A remarkable letter to the Oregonian

Portland developer John Russell challenges the city’s current “build, baby build” approach to the housing crisis — and the local media’s acquiescence  — claiming the “rush to judgment” short-circuits proper public process, and leaves the city with mistakes that may endure for a century.

A Pearl District project whose approval was recently overturned by the City Council. Image: TVA Architects and City of Portland

John Russell doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the absurd logic of the current strategy to address the housing and affordability crisis in Portland — or the clueless local media coverage of the issue.  He says, “I have the temerity to suggest that the Oregonian/Oregon-Live, Willamette Week and The Portland Tribune have it all wrong.” He cites a cynical insider joke at City Hall, “If the cure for low income housing is more luxury condos, then the cure for hunger is more Michelin-starred restaurants.”

Russell is well known to Portland insiders, and his opinions carry clout.  His company’s website states “John chose to live in Portland before he had a job because he had a sense that Portlanders could control their own destiny.”  The website also cites his service on “the Portland Development Commission, the Mayor’s Business Roundtable, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee for Economic Development, the Oregon Investment Council, as well as the Oregon Transportation Commission, the Portland Planning Commission and the Portland Historic Landmark Commission.”

The full letter is at the Oregonian’s website here.  Excerpts are below. It’s well worth a read!

IN MY OPINION

Need for housing doesn’t justify media’s rush to judgment
John W. Russell
Oregonian April 11, 2018

With reference to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s March 25 editorial, “City Council needs to reset its compass,” I have the temerity to suggest that The Oregonian/Oregon-Live, Willamette Week and The Portland Tribune have it all wrong.

In a series of articles and editorials, the mantra of these publications seems to be that the Portland City Council should never stand in the way of any project that includes housing. Two projects were cited, one in the Pearl and another on the waterfront near River-Place. The justification is that since we desperately need more low-income housing, projects should be expedited because any housing is progress toward that goal. It’s given rise to an inside joke among staffers at City Hall: “If the cure for low income housing is more luxury condos, then the cure for hunger is more Michelin-starred restaurants.”

The Pearl project faced objections from folks whose views would be adversely affected by its planned height. That fact was sufficient for Willamette Week to dismiss their objections, ignoring the fact that self-interest doesn’t make testimony automatically wrong. The City Council pointed out a significant flaw, namely that the proposed building would dramatically narrow greenway access. The council’s demand for changes will likely end up delaying the project only by a couple of months. Given that the building will exist for 100 years or more, that doesn’t seem like a big price to pay.

The council was also criticized for its initial refusal to adopt a zoning change for another project, adjacent to RiverPlace. The change, which has never had an effective public hearing, calls for doubling the permissible height for building at that site — which had already been doubled through the Comprehensive Plan update, an extensive public process that took six years.

I don’t have a dog in the fight. The views from my nearby building aren’t adversely affected, regardless of the height. But I do have a dog in the fight based on eight years of serving on the Planning Commission and two years on the Comprehensive Plan committee that held public hearings for this part of the central city. I’m a fervent believer in proper public hearings, and this zoning change never got them. Unfortunately, the City Council ended up reversing itself and adopted the higher height limit after all. As a result, an unintended consequence is that any project, regardless of whether it includes housing, could use that height. The result could be a net loss of 300 units of housing.

City Council’s hearings are mid-week, mid-day, in downtown Portland. That’s a far cry from the public hearings that we conducted when I was on the Planning Commission. We’d hold hearings at any time, in any venue, in order to make it more likely that they would be convenient for affected citizens to attend. We’d hold evening hearings in neighborhood schools, for example.

The rush to judgment advocated by the above-mentioned publications short-circuits the proper public processes that have served Portland well. Let’s take the time to get these buildings right.

John Russell is managing partner of Russell Fellows Properties and is founder of Russell Development Co. He has previously chaired the Portland Development Commission and served as a member of the city’s Landmark and Planning Commissions.

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