City in Crisis: Broken Bridges, New Pathways
by Debora Knapp and KATU Staff
Publication date: November 7, 2023
Head into the heart of Portland and you’ll find a city of contradictions connected by a dozen bridges.
Cross the Morrison Bridge from the east side and you land in the middle of Waterfront Park, home to festivals and scenic views of the Rose City that draws crowds to downtown.
The Burnside Bridge leads to Portland’s Saturday Market, famous for unique and funky handmade arts and crafts, food, and people-watching.
The Steel Bridge is a connection from Old Town and historic buildings on the west side to the Convention Center, Rose Quarter, and new ideas on the east.
In total, there are 12 bridges that cross the Willamette River. Each is a pathway that connects Portland; a city struggling with a stellar past, a confusing present, and an uncertain future.
The largest issues facing the city are crime, homelessness, leadership, stagnating growth, and struggling businesses.
Is there a pathway to future success for Rose City? Can our bridges connect us back to a prosperous Portland or will these bridges become pathways out of town, out of state, for business, and people alike?
VACANCY PROBLEMS, CITY PROBLEMS
Known for things like coffee shops, bookstores, and naked bike rides, “Keep It Weird” is the adopted motto of the city. Quirky, whimsical, comfortable.
However, Portland’s free spirit isn’t flying as high as it used to, with storefronts boarded up, locked, and empty.
Regular foot traffic, absent during the pandemic as employees and visitors alike worked from home does not seem to be coming back.
“The amount of vacant downtown square feet–there’s enough it would fill the iconic U.S. Bank Tower ‘Big Pink’ over 8 times with the amount of square feet available downtown,” said Jamison Shields, who works for Colliers Real Estate Firm.
He says currently the vacancy rate of downtown office space is 27.3%, and the future looks bleak.
“Within the next year, we anticipate that number to climb,” Shields continued. “If we incorporate shadow space and corporate space we expect that number to approach 40 percent.”
The emptiness was ignited partly by the ‘work from home’ culture, but the downtown decline made it worse.
Long-time legacy store Kassab Jewelers is committed to staying downtown, but admits the decreased daily foot traffic is challenging.
“Pretty much anywhere downtown, you’re gonna see a lot of foil packets or syringes and it’s not a real comfortable feeling, you know? It doesn’t feel real threatening but it’s certainly not what you want to see when you come downtown,” said Noha Kassab, owner of Kassab Jewelers.
Take a bridge to the city’s east side and you’ll find a similar story. Local contractor Dustin Michael Miller’s office on Southeast MLK Jr. Blvd. and Hawthorne is a prime spot for problems.
“I’ve been here a little over a year,” he said. “I’ve had numerous people using my porch as a restroom. That happens way too often.”
But it was the brutal surprise when he got to work one morning that was his breaking point.
“Coming to the office in the morning and seeing the bullet holes through a place where I sit,” said Miller. “So the realization of when I did, I think when I did put the camera, turn the camera around and I see these bullet holes are right behind my head.”
The lifelong Oregonian is so concerned about the future of Portland that he’s thinking about leaving the state he loves so much.
“What are we gonna do? There’s a huge problem, like, everybody’s leaving. So we have businesses that are being shut down and unfortunately, it’s a lot of the mom-and-pop shops that are local business owners that they can’t afford to stay here,” said Miller. “You go downtown, it’s a completely different story than it was five years ago.”
ROSE CITY CONNECTIONS
The crisis on our city streets has many comparing Portland to other once-successful cities that have fallen, like Detroit.
The ‘Motor City’ is actually in the midst of a rebound, and maybe there is something Portland can learn to find its own pathway to success. Detroit City Councilwoman Gabriela Santiago Romero recently visited Portland and shared some of her ideas.
In 2021, the city established the Portland Street Response as a social service program. Instead of sending a police officer out to every crisis call, a social worker is dispatched to a mental health event.
It’s become a model for how other cities respond in their communities.
“In Detroit, unfortunately, as we’ve seen across the country, there have been deaths in the hands of police -and I have a background in social work and community organizing, and I really like the idea of having a non-police response program responding to non-violent mental health calls,” said Santiago Romero. “It’s shown success here and I think frankly we need all the resources that we can get.”
