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Hales tiptoes toward big ideas

One year in office, mayor puts priority on revenue, parks


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has spent his first year in office narrowly focused on a handful of nuts-and-bolts projects, such as improving city streets and completing neighborhood parks, especially in the eastern part of the city. He hopes to tackle a few big ideas in the next few months, including improvements to Veterans Memorial Coliseum.Portland Mayor Charlie Hales pledged Friday to pursue a new tax measure to pave city streets in 2014, as well as funding to build out the city’s parks system.

Hales also told the Portland Tribune editorial board that he’s exploring a major renovation of Veterans Memorial Coliseum, hoping to piggyback on the World Indoor Track & Field Championships coming to the Oregon Convention Center in 2016. (See related story, Page A8.)

Hales gave himself a “B” grade for his first year in office, but said he succeeded in setting a tone of “collegiality and plainspokenness” at City Hall.

One example: he’s making no bones about the need for a new revenue source to pave dozens of miles of the city’s gravel and mud streets.

“There’s no point in kidding you, or kidding ourselves,” he said. “We will have to raise taxes.”

As of January, a state ban on new local gas taxes expires, so that might be one route for the City Council to take, Hales said. He also expects to reconsider former Mayor Sam Adams’ idea of a new street utility fee that would be added onto Portlanders’ water and sewer bills.

“We want to take that on in 2014,” Hales said of his plan to seek a road funding source.

The mayor said he and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the parks system, also want to proceed with a new parks funding measure next year.

“We haven’t finished building out the parks system,” Hales said. He pointed out that the city has purchased and land-banked several future park sites in East Portland, but never added ballfields, picnic tables or other park improvements. “We might have 5 acres of blackberries in a neighborhood, but we don’t have a park.”

One possible scenario is another parks bond measure, though Hales didn’t pinpoint what type of measure he’d like to pursue. However, he noted that 2014 is an election year, so if there is a need to go to voters, there are two good choices to do that. That would mean a measure on the May primary or November general election ballots. On either of those elections, the city would be exempt from a 50 percent voter turnout requirement for property tax measures.

Hales said he hopes to spur a robust debate on the future role of the Portland Development Commission in 2014. He wants the urban renewal agency to press harder to get new development in its Lents and Gateway urban renewal districts.

He also wants to shrink the amount of land the PDC has tied up in urban renewal districts and thus off the regular tax rolls.

Hales favors putting some of the Pearl District back on the tax rolls, so schools, the city and county can begin to collect property taxes from improvements there. His target is shifting $40 million to $50 million in property tax revenues in the next decade from the PDC to other local governments, which include the city general fund.

Hales also wants to expand urban renewal in the inner east side, so the city can promote development near future MAX stops at Southeast Clinton and Division streets, along the light-rail line to Milwaukie.

Hales also wants to focus on cleaning up polluted Superfund sites along the Willamette River. “Nobody’s dug a shovelful of contaminated material out of the river yet,” Hales said, and he hopes to move that process “from planning to action” in the next two years.

Hales likened the Superfund cleanup to the still-unrealized plan for the Columbia River Crossing bridge to Vancouver, Wash. In both cases, he said, millions have been expended with nothing to show for it.

Downplays West Hayden Island project

In response to questions from the Tribune editorial board, Hales didn’t sound sympathetic to concessions sought by the Port of Portland for its West Hayden Island marine terminal project. The Portland Planning & Sustainability Commission recommended that the city annex the port-owned property and rezone it for industry, but with a laundry list of conditions that the port says will make the terminal project too expensive to pencil out.

“It’s not a lot of economic development for the trouble it’s caused,” Hales said, only “a few jobs after the construction period.”

However, Hales said he remains supportive of the idea of allowing the trade terminals on West Hayden Island while improving and retaining the remaining 500 acres of open space on the island.

Not a visionary

Hales deflected criticism that he’s not bringing a new visionary approach to City Hall. There’s plenty of vision coming from elsewhere, he said, such as Oregon Health & Science University’s plan for a world-class cancer research center in the South Waterfront area.

What the city needs, he said, is to “focus and deliver” on its past plans and promises. In East Portland, for example, he’d like to see a 20-year plan — and new funding — to build out the area’s parks, roads and sidewalk systems, so residents know the city will finally address gaps in their neighborhoods. He also wants the city to focus on investing in the Lents and Gateway urban renewal areas, building out the Gateway Green bicycling complex and park, and turning the Midway area near Southeast 122nd Avenue and Division Street into a viable town center.

“I don’t feel a need to look at a map of the city and come up with new visions at the moment,” Hales said.