It’s not just Portland that’s “losing the plot”…

Other West Coast cities are also trying to build their way out of unaffordability, with dubious and divisive strategies, and little to show for it 

San Francisco: Maybe if we just build a lot more million-dollar penthouses, we’ll be affordable then?

In a remarkable recent editorial in the New York Times, staff writer Timothy Egan assesses the reaction of governments in San Francisco and Seattle to familiar problems for Portlanders — soaring home prices, displacement, inequality, homelessness — and he finds them wanting.

The article, titled “Down and Out in San Francisco, on $117,000 a Year,” notes that city is now so expensive that a family income of over $100,000 is now considered “below the poverty line.”  Egan questions whether the government there has a handle on the challenge: “Can people accept more crowded neighborhoods, in a city that is already the second most densely populated among big cities in the nation, if they feel that elected leaders do not have a decent plan — or a clue?”

Egan reports that the City of San Francisco spends an eye-popping $250 million a year on a population of 7,500 homeless — translating into about $33,000 per person per year.  To put that in perspective, that’s enough money to purchase a home worth about $400,000 for each homeless person.   Yet the city’s problems persist unabated.

Egan goes on to describe (and criticize) his own home city of Seattle:

In Seattle, the nation’s fastest-growing city for this decade, the social contract is nearly broken. The city used to be run by creative problem solvers. Now, an ideologically driven City Council dreams up new things to anger residents while seeming to let the homeless have the run of the place.

Portlanders might well marvel at the parallels to their own city, as deep and bitter ideological divisions open up between former allies: environmentalists and preservationists, equity advocates and neighborhood activists.  Meanwhile, developers are having a field day:

An unholy alliance of socialists and developers threatens to destroy the city’s single-family neighborhoods with a major upzoning — further disrupting trust between residents and politicians. If the intent is to make Seattle more affordable, this approach has failed. The city has built more new units of housing over the last five years than in the prior half-century. And yet Seattle continues to lead the nation in home price increases.

But surely if Portland follows the same path, we will have different results?  We are reminded of Jane Jacobs’ quip, that planning — or we could substitute here, government policy — “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”

Egan concludes:

We need a new urbanism. For all the grumping about how great the cities facing the Pacific used to be, they can be greater still if the bright minds now trying to “disrupt” a grilled cheese sandwich can focus on the biggest challenge of this generation. We know what doesn’t work. The task is to find a creative mix of solutions that do.

City council votes in “emergency” to re-name ONI, drop “neighborhoods” from name

After repeated and confusing changes to hearing schedules, neighborhood stakeholders show up to protest, are chewed out by Councilmember Eudaly

Kora Kresin, a PSU Graduate Research Assistant, a renter, and the daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, took the Council and ONI to task for the lack of notification and involvement in the name change. “I feel quite powerless… I feel like this decision has already been made.” Kresin is also an Assistant Service Provider, Cedar Counseling Center, and is informally associated with International Making Cities Livable, the co-host of this blog.


In a vote that surprised few people, the Portland City Council ratified the proposed name change of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, the bureau famously derided by City Hall insiders as “the island of misfit toys”.

The Northwest Examiner features the story on its first page for this month.  Excerpts from the article:

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is rebranding itself for a social diversity and equity mission while distancing the agency from its roots in the neighborhood association system.

Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Suk Rhee and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly announced in May that the program will be called the Office of Community & Civic Life effective July 1. After discovering that they cannot transform a city bureau by fiat, they got on the July 18 council agenda…

New brochures were printed before Office of Neighborhood Involvement officials knew they needed City Council approval before changing the agency’s name.

Although Rhee has told skeptical Westside neighborhood association activists that “our mission remains the same,” a 16-page brochure rolling out the program mentions the phrase “neighborhood association(s)” only once, and then merely to define the program’s original purpose.

In announcing the changes as fait accompli, ONI violated the most elemental aspect of citizen participation: People must know when decisions affecting their lives will be on the public docket so they can prepare and speak to decision-makers before binding action is taken. Being told a decision is final when it is not is one step worse than no notification at all; it falsely guides citizens to do nothing while they still have the power to act….

On July 2, the agency website noted that the name change will go to council July 18, but no further clarification was given.

Changing the name is one thing, rewriting its purpose is another.

