtown Portland have been reeling from fentanyl overdoses, boarded up buildings and a battered national image. In response, over the summer Oregon Governor Tina Kotek convened the Portland Central City Task Force. It included elected officials, business owners, healthcare representatives, community leaders and some social service providers. Their assignment was to revitalize the economic future of Portland’s central city. Yesterday, after a few months of closed door meetings, the task force released their recommendations. They include everything from stepped up enforcement and shelter services to neighborhood cleanups to a moratorium on new taxes. Nolan Lienhart joins us to talk about this. He was the chair of the task force’s Value Proposition Committee. He’s also a principal and director of planning and urban design at ZGF Architects. Thanks very much for coming in.

Nolan Lienhart: Thanks, Dave. Good to be here.

Miller: Why did you want to be on this task force?

Lienhart: Well, as we were just talking about, I was raised in Portland, Oregon and I am very proud of the thriving downtown that we have a reputation for. As I moved out into the world, I learned that that was not just a locally treasured reputation but one that was really internationally significant.

Miller: I should say, when you said, ‘as we were talking about’... Right before we started talking, I asked where you’re from. You said Portland. And you noted that, say in 2006 when you were in planning school, you would say, ‘I’m from Portland.’ They’d say, ‘Well, why are you here? You’ve mastered it there.’ What changed?

Lienhart: Well, I think a lot of things changed. First of all, cities are organic. I think it was a fallacy if anyone believed that we just, you know, it’s in the water, and everything we do is great and works all the time. I think it’s natural for any city to go through its cycles. I think in our case, there are a number of factors. One of the things I actually appreciated about the work that we did in the Value Proposition Committee – we actually informally termed it the ‘optimism committee’ because we really focus on the future. We didn’t spend a whole bunch of time thinking about who screwed up, ‘How did we get here?’ and we spent more time thinking about ‘Where do we want to go?’ And where we want to go is not back to 2006 or 2016 or anywhere in the past, but it’s about creating a future city that we want to live in and be proud of.

Miller: I appreciate the forward look. But in order to have prescriptions for how to fix the ills that everybody recognizes, if in different ways, it does seem like some kind of understanding of what happened in the last couple of years is necessary. I mean, one of the stats that folks might have seen that really stands out is from a study by the University of Toronto showing that Portland’s downtown is 61st out of 66 downtowns across the country in terms of its bounce back to prepandemic levels. Only five cities have done worse in terms of clawing back. How do you explain that? I mean, because every city had to deal with COVID.

Lienhart: Yeah. That is a study that the first draft of it – I don’t know if there’s been a second draft yet – but the first draft, after people dug into it, they realized it was only covering the 97204, I think, zip code…

Miller: Right, this…

Lienhart: This was the updated version?

Miller: This is the updated one.

Lienhart: And it’s still not good?

Miller: What happened, if I understand correctly, basically this is a broader geographic swath that includes more of Portland. And, if I understand correctly, that bumped up the percentage increase from the COVID lows, but I don’t think it changed dramatically where we are with respect to other cities.

Lienhart: Yeah. Well, like I said, I do think that there are probably six or seven factors. I think certainly the social conditions on the street, some of the issues around drugs, I think that they have been extreme here, and in other places they haven’t. I think there are people who have probably talked on your show a lot about the Ninth Circuit decision that makes it challenging to police the sidewalks in the Northwest. So, again, a lot of different reasons. I don’t know that there’s one that I would pin it on, but certainly we’ve contributed some of them ourselves, and some of them are a reflection of national issues.

Miller: Let’s turn to some of the recommendations that were released yesterday. Can you give us a sense for what the debate – within the task force, among the task force members – was like with respect to Measure 110, which decriminalized the user level possession of drugs?

Lienhart: Yeah. The Value Proposition Committee was really focused on what are the things we do to make people want to be downtown in Portland. It was focused on, what are the things that attract someone to want to be here? So what I’ll say is that our committee dealt with fewer of those things, and the other committees dealt with them in more detail. There was a committee on livability. There was a committee on community safety. There was a community on housing and homelessness. And then there was a community on taxation. At the task force level, I would say one of the things you’ll notice in that 10 is that there aren’t value proposition recommendations that floated to the top 10.

Miller: Actually, maybe this is a planning phrase that I’m just not familiar with, but what do you mean when you say a value proposition?

Lienhart: Sure. Yeah.

Miller: It sounds sort of like sales.

Lienhart: Yeah, [chuckles] I do think an economist came up with it, and that may be why we quickly pivoted to the ‘optimism committee.’ But really what it means is, why would you want to be here when you could be anywhere else? That could mean… What I said yesterday was: ‘Why would you want to open a business here if you could open it in Vancouver, Washington? Why would you want to live in the South Waterfront when you could live anywhere else in the region? Why would a tourist family from the Bay Area want to spend a three-day weekend here when they can spend it in Seattle?’ It’s really, the value proposition is, what is our unique draw?