The councilwoman and her delegation learned a lot more about Portland than she expected. She was alarmed by the crisis on our streets.
“Our downtown does not look like Portland. We do have an unsheltered population, but the amount of tents that you see here, the amount of folks that’s maybe using drugs–fentanyl in Portland, is not what you see in the City of Detroit,” said Santiago Romero.
As the city tries to climb out of our slump and move forward, Detroit may offer some advice to Portland leaders.
“I definitely think that people need to be going into rooms, sitting there for hours, trying to figure out what the resources are, what the lack of resources are,” Santiago Romero said. “During my time here and learning about how Portland is responding to the mental health crisis, the drug crisis, or the unsheltered situation. I’ve heard a lot of issues around siloing, so there might be an issue of people not working together. So put everyone in a room, figure out what you’re doing, figure out how you can do that better, together.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler announced recently he would not be running for a third term, saying he’s focused on the solutions of the city.
KATU’s Debora Knapp asked the mayor if the city could bridge the relationship with the county.
“So, county government is too tentative for the magnitude of the challenges we face today. They’re very cautious. This is not the time for cautious leadership. This is the time to be a little bit on the audacious side and move with urgency to address our issues. And frankly, when it comes to homelessness, we’re moving faster than county government,” said Wheeler.
Portlanders overwhelmingly voted homelessness as their biggest concern according to recent results from the city-issued ‘Portland Insight Survey.’
Mayor Wheeler says the city has created 500 shelter spaces in the past 2 years. We checked, and the city currently has seven safe rest villages open, a safe park for RVs, and a temporary alternative shelter, totaling more than 500 shelter spaces. Another temporary alternative shelter is planned to open in the coming months.
Knapp asked Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Peterson about the criticism surrounding the relationship between the city and the county and future with a new mayor to be elected in 2024.
“When I came into this office, it was almost like there was a little bit of therapy that needed to happen between the city and the county, in terms of where the relationship was at. So I actually spent a lot of time doing that,” said Chair Vega Peterson. “It is unfortunate that we were in such a bad situation because we don’t really have time to take baby steps on rebuilding things because the issues that we have in front of us, the things that we need to work on are so urgent and need such major things to happen.”
“I think that there’s a lot of lack of trust from some of the folks who have been on this city for a while in terms of their relationship with the county, their relationship with the joint office, and it is a new day,” the chair continued.
In September, and after much criticism over the county’s slow response to homelessness, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek took back $2.7 million in homeless services from Multnomah County for not spending it fast enough and redistributed it to six other counties.
Perhaps that was the nudge needed.
A week later, the county voted to direct $62 million of unexpected tax money to go toward homeless shelters, detox centers, outdoor villages, and housing. Then Vega Peterson used her executive authority to speed up the availability of funding for homelessness and behavioral health services.
“We should see some changes both in terms of increasing capacity of our shelters and more effectively getting dollars out and really seeing people move umm off the streets and into more stable and safe places,” said Vega Peterson.
The road to get to this point has been slow, and it prompted Gov. Kotek to take matters into her own hands to help the city get ahead, putting together the Portland Central City Task Force.
Mayor Wheeler defended the city’s actions to address Portland’s economic future, saying they’ve created new tax increment finance districts to invest in the downtown core. He also mentioned waiving development fees for converting office space into housing, expanding economic opportunity zones, and offering other tax incentives.
“I think the governor is responding to a need that she was hearing from business community members about really addressing some of those issues,” said County Chair Vega Peterson. “I think the time was now, I think the governor coming in with new leadership was in a really good position to do that.”
It’s critical for the city to succeed as Portland is the economic engine for the state. With the governor’s task force in place, nearly 50 business leaders and elected officials need to come up with an action plan to put Portland on its best path forward.
The first list of recommendations will be presented in December.
VITALITY OF THE CITY
As mentioned by Mayor Wheeler, the City Council voted to create tax-free “Enterprise Zones” in the central city and northwest industrial areas to encourage businesses to move or stay in Portland.