As adopted in current code (3.96.010), the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is responsible for recognizing neighborhood associations, district coalitions and business district associations to “create a framework by which the people of the city of Portland may effectively participate in civic affairs and work to improve the livability and character of their neighborhoods and the city.

Another section of the code (3.96.060) directs ONI to “support and promote public involvement within the neighborhood association framework.”

Making that language jibe with a program now promoting non-geographic communities, immigrants and underrepresented populations may be more complicated than issuing a press release…

At least two local neighborhood associations, the Northwest District Association and Goose Hollow Foothills League, have gone further.

NWDA unanimously approved a letter to council asking for an explanation of the reasons for the changing of ONI’s name and goals. It also asked for direct notification when the matter is put on the council agenda and for the opportunity to provide testimony.

GHFL leveled a broader critique. In a three-page letter unanimously approved by its board last month, the association opposed the removal of neighborhood from the office’s name. The letter also addressed political theory.

“Place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm, and to ignore that would be a serious error,” the GHFL letter stated. “The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.

“We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities,” the letter continued. “This is backwards, a reversal of the United Nations-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.”

The full hearing video, citizen testimony, and Council and staff discussions (including a tongue-lashing of some neighborhood association representatives by Councilmember Eudaly) can be seen at

Update to post on Council hearing for ONI name change

We received this late-breaking news from Karla Moore-Love, Council Clerk, regarding a motion by Commissioner Eudaly to change the ONI name, as we discussed in a blog post several days ago.  Testimony  WILL be heard on this motion, according to Karla:

The Commissioner will make her motion after the morning Time Certains which should be around 11:00. Her motion will be to hear the ONI name change ordinance to the end of the regular morning agenda which should be around 12:00-12:20 if we’re running on time.

Karla Moore-Love |Council Clerk
Office of the City Auditor |City Hall Rm 130

How can we actually make “cities for all”?

A Stockholm conference by that title explores issues of gentrification, displacement and loss of home affordability — and potential solutions 

Journalist Peter Moskowitz discussing his book, How to Kill a City, at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

A conference in Stockholm, Sweden has concluded that gentrification and spiraling housing costs are the direct end result of “supply-side” government and industry policies — not a selfish citizenry.

Speakers noted that cities around the world are facing a destructive wave of spiraling home prices, displacement, and toxic forms of gentrification and segregation. Portland (the home city of this blog) is experiencing these same trends, although its challenges are, so far, more modest than those of Vancouver BC, Manhattan, San Francisco, or many other cities. At the same time, these other cities offer us a clear warning of what may lie ahead, if we don’t act effectively.

Peter Moskowitz, a New York-based journalist and author of the book How to Kill a City, has documented the processes of gentrification in four US cities, and researched its causes and remedies more broadly, interviewing researchers and examining case studies. He concludes, “Gentrification is not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that puts the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.”

Moskowitz spoke at the “Cities for All” conference in Stockholm earlier this year, sponsored by KTH Royal Institute of Technology and other partners. (This author is Senior Researcher there and was a co-organizer of the conference.) Moskowitz pointed out that gentrification is not just bad for those who are immediately affected, but for the entire city. It is the path to stagnation and decline, as Jane Jacobs and other critics have argued.

Maria Adebowale-Schwarte, a senior fellow with the Project for Public Spaces and founding director of London’s Living Space project, pointed out that “gentrification” can be a misleading term.    Improving a deprived area and increasing diversity can be a good thing — up to the point that people are displaced, and diversity gives way to another monoculture.

London’s Maria Adebowale-Schwarte with the author, discussing gentrification with the audience at the Cities for All conference.

This was also a point made by the urbanist Jane Jacobs in her discussion of “the self-destruction of diversity.”  In effect, there is a “Goldilocks” point of maximum diversity and opportunity for all.  This zone lies between the extremes of a monoculture of poverty, and a monoculture of wealth.  The job of government is to maintain a dynamic balance within this zone, using a range of tools and strategies.

However, Moskowitz says, government is too often seduced by the profitable processes of gentrification.  (We have also written previously about this “trickle-down” theory of urbanism, which we termed “voodoo urbanism.“)

It is not the selfishness of people who patronize new coffee shops, or seek to preserve and enhance the livability of their neighborhoods that is primarily to blame, Moskowitz says. It is the policies and processes initiated by governments and their development allies:

In every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg.