Miller: Okay. I take your point in your first answer to my question, which was that your particular committee of the broader task force didn’t focus on Measure 110 and drug use. But it was the first recommendation put out by the task force overall. And I should say that one of the big things the task force says is, you want lawmakers to criminalize the public use of drugs. But you did not call for basically the repeal of Measure 110, of re-criminalizing the possession of drugs. That’s something that a prominent coalition of state leaders is pushing for. And immediately. They put out a press release yesterday saying that you didn’t go far enough as a task force, that you should have done this. How did the task force sort of thread this needle and say we want to criminalize the public use of drugs, but we don’t want to re-criminalize possession?

Lienhart: I think the task force was focused on, what are the outcomes we want to see. Recognizing that there’s this much bigger debate – and some members of the task force are participating in a much more specific way in parts of that – I think it’s not a stretch to say there are people with very divergent views on that bigger question.

Miller: On the task force?

Lienhart: Oh yeah, on the task force. And then I think there were some challenging conversations that happened in those other committees. But I think that, even within the Value Proposition Committee, toward the end as we started getting all these big ideas coming out about how to support arts and culture, which is so important, how to get our food culture thriving as well as it can be – all these great things about Portland – many people were careful to say, ‘Hey, listen, if we don’t get the community safety, the homelessness issues, the real human struggling that’s happening on our streets fixed, everything great that we do in these other areas is not going to move the needle.’

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Miller: I misspoke earlier when I said that Measure 110 was the first recommendation on the list on the website. The first one is actually to declare a tri-government fentanyl emergency, meaning the city of Portland, Multnomah County and the state of Oregon. What is that declaration of emergency going to mean and accomplish?

Lienhart: Again, it was the detailed work of other committees, but my understanding is that what that does is it allows the mayor, the chair and the governor to use resources in a more flexible, accessible way because that is a state of emergency.

Miller: What is the task force recommending when it comes to the literal cleanup of the city, things like trash and graffiti?

Lienhart: Well, Vanessa Sturgeon made a presentation yesterday, and I think there’s quite a lot of resources. I think Tim Boyle made a big announcement about a gift that he’s making. Part of the conversation was, ‘What are all the different parties that can participate in this?’ I know there’s been a lot of focus on ODOT and ODOT right of way, and what resources they have. I think they’ve exceeded the amount that they had to spend on clean up of ODOT right of way, so finding more resources for them to do that in the future, whether those be public resources or private resources, was a high priority.

Miller: What do you see as the connection between your committee’s focus – how do you get people to start a business here, to visit here, to live here – the connection between that and trash on the street or say graffiti on the side of a building, as opposed to public art that people want to see?

Lienhart: Yeah, absolutely. One of the examples that we talked about a lot was the performing arts, right? People come from all over the region to come see the opera or the ballet. They may be buying dinner beforehand. They may be staying at a hotel. If they’re having an experience where they’re stepping over trash on the streets, they feel like they’re in a city that may not feel safe, it may make them less likely to come back next time. They may just have a bad experience and then tell their friends wherever they came from that they had a bad experience. So it’s a real negative reinforcing cycle. Something like cleaning up streets… I think Tim Boyle said, and I remember my dad growing up saying, ‘Wow, Portland’s one of the cleanest cities in North America.’ I think that does make a difference in terms of how people experience a city, even if they do come for good things and are experiencing good things.

Miller: I should say, because sometimes [the Portland Central City Task Force] has been called a downtown committee, we talk about downtown a lot, the actual lines that the task force was focused on, they’re broader. They go from Lower Albina, meaning inner north or northeast Portland, down to the South Waterfront, which you mentioned, and then west from Goose Hollow all the way to the Central Eastside. So a broader vision of the central city than folks may sometimes think about. Why was that important, to draw the lines the way you did?

Lienhart: Well, I think partly it’s because it’s a boundary that already exists in our city planning and our city code. I think we could have all argued about where that boundary was if we hadn’t selected that existing boundary. So it feels like a lazy answer, but I think there is a reason that it is a central city boundary in code. That’s because it’s the walkable fabric of the center. And it’s supported by robust public transportation. There’s a lot of infrastructure investment that’s happened. Broadly, the other way to look at that is that it’s sort of the loop within the 405, with a little bit of exception for Central Eastside. A little bit of Lloyd and a little bit of South Waterfront poke out of that. But that’s basically the sort of mental map of what constitutes the center of Portland.

Miller: I know that your committee was not focused on homelessness, but it’s an inescapable piece of this puzzle for every Portlander, housed and unhoused. The task force is asking for more shelter beds and more daytime services for unsheltered people, including things like bathrooms and hygiene services. Is it fair to say that this is a kind of shift in the county’s focus on permanent housing?

Lienhart: I can’t speak to that. I wish I could, but I don’t have enough detail. Part of what I think the most valuable thing for me about this was, is a lot of us getting a little bit more information and understanding of all the parts and pieces that fit into this. But I also came to learn that there are people with so much better expertise that I wouldn’t try to paraphrase their side of it.

Miller: What’s the idea behind the call for a three-year moratorium on new taxes?

Lienhart: Well, I think that’s the recognition that we’ve had a lot of change in the tax base over the last five to seven years and that as a result, we stand out. We stand out as one of the high tax locations…

Miller: Second highest in terms of local taxes after New York City.

