Reinventing the Portland Planning Bureau: A Play in Three Acts
By Richard H. Carson
There is no more touted city planning program in America than that of the City of Portland. Like Oregon's statewide land use planning program, the city's program has a 25-year history of phenomenal success. That is until now. Now the Portland Planning Bureau has fallen on hard political times.
You could not invent a more interesting cast of characters and sub-plots. Indeed, one Portland planning consultant likened the current city commission maneuvers to a Tom Clancy novel and said, "They say they are friends while they position their nuclear subs 200 miles off each other's shore." Portland commissioner Eric Sten summed up the entire affair by simply saying, "The whole thing is stupid."
Act 1 - The Gathering Storm
Of course there are political under tones to such a drama. At the center of the storm is the politically savvy Commissioner Charlie Hales. Charlie pulled off one of the greater political transformations in recent Oregon history. Before he ran for office he was the major-domo for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. After he was elected, he became a major advocate for good urban planning and creating open spaces. Despite this miracle of political transformation, enough homebuilder remained in Charlie that he still felt Portland's permitting process was anachronistic, inefficient and unfriendly to developers.
Charlie set out to redefine and restructure the Portland Planning Bureau and the permitting process by creating Blueprint 2000 (affectionately know as BP2K). The purpose of which was "to create a system that presents a predictable, seamless delivery of City development review functions." Organizationally this meant taking the permitting and development review staff from seven different bureaus (i.e.. Planning, Building, Transportation. Fire, Environmental Services. Water, Parks) and merging them into one mega-bureau in one location.
Such organizational redirection is hardly new. Many cities and counties in Oregon have already moved to the Community Development Department model and have combined these functions. However, Charlie Hales was taking on a formidable task -- changing a city government noted for resisting change. The major obstacle that is so frustrating is the basic city governance structure. Most cities have either a "city manager" or "strong-mayor" form of government. This means that city council policy is implemented through a single administrator and all employees report to that administrator. In the city of Portland, the Mayor assigns individual bureaus to individual commissioners. This "commission-bureau" form of governance insulates programs and employees into small fiefdoms and allows staff to literally ignore any bureau serving a different elected official.
The report also has some peculiar recommendations. For example, it asks "that the City Council create the position of Rules Coordinator" whose job it is "to work with bureaus to resolve repeated conflicts identified as a result of the issue avoidance/conflict resolution process." In plain English -- that being the language spoken in metropolitan suburbs and in Oregon's rural areas -- the reader is being told that no one is in charge and that everyone is working at cross purposes. It was also reported that, "Applicants for the permits necessary to develop will be assigned a process manager who is responsible for seeing each application through to completion..." In other words, the system is so Byzantine that you will now get your own Sherpa guide.
Another problem was that the Blue Print 2000's Phase 1 and 2 Stakeholder Reports were overly written. Both reports use impressive terminology like: "interbureau taskforce, conflict resolution, process management, consistency of decision-making" and the ever popular "policy/development continuum." The reader wonders what actually has been said.
The reorganization message was bluntly driven home several years ago when commissioner Hales fired Robert Stacey as the bureau head and replaced him with David Knowles. Both men are lawyers, but they are very different. Bob Stacey is the quintessential planner. He has served as a planning leader for Governor Kitzhaber and now with Tri-Met. Bob Stacey's strength is in formulating broad public policy and long rang planning initiatives. Stacey had also been a force at 1000 Friends of Oregon at the same time that Charlie Hales led the homebuilders' association. Charlie and Bob Stacey had worked with and against each other for years. Replacing Stacey with Knowles sent a strong message to the Bureau's planners. Things were going to change.
David Knowles has been a Metro councilor, an attorney and is also a knowledgeable and skilled city hall insider. With Charlie Hales' directive in hand, he turned the agency to looking inward at its processes. However, by the end of 1998 David Knowles had enough. He announced his resignation, but agreed to stay on through April 1999.
At the end of 1998, a new group entered the picture. PORTLAND NOW was billed as a creation of the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In reality it was the invention of a couple of local architects like Bing Sheldon and George Crandall. These folks tried to capitalize on the organizational chaos and delivered a new message to city hall, "We find that in recent years the Bureau of Planning has drifted away from a strategic planning and urban design leadership role" and that "Portland's existing planning activities are often uncoordinated and largely ineffective."
Act 2 - The Political Fight
With all this last minute activity, it should have been no surprise that when Blueprint 2000 reached the Portland City Commission, Charlie Hales found Mayor Vera Katz and Commissioner Francesconi waiting with an amendment. They proposed holding the long-range planning component back for additional study. One news report said that Katz and Francesconi "ambushed Blueprint 2000 -- Hale's scheme to streamline the city labyrinthine permitting and processes" It noted that, "Her decision came several weeks after Hales said he might run against Katz if she sought a third term." Katz and Hales said that was baloney.
However, this action did please the PORTLAND NOW group who saw this as an opportunity to redirect the agency back to urban design. They produced a list of Bureau failures and proposed a new Office of Long Range Planning and Community Design (LRPCD). They also argued that unless this change was made, no competent person would take the director job. Architect-lobbyist, Bing Sheldon said, " I can tell you nobody would have taken that position."