When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone…

[But gentrification happens] not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations.

This grouo includes the professional communities of planning, development, urban design and architecture — of which this author is a self-critical member — forming  what we might think of as the “architectural-industrial complex”.   Our professions might have very good intentions, but the question is whether our “solutions” are actually perpetrating the same systemic dynamics, rewarding us financially and culturally, while we delude ourselves with simplistic but ineffective solution and other-blaming.

But Moskowitz argues that effective solutions are available:

I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable.

Moskowitz concludes his book with six positive recommendations:

Expand, protect and make accessible public lands. Rising private land prices are a big part of the affordability problem, and leaving them subject to the forces of markets and speculation will likely have predictable results. More work is needed on sites that are already public (including wasted low-density sites, rights of way and other properties) and more land is needed in public and non-profit trusts.

Give people an actual say in what happens in their city. This isn’t an invitation to “NIMBYism,” but to a real civic engagement, and a conversation to find win-win strategies. The answer is not to deny people their democratic voice, or to shout down opponents, but to engage in a healthier process of civic problem-solving.

Heavily regulate housing. When we treat housing as a speculative commodity with limited regulations, we can expect speculative surges in prices. A number of promising steps have been taken recently to tamp down speculative increases, including the foreign investment tax in Vancouver, B.C.

Implement a new New Deal. Find creative new sources of revenue to provide basic rights — among them shelter.  Be strategic about funding, not simply “buying time” with temporary subsidies and other protections that will soon expire, causing only a delayed surge in prices.

End protectionism, and add infrastructure.  It’s true that more supply is needed to meet demand — but that supply needs to be in diverse locations, accessible by good-quality infrastructure.  At present, protectionism rewards expensive centrally-located developments, expertly developed by companies that have learned to become insiders in the complex process of entitlement and spot zoning.  This “gaming the system” only fuels gentrification and more expensive (and more profitable) projects.

Raise taxes, raise wages, and spend on the poor.  This is not a matter of wasting taxpayer money, but of finding cost-effective returns on investments.  Do we want to pay more for policing and prisons?  Do we want to live in a degraded, even stagnating city?  That is ultimately what is at stake.  A more equitable, more diversified city is not only a matter of justice — in the end it’s also good for everyone’s bottom line.

Gentrification, displacement, loss of affordability, homeless,  and related urban ills, are complex and dynamic processes, signaling deep dysfunctions in our urban systems.  But they are not beyond our ability to manage.  Indeed, they have arisen precisely as the result of management choices made by those acting in their own short-term benefit — and very much for the long-term detriment of all, whether intended or not.  The question is whether we will be clear-eyed and willing to work together to find the effective strategic responses that are needed — or whether we will descend into bitter acrimony and divisiveness, touting simplistic solutions that don’t work, while the city grows ever more expensive, degraded, and unsustainable.

ONI (OCCL?) rushes name-change order through Council as “emergency” measure

Testimony will be taken Wednesday the 18th at 2PM, and a unanimous Council vote will be required

The City’s website still refers to “Neighborhood Involvement,” but that term is almost entirely missing from the agency’s new materials.

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement, seeking to re-name itself the Office of Community and Civic Life (and as we have argued, also seeking to eviscerate Portland’s historic neighborhood association system) has found belatedly that it needs to get Council permission, and is seeking to do so through an “emergency” measure before the Council this Wednesday at 2PM.  (Sign-ups for speakers are required one hour beforehand.)

The proposed resolution is as follows:

*Rename the Office of Neighborhood Involvement to the Office of Community & Civic Life (Ordinance; amend Code Chapter 3.96 and other titles, as needed).

The City of Portland ordains:

Section 1. The Council finds:

1. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement, originally the Office of Neighborhood Associations, was created in 1974 to serve as the formal link between neighborhood associations and the City.
2. A new name will better reflect the overall mission of the bureau, more accurately represent the full scope of programming and services, and acknowledge the many ways current and prospective Portlanders participate in the City’s civic culture.
3. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement is mentioned throughout the City Code wherever the bureau has duties or authorizations.

