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Hales wrestles future of renewal districts

Mayor wants rebuilt urban areas returned to city's tax rolls


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - Portland Mayor Charlie Hales thinks the Pearl Districts urban renewal area could be retired or shrunk as a way to pump more property taxes to the city general fund and other local governments.Mayor Charlie Hales is toying with pulling the plug on city urban renewal efforts in the Pearl District, which eventually would send $43 million a year in added property taxes to the city general fund and other local governments.

That’s one of his early thoughts as Hales turns his attention to the future of the Portland Development Commission, the city’s slimmed-down urban renewal and economic development agency.

“We ought to be able to declare victory in the Pearl District, then run out the clock toward the end,” Hales says. “It has momentum even without PDC actively supporting individual projects.”

The glitzy Pearl District, along with gritty Old Town and Chinatown, constitute the River District urban renewal area, one of the PDC’s biggest redevelopment success stories. But the district also keeps $2.17 billion in property off the regular tax rolls to finance continuing redevelopment.

If the city were to close down the entire River District urban renewal area this year, the PDC could put the property back on the tax rolls seven years earlier than planned, says Patrick Quinton, PDC executive director. But the city, county and schools still would have to wait until 2018 to get an infusion of property taxes, he says, because that’s how long the PDC expects it will take to pay off bonded debt from the River District.

And shutting down the entire River District would remove a funding source for redevelopment in Old Town and Chinatown, Quinton notes.

Hales says he wants to continue urban renewal in Old Town and Chinatown. He’d like, for example, to find a new home for the Right 2 Dream Too tent camp now on West Burnside Street and Northwest Fourth Avenue.

One option might be to shrink the River District boundary rather than terminate the entire urban renewal district, Quinton says.

That would achieve Hales’ goal of putting more property back on the tax rolls while enabling some funds for Old Town/Chinatown projects.

“Right now the highest priority is to see how much land we can get back on the tax rolls,” Quinton says.

The city could leave some of the Pearl District in the River District urban renewal area, providing property taxes to pay for urban renewal in less prosperous Old Town and Chinatown.

Closing down the entire River District also would eliminate city funds to redevelop the Centennial Mill site on the Willamette River, buy the sprawling Post Office complex in Northwest Portland and other long-planned projects.

Given the travails of the U.S. Postal Service, Hales says it may be a “ripe” time to buy its local facility, which some see as a potential site to host hundreds of new jobs.

The PDC’s budget and staffing levels have tumbled the past couple years, and it projects a continuing slide, causing the agency to rethink how it operates.

Hales granted himself oversight of the PDC when he doled out bureau assignments in June.

The PDC remains a “work in progress,” Hales says, but he still sees opportunities for it to engage in traditional urban renewal projects.

“There’s a lot of real estate that needs redevelopment,” Hales says. “Walk about the Rose Quarter if you disagree with that. So to me, the traditional role of PDC still makes sense.”

Hales is concerned that the PDC’s urban renewal districts in the Lents and Gateway neighborhoods have had few successes. He says he wants to devote energy to Lents to “start changing the dynamic there.”

The PDC has acquired a lot of property in Lents, but it’s been “ahead of the market,” Quinton says. The agency also has realized it can’t reshape Lents or Gateway on its own.

“We don’t really have the ability to move the market in different ways,” he says.

Hales seems less enthusiastic than his predecessor, Sam Adams, about the PDC’s newest urban renewal area, the Education District surrounding Portland State University. Hales says he wants to help PSU grow, but “I’m not sure if this is the most efficient way to do that.”