Chapter 3.3

Why would someone want planning job?
(The Oregonian, November 29, 1999)

By Richard H. Carson

Oregonian reporter Randy Gragg's (Forum article Nov. 14) on the very public process of picking the next planning director for Portland asks if the finalist will really be up to the task.
I think the real question is, "Why would any sane person want the job?"

Portland is often touted as a national model of how planning can make a metropolis livable and vibrant. However, the art of planning has fallen on hard times in Portland. It is no longer the Mecca of good planning and is on its way to becoming the new Beirut.

Traffic congestion is some of the worse in the nation. Yet the region's planners tell folks that it's intentional. They want increased traffic congestion and increased densification in order to get people out of their cars and using mass transit.

Unfortunately, this "worse-is-better" argument undercuts voter support for light rail. Light rail provides a more enjoyable transit commute than a bus, but voters now believe it does nothing to improve automobile congestion and won't pay for it.

Over regulation in the city reached a new low with the "snout house" prohibition. The homebuilders' association now tells its members to not build in Portland.

The city's densification strategy has met organized resistance in the neighborhoods and now the prestigious City Club of Portland is calling the density targets a sham.

No one person can solve all of these problems and make Portland the center of the planning universe again. Instead, Portland's leadership needs to address the real obstacles that stop them from realizing a greater vision for the city. Those obstacles have one common source  a failure of governance.

The first impediment the new planning director faces is the city's dysfunctional "commission-bureau" form of government. This archaic "spoils" form of government divides up the bureaus among elected commissioners. This insulates programs and staff into small fiefdoms and allows staff to literally ignore fellow bureau employees who work for a different commissioner. There are better models. Almost all local governments have moved to the "strong mayor" or "city manager" form, which consolidates administrative power in one person.

A second problem is the new director will not oversee the three critical functions that make great cities. Those are long-range planning, the review and regulation of development and building the vision through urban renewal. Portland has separated all of these functions. Commissioner Charlie Hales tried to merge many of them through his Blueprint 2000 initiative, but he only succeeded in consolidating the development review function. Long-range planning and urban renewal (a.k.a., the Portland Development Commission) are still separate entities. Again, there is a better model in use by many jurisdictions, and it's called a Community Development Department. All of these functions are married under a single appointed official.

Finally, the new planning director needs to convince the elected leadership that the marketing message of "densification-congestion" is a nonstarter and is actually holding the city back from achieving a greater vision. It's time to rethink the impossible density targets the city is pursuing and engage the neighborhoods in an open discussion about what is desirable.

In order to create and fulfill a great planning vision the city needs to: (1) abandon the archaic "commission-bureau" form of government and have one strong administrator, (2) consolidate the three planning functions of visioning, regulating and building into one super-agency, and (3) abandon the "densification-congestion" strategy and engage the neighborhoods in a discussion about realistic expectations.

Richard H. Carson is a former planning director for Metro, a member of mayor Vera Katz's Growth Management Committee and an elected board member of the American Planning Association in Oregon.

(Editor's note. A "snout house" is a house where the garage door is closer to the street than the front door. The city of Portland believes such houses encourage automobile use over pedestrian use).

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Common Sense
by Richard H. Carson