NOW, THEREFORE, the Council directs:
a. The name of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is now changed to the Office of Community & Civic Life. In accordance with Portland City Code 1.01.035.C, the Auditor may substitute the bureau’s new name in place of the current title in City Code Chapter 3.96, and wherever the bureau is referred to in the City Code.

Section 2. The Council declares that an emergency exists in order to avoid further delay in implementing the name change; therefore, this ordinance shall be in full force and effect from and after its passage by Council.

Passed by the Council:
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly

Prepared by: Winta Yohannes

Date Prepared: 07/05/18
Mary Hull Caballero
Auditor of the City of Portland

By Deputy

The code change ordinance is as follows:

Authorize the convening of a Code Change Committee to update City Code Chapter 3.96 (Resolution).

WHEREAS, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement was established in 1974 to formalize the relationship between neighborhood associations and the City; and
WHEREAS, Chapter 3.96 no longer adequately represent the Bureau’s current programs, responsibilities, or constituencies; and
WHEREAS, the 2016 Office of Neighborhood Involvement audit highlighted the need to update Bureau practices and City Code to ensure Portlanders have equal access to City decision-making; and
WHEREAS, the demographics of the City population have changed significantly since the last code update in 2005; and
WHEREAS, the Bureau was renamed the Office of Community & Civic Life in July 2018 to better represent the full scope of the bureau’s work and to acknowledge the current and prospective way it serves all Portlanders.

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Bureau shall convene a Code Change Committee that will recommend changes to Chapter 3.96 that reflect: a unified set of culturally-responsive practices for engaging a diverse range of community partners; an updated description of the Bureau’s responsibilities; and a set of voluntary guidelines that represent best practices for civic engagement. These recommendations shall be presented to Council by July 2019.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City reaffirms its commitment and responsibility to engage ALL Portlanders in efforts to foster and support civic engagement.

Adopted by the Council: Commissioner Chloe Eudaly

Prepared by: Winta Yohannes

Date Prepared: 7/05/18
Mary Hull Caballero
Auditor of the City of Portland

By Deputy 


UBC professor and Portland friend Patrick Condon withdraws from Vancouver BC mayor race

Health concerns require him to leave the race, he says in an on-line announcement

Patrick Condon, the University of British Columbia urban design professor and likely nominee for mayor of Vancouver BC for the progressive party COPE, has announced that he is withdrawing as the result of having suffered a stroke. “Therefore, because I’m not able to dedicate my full capacity to the party as it readies itself for the upcoming election, I must end my nomination campaign,” he said.

Condon has been harshly critical of the “Vancouver model” of building high rises and other expensive units as a strategy to add market-rate units and achieve affordability. “It obviously doesn’t work,” he says flatly, referring to Vancouver’s continued status as one of the most expensive, most gentrified cities in the world.

“Vancouver needs real affordable housing for the most vulnerable, for working people and for young people and seniors,” he wrote in his announcement, reiterating an earlier goal to develop 50 percent non-market housing for the city. “I look forward to making a full recovery. I am determined to keep speaking out and will lend support to see that these objectives become reality in the City of Vancouver.”

Meena Wong, former Vancouver mayoral candidate, said she joined Condon’s campaign as manager because he was a “can-do person”. She continued, “His belief of building a just, fair and sustainable Vancouver, where everyone can afford and enjoy to live and work, resonates with mine… We wish him a speedy and full recovery.”

Full story here.


Should we re-zone Northwest Portland and King’s Hill to allow high rises?

An open letter to Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission

Dear Commissioners,

RE: Opposition to proposed re-zoning of King’s Hill to RM4; request rezone to RM3

I am writing to offer this testimony on the above-referenced topic (part of the Better Housing by Design proposal) as a resident of King’s Hill. For the record, I am also president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, a business owner in sustainable development consulting with an international practice, and president of a non-profit think tank in sustainable urban development, called Sustasis Foundation ( However, I wish to make it clear that in this letter, I speak as a citizen on my own behalf.

My residence is at 742 SW Vista Avenue, Apartment 42. My six-story apartment building has a net density of 196 units per acre (45 units on a 10,000 SF parcel). My neighborhood of King’s Hill, as well as the surrounding areas of Goose Hollow and the Alphabet District, are among the densest in all of Oregon (approx. 22 units per acre gross). As my Ph.D. dissertation research has shown, this density and mix is optimal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing other valuable benefits of sustainable urban development. Indeed, I have published books and lectured extensively about this area and its remarkable urban characteristics. It is featured in the book Cities Alive and in the class I teach in the School of Sustainability and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, among others. (I have also taught at U of O and elsewhere.)