Companies that do business in these “E-Zones” qualify for special breaks, including no property taxes for five years.
“It’s essential that we communicate clearly to the country so that they see that the city of Portland is open for business,” said City Councilor Mingus Mapps. “I think it’s important that we support economic development downtown and this is an important step in that direction.”
But are the tax breaks enough for businesses to buy in?
Mike Markstaller with Daimler Truck North America said it’s been an uphill battle to recruit.
“People love us, they want to work for us and they fly into Portland and they come to our headquarters, and leaving the airport they see all kinds of illicit activity,” said Markstaller.
Economist Bill Conerly says traditionally a vibrant downtown is crucial not only to the city but also to surrounding suburbs to thrive.
“You know, you got sports teams, concerts, restaurants, it’s walkable, it’s wonderful. This is five years ago and it was a magnet for the whole metropolitan area,” said Conerly. “But now we’ve got this weird situation where the suburbs are doing well, but central Portland is doing poorly. And I don’t know how the suburbs will fare in that if they don’t have that central Portland as a draw?”
The Oregon Symphony is the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi. Founded in 1896, it has drawn hundreds of thousands of people across bridges and into downtown for more than a century of spectacular performances.
Scott Showalter is currently the executive advisor to the Oregon Symphony after being a longtime president of the arts organization. He said during this critical time in our city’s history, local government is making it harder for them to fill downtown with music and crowds.
“So we don’t own the building [the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall], although we’re here quite frequently during the year, five, six days a week for 40, 42 weeks of the year,” said Showalter. “They’re making it harder, the local government, because our rates to use this very space have risen at more than double the rate of inflation in recent years. And the local grants that we get have completely imploded. So whereas we used to have to pay about $200,000 more than the grants we’ve received every year. Now we pay about $1.3 million more per year than the grants we’ve received.”
He said the city needs to value what the symphony provides.
“At this time, Portland is being, uh, sort of squeezed at both ends by local government and other cities across the country are doubling down in their support of the arts. So Portland and Oregon need to come around to invest in the venerable institutions that will keep it strong,” Showalter continued.
3 PROJECTS CHANGING PORTLAND’S FACE & FUTURE
What does the future of Portland look like?
Within the next decade, several projects are in the works creating our bridge to the future.
One of the pillars of that bridge is in Northeast Portland, where efforts are underway to reinvigorate the historically-Black Albina District.
Seventy years ago, it started with the major construction of Interstate 5, then Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and in the 1970’s Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. The changes were in the name of Portland’s progress back then, but they decimated the thriving Albina community.
Now, however, private entities are stepping up to rebuild.
Tony Hopson is the director of Self Enhancement Inc., a nonprofit resource for youth and families servicing mostly the BIPOC community of Portland.
“I think most of us see the future. Not like we saw in the past. There’s a lot of folks, like, we need to get back to what it was. Well, Black Portland is never gonna go back to the way it was. We’re never gonna have the number of Black businesses, we’re not gonna have the Black homeownership, none of those things that we had in the past. But it can be better than what it is now,” said Hopson.
He sees the potential future of change in the Albina District.
“So the hope is, is that we provide opportunities for Black business to, to grow and flourish, and that we do provide opportunities for many of the folks that have been pushed out of the Albina area, the opportunity to come back. But what that looks like, it’ll be probably something that is far more integrated than it is right now,” said Hopson.
This year, the Albina District received a huge multi-million dollar shot in the arm from one of Oregon’s most well-known philanthropists, Nike co-founder Phil Knight and his wife Penny, who committed $400 million to the 1803 Fund – an organization that describes itself as a way to rebuild the economic prosperity and community spaces the Albina District lost.
The 1803 Project is still developing its plan. There are however already several projects in the works with the goal of creating a renewed Albina. The most notable project underway right now is the Albina Vision Project.
“So we’re actually standing in front of what will be the site for our inaugural housing unit. It’s a 94-unit family-oriented housing development,” said JT Flowers with the Albina Vision Project.
The complex is the center of the Albina Vision Community Investment plan called Albina One, which is 94 acres of redevelopment across lower Albina.