Hales agreed to cut long-range planning loose and proposed to put it in the Mayor's office as PORTLAND NOW suggested. Someone also suggested it would be a good idea to combine long range planning with strategic planning. However, strategic planning only shares on one basic commonality with land use planning - the word "planning." That's where the similarity ends. To say these functions are similar based on one word alone, would be like arguing the similarity between a town house and a crack house. In any case, the Planning Bureau's future went from bad to worse in terms of the potential fragmentation. Bing Sheldon said, "Charlie's move to shove it in her lap was dumb." You can call Charlie Hales a lot of things, but he's not dumb. He just wanted to save Blueprint 2000.
The Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) and other groups were also dragged into the debate. PORTLAND NOW circulated a draft proposal that included an opening statement that their group represented a larger group of concerned organizations. Another six groups, including the APA, were listed as "reviewing draft." In reality, the APA chapter had been simply mailed a copy of the draft and they had not agreed to anything. In fact, the draft was dated January 11, 1999 - but the Chapter board did not meet and discuss it until February 5th. On that day they voted to put the City of Portland on notice that they had nothing to do with PORTLAND NOW and were upset at what they considered misrepresentations of their participation.
However, the Chapter board members involved themselves in the fray at the urging of two unhappy Portland city planners who came to ask for the board's intervention. In a letter to the Portland City Commission, the chapter board recommended the city hire a planning director who held the national American Institute of Certified Planner's designation. However, many cities and counties don't want to hire a certified-planner to manage a diverse group of staff disciplines such as engineers, building inspectors, code enforcement officers and plans examiners. In fact, AIA president Steven Thomson recently wrote, "Over the past several decades, the nature of the planning profession has shifted from an emphasis on physical design... to an emphasis on social services and written policies."
The rank and file Portland city planners are divided on the reorganization. A memo to the APA Chapter Board from a bureau planner confirms this by saying, "...some planners felt the idea of a new bureau of planning had enough merit that they were not entirely displeased with the turn of events." Certainly, many of the permitting and current planning staff are against the changes. However, some long-range planners see themselves getting a new and elevated status because they would report directly to the Mayor. The memo from the city planner confirms this by saying that the Mayor's amendment would "...give long-range planning a much needed priority boost, but further fragment the planning functions." The planner argued that, "The current Planning Bureau structure attempts to encompass the holistic nature of the planning process and build an intuitive understanding of the cause and effects of planning issues." Further, this planner claimed that, "More simply put, this may be the equivalent of chopping off the head to cure the cold."
Act 3 - The Aftermath
The battle for the future of the Portland Planning Bureau continues. In a recent resolution, the city commission accepted the stakeholders report on Blueprint 2000 and approved its implementation. The merger of the mega-bureau began in March, but only two of the original seven groups - Planning and Building - were actually merged. The other five groups are to sign intergovernmental agreements. The new bureau chief is Margaret Mahoney. The relocation to a single building won't happen until August 1999. The commission intentionally tabled any decision on the future of long range planning. In an odd twist of fate, David Knowles is now working for two masters. He was given the added duty of defining the future of long range planning and reporting directly to Mayor Vera Katz. Local consultant, Elaine Cogan has been hired to pull together several focus groups to help redefine the long range planning charge. Both PORTLAND NOW and the APA Oregon chapter participated. The new proposal is scheduled to be back before the city commission on May 12th.
Certainly there are important organizational issues at stake here, but just as important is the fact that the soul of the organization is being demoralized. It is silly to believe that vitality can be restored to the Bureau by hiring a new director. The great days of the Bureau had more to do with the politically enlightened era than thriving because of any one director. It was a time when Tom McCall was governor. Neil Goldschmidt was Portland's mayor and the citizens of Oregon believed that societal change should be about greater livability for all - not simply paying less taxes and bashing government employees for sport.
We all need to encourage a renaissance of planning in Portland. We -- as planners, architects, politicians, and citizen activists -- must start by setting aside our political and personal agendas. The planning in Portland needs to keep permitting, reviewing and long-range planning together in one house with one leader. Strategic planning is the mayor's imperative alone and should be separate. At the very least, both the long range planning director and the development permitting director should report to the same city commissioner.
However, there is also no reason why Portland can't join the rest of us in reinventing government at both the bureau level and in terms of the city's overall governance. In the end, change cannot happen in the city of Portland without a complete restructuring of its very governance. The city must abandon the commission-bureau form of government and have one strong administrator.
Richard Carson is the Managing Editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal and a board member of the Oregon Chapter of the American Planning Association.
(Editor's note: This same article was also published in The Business Journal as "Reinventing the Portland Planning Bureau Yet Again," on July 9, 1999. That version was greatly edited down for space, but it had the same conclusion. The Indiana version is the original unexpurgated article. This article was originally written for, but never published in the Oregon Planners' Journal. The Portland Planning Bureau director asked the president of the Oregon chapter of the American Planning Association not to allow it to be printed. I was the Journal's editor and an elected board member. I considered the request censorship and elected to print it through several other sources including the Internet. In the end, the article was much more widely published than if it had run in the Journal. That is always the price of censorship in America.)