Large parts of our region, including areas within the City of Portland, are very low-density, sprawling and with high greenhouse gas emissions. They desperately need new and more livable forms of development that are more sustainable. This was a major effort in my own career when I became project manager for the master developer of Orenco Station in Hillsboro, taking an extremely low-density area (<1 unit per acre gross) with no walkable amenities, and building a “complete community” that offered a much more compact, walkable neighborhood (density >12 units per acre, plus extensive mixed use).

Through the best of intentions, we could all too easily destroy the priceless urban asset represented by King’s Hill, the Alphabet District and Goose Hollow. In my research and consultancy in other cities around the world, I have seen exactly this tragic result. In fact, the momentous changes in development practices in the 1950s and 1960s left us with sad remnants of once great cities, and horrific damage committed by very well-meaning people for the best of reasons – economic growth, opportunity, better living conditions, “modernization” and so on. The past is a warning to the present.

Today I believe there is also a well-meaning but terribly misguided approach that has come to dominate in Portland, which may be reflected in the current proposal to upzone King’s Hill and the Alphabet District. As in the 1950s and 1960s, it places great faith in “modernization,” and in the capacities of new development to better reflect the spirit of the age and its needs and ambitions. In particular, there is what some have called the “Vancouver Model” – to accommodate the needs of a growing city by upzoning, replacing older low-rise and mid-rise buildings with high-rise buildings, adding more units, and also encouraging mixed use and transit-served development. At least the addition of mixed use and transit are improvements over the older 1950s and 1960s models, it is felt.

But there is a warning today emerging from Vancouver, and other cities like it. Leaders like Patrick Condon – head of the urban design program at UBC, and now a potential candidate for Mayor – have cautioned places like Portland to learn from their mistakes, and the highly problematic results. Vancouver thought it could add many units to the core and thereby meet demand with supply, thus lowering prices.

But this approach didn’t work – to put it mildly. Vancouver is today one of the least affordable cities in the world, and significantly higher than Portland. (As Patrick Condon and others have pointed out, this outcome was not explainable as a one-time event related to Chinese investment; indeed, international investment is accelerating, in Portland as well as other cities.) Meanwhile, Vancouver has lost much of its priceless historic neighborhood fabric, including older and more affordable buildings that once occupied the site of expensive new condominiums.

One of the people praising the high cost of housing in Vancouver is Donald Trump Jr., in charge of building the luxury Le Corbusier-style Trump Tower there. “We’ve done it time and time again — when you combine a great location with incredible architecture and incredible amenities … it’s sort of a formula for success.” He was speaking of the eye-popping sales prices for the 214 luxury units in Trump Tower Vancouver, which sold at an average $1,610 per sq. ft. — the highest rate in Vancouver, or for that matter, all of Canada. One single unit sold for over $6 million.

Portland is rightly celebrated as having charted a different path – revived and built on many historic assets like the streetcar system, the Skidmore Fountain area and others. The Alphabet District, Goose Hollow and King’s Hill have also become models of livability, after a wave of destructive tear-downs and insensitive modern buildings in the 1960s. We should recognize and protect what we achieved.

This is a kind of “Jane Jacobs urbanism” – accommodating new projects, yes, but carefully, and retaining a mix of old (and cheaper) with new. This diversity of age matches other kinds of diversity, including income, ethnicity and other factors. It assures that new projects achieve a “gentle densification,” as Patrick Condon has termed it – building on under-utilized sites like parking lots, before allowing affordable historic buildings to be torn down. My own apartment, built in 1911, is a case in point – it rents for $1.60 per foot. If this site were upzoned, I might (from a pure business perspective) advise a developer, perhaps with foreign capital, to demolish this building and put up a much taller and more profitable building. (Its rent would likely be closer to $3.50 per foot, not counting the small amount of “inclusionary zoning” that would be required, quite possibly in a remote and much less livable location.) I would make money doing this — but the city would be much the poorer for it. This might well happen to the next affordable building, and the next – and soon, we would transform the city, into a pale