“This place that used to be home to four out of five Black families in the City of Portland and was ultimately destroyed by the construction of I-5, by the construction of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the general forces of urban renewal that have pushed so many Black families and Black folks out of their homes across the country,” said Flowers.
On the west end of the Broadway Bridge is a pulse point of Portland transportation – light rail, bus lines, streetcar, and Union Station.
It’s the site of a major new neighborhood development called the Broadway Corridor Project, described as an effort that will permanently changing Portland’s downtown landscape.
“We think of Broadway Corridor as a bridge between Old Town and the Pearl District,” said Kimberly Branam, the executive director of Prosper Portland. “So it’s really this beautiful combination of the two. And what we have been able to do is to apply some of the lessons learned from the Pearl District.”
Branam co-owns the centerpiece of the project along with the Portland Housing Bureau. Demolition of the former downtown post office is just the start of a whole new neighborhood, which will take over 16 blocks.
They are hoping to include affordable housing, high-density employment, and space for signature city attractions.
“We do believe that this development along with the development at Albina Vision and OMSI are part of creating the kind of city that we want to see,” said Branam.
The aforementioned OMSI District plan for ten blocks of Portland’s Southeast Waterfront looks to offer a place to live, work, and play that pays a special tribute to the Native American history and cultural significance of the waterfront.
“The OMSI District is a bold new idea to create an innovative new neighborhood for Portland that is rooted in innovation, science, learning, arts, and culture. And that is truly an inclusive place where people of all backgrounds and identities feel welcome to come and play and explore here,” said OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) CEO Erin Graham.
A key focal point will be a Center for Tribal Nations with a new waterfront education park developed by tribes.
“There’s two ways we’re engaging in this. One is to continue to push back against cultural and native erasure, exclusion from economic opportunity, being excluded from being woven into the fabric of the city at the area, and really kind of restoring that presence of commerce and trade and living and loving and laughing. That all happened here on the river 200 years ago,” said James Allen Parker, the executive director of the Oregon Native American Chamber.
Over the next several years, the plan is to turn former industrial sites into a livable, workable neighborhood.
“It’s envisioned to be a new mixed-use district. And right now, our plan includes 1200 units of new housing. And of course, a portion of that will be affordable and we’re exploring how much more of that we can, it can make affordable, but yes, it will include restaurants and entertainment venues and places for families to gather and learn,” said Graham.
Graham expects it to add a huge shot in the arm in terms of jobs and focusing on investing in Portland’s future.
While those projects are focused on the long-term impacts on the city, many Portlanders are concerned about progress taking place now.
If you haven’t traveled downtown recently you may not realize it, but change is happening.
In the months KATU has been working on this project, there’s been a noticeable energy shift as community groups are organizing to create a difference for Portland’s future.
One of the premiere food festivals in the world, Feast Portland, was held right here in the Rose City for nearly a decade. Mike Thelin, the guy behind the event, said he’s committed to seeing Portland succeed.
“Biggest change-makers right now are honestly community leaders. People who are convening, people who are bringing groups together to engage with the democratic process, with the business process with the city,” said Thelin.
He may not consider himself a change-maker, but he’s definitely one of the biggest supporters of those who are. He believes that community partnership is what has made Portland succeed in the past.
“I think one of the things we’ve learned, you know, being angry and just continually perpetuating a negative image of the city you live in is really lazy, and you’re not doing anything to change anything,” said Thelin. “And there’s absolutely nothing creative about being angry unless you can capitulate that into something positive. And I think a lot of people are doing that right now. And that’s very positive.”
One group actively working to make change is the Northwest Community Conservancy. Within a handful of months, it’s made a noticeable difference, helping the homeless get sheltered and neighbors feel safe.
“Our whole goal was to try to improve livability, safety, and the business environment on the Pearl because we saw that being downgraded by the lack of presence of the police and services to clean the community up, and helping the people that were homeless get off the street,” said Ken Thrasher, one of eight board members of the program.
Northwest Community Conservancy offers direct outreach to people living on the streets, connecting them with critical services.