Lienhart: Exactly. So, as we think about how we’re going to build back the central city, I think there was a real appreciation that we should not be continuing to add barriers to that growth and that recovery.

Miller: Are the members of the task force essentially saying that the Portland area voters, over the last couple of years, in approving new taxes to pay for preschool for all, for supportive housing and affordable housing, for Portland’s Climate Fund… These are at the county or the city or metro – different levels actually. But voters have said yes and yes and yes. Is the task force saying that those votes were a mistake?

Lienhart: No. Actually I appreciate that question because there was a real important clarification that somebody asked: ‘Well, jeez, are we rolling back some of these? Are we preventing those from being renewed?’ And the answer was no. Again, this comes back to, where’s the consensus, right? There may have been some people on the task force who felt that we should start rolling some back and others who felt that we should grow. I think where we ended up was to say, for right now, let’s take a pause. Let’s not add to the tax burden while we work on this recovery.

Miller: So, I want to make sure I understand this. I mean, is the task force saying that current taxes are partly to blame for the situation we are in right now? For example, you were talking about, why would a business owner set up in Portland as opposed to Vancouver Washington. Is the call for a moratorium on new taxes a kind of tacit acknowledgement that taxes are partly to blame?

Lienhart: Taxes are certainly part of the reason that individuals decide to live in one place or another, a business decides to live in one place or another. So, when the value proposition that you’re offering is maybe struggling in some other areas, it’s important to understand that that is one of the factors. And for some individuals and businesses, it’s a major factor. I think we’ve seen a number of businesses decide to locate in Lake Oswego or decide to locate in other Portland metro suburbs as a result of the tax burden. So, are we going to build a great city based on low taxes? No. That’s not going to be our value proposition. But we certainly can weight ourselves down if we aren’t careful.

Miller: I’ve heard that some of the recommendations were only shared with all of the members of the task force this past Friday. How did the overall task force come up with the final recommendations?

Lienhart: I think our last meeting was a few weeks ago, and there was a sense of talking about priorities. Obviously, those priorities had to be synthesized. Our chairs did a lot of work. It was great that one of our chairs was the governor. Ultimately, the governor is the person who has to take this and represent it as the chair as she goes into the legislative session, so I think that was important that she had the last stamp on that. I wasn’t part of that final detail working out. I know there were a lot of negotiations behind the scenes. But I think we all went into this realizing we’re not a legislative committee. We’re not gonna vote and negotiate on amendments and things like that. Rather, we’re a task force. We’re giving the governor advice and helping to express what a group of 50 Portland leaders would like the state, the county and the city to be focused on.

Miller: Well, let me put it this way. How different do you think the final recommendations were – the ones that were released yesterday – from what the governor and just a few top business leaders would have come up with on their own without the input of everybody else?

Lienhart: You know, unfortunately, we don’t have a chance to run that second experiment, so I couldn’t tell you. [Both laugh]

Miller: I take your point. You can’t know for sure. But I guess I’m asking you more subjectively if you feel like the various members of the task force, in particular those who didn’t come from the biggest businesses in the state, if their voices and opinions were truly considered and found their way into the final recommendations?

Lienhart: I feel like they were. Again, speaking to the work that my committee did, it didn’t end up in the top 10, but I think it ended up in the broader document in ways that are very, very reflective of every participant, whether they come from a large business, a small nonprofit. It was a robust discussion. We learned a lot from one another, and I think the document reflects that.

Miller: Before we go, I’m just curious what you see as the vision… Going back to Portland in 2006 or in 1999, one of the weird things about Portland’s development in the last couple of years has been sort of two tracks: a major increase in visible homelessness, an increase simply in the number of people who are unsheltered, -and- a sense that for people who aren’t rich, people who are artists and were once attracted to a kind of affordable livable city that Portland was, a kind of beacon for weirdness and for independence – that that has also gone away. So that there’s both more rich Portlanders and more very poor Portlanders who are barely getting by. How do you help people in the middle?

Lienhart: Well, I think you sort of referenced our funky, artsy culture that we were defined by, and maybe overly defined by as the governor mentioned yesterday. There’s been some conversations recently about, could the abundance of office space, particularly in historic buildings downtown, could those become artist lofts or artist storefronts even, in a way that we haven’t been able to… There was a real crisis right before COVID about not enough artist spaces, where they used to be in places like the Pearl or the Central Eastside, getting priced out by tech companies and other kinds of business growth. So I think there is an opportunity for us to use this moment, where maybe there’s a little bit less demand, for us to reinvigorate some of those places. I think that could be true for housing as well. So, absolutely, I think the observation is correct that it’s been a really tough time for folks in the middle in Portland. And one of the recommendations of our Value Proposition Committee was actually that, as we build back, let’s build a city that is inclusive of those who may not have felt as included in the last version of Portland’s success story.

Miller: Nolan Lienhart, thanks very much.

Lienhart: Yeah. Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Nolan Lienhart was the chair of the Value Proposition Committee on the Portland Central City Task Force. He is principal and director of planning and urban design at ZGF Architects.

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