“We have not asked government to step in and help us. We work with government. We are trying to partner with government, you know, because some of the barriers we run into are government-related shelter beds,” said Thrasher. “It’s a cascading set of issues that we’re trying to work with the county, with the city to make sure that we can, work together to solve some of those issues.”
The goal is to influence the business community to want to be there and feel like they can grow and expand their businesses.
The way they do that is by providing consistent, highly visible public safety resources through a 24/7 hotline.
“Because when crime happens, it happens a lot at night and break-ins, uh, vandalism thefts that were occurring. And, you know, as a small business owner, your insurance goes up, your deductibles go up, and it, pretty soon you go out of business ’cause you can’t afford it,” said Thrasher.
He points to the results of their efforts.
“We can measure tent counts. You know, we’ve gone from over 50 down to 16 last in August in the Pearl, and even in the surrounding areas that are outside on the I-405 corridor, that’s the northwest district. But we can’t just move people there, because then the same issue still happens. So what we have to do is keep working both sides of the equation,” said Thrasher.
The efforts are keeping neighbors and businesses safe and ending the need for camp sweeps that would push problems to other blocks.
The Pearl District is the first neighborhood to implement the program, but the hope is to expand it. It’s this type of community activism Mike Thelin says is what Portland is known for, and what has made us prosper in the past.
“I think we’ll look back 20 years from now, and the summer of 2023, is when the narrative really started to shift,” Thelin said.
Can we learn from other cities around the world?
Randy Miller has been traveling the world for nearly four decades, learning from other communities’ best practices to see if their ideas will work here.
Miller is perhaps Portland’s biggest fan. He’s been civically engaged in the city’s success for decades.
“We were outliers in so many regards during our history, and it really began in the seventies and eighties,” said Miller. “I remember it because I was sort of part of the cadre at that particular point working with these different initiatives.”
He’s come to learn what works and what doesn’t for our city.
For the past 36 years, Miller has led the annual “Best Practices Trip” where public and private sector leaders travel to find what makes other cities thrive, and then bring that insight home to build our local economy.
“Years ago we started making sure that when we select a city that we wanna make sure that they have the different parallels that we do, and study how they’ve done what they’ve done or what we can possibly avoid ‘cause of their mistakes. That’s really powerful,” said Miller.
He’s learned there’s not a specific key to prosperity, saying that there is no “cookie cutter formula.”
“What you do to make your community better has to reflect who you really are, and when we see some areas or expertise or even decline you can’t say ‘oh, here’s what you need to do. You have to really understand the ethos and the culture of that community to make it happen make it work,” said Miller.
When it comes to Portland, it’s always been about people wanting to be here.
The obvious draw of our natural resources, including the proximity to the coast and mountains. However, the city has also invested in critical infrastructure like a condensed downtown, light rail, and commerce with Asia that also entice people to move here.
“What we did here is created a community that made it attractive for people … and we drew highly-educated, younger people here to help drive a lot of our prosperity because they aligned with all those different elements that we created,” said Miller.
He puts Portland’s quick decline into perspective.
“Portland is not isolated from most all the elements that we’ve had here at place that have created these problems,” said Miler. “It has been exacerbated here for a couple of reasons. One is such a departure from where we were. It really stands out as a contrast. But secondly, we’re a tolerant community. And initially, not just for the homeless issue, but also with the protests initially, the community was very tolerant, and it actually escalated as a result of that.”
We asked Miller to reflect on his travels and consider how long it takes a community to rebuild.
“Sometimes never,” he replied. “When we go to challenge cities like Detroit and link to Buffalo and to Cleveland, places that have had generations of challenges. The difference between there and here is we have, as I said before, all the elements still in place that make people wanna live here. We have the environmental stewardship, we have the wonderful place making all the things that made us great before, we still have. A lot of those cities just don’t have much to rely on any longer, and we see them continue to suffer.”
We know the problems facing Portland, and it’s fair to say we’re still a City in Crisis.
But as we’ve shown, repairs are underway, and new major developments are in the works, showing the city has a plan to evolve.
Tomorrow’s Portland will not look like the city we’ve known in the past, and it’s not just up to our elected leaders to create that change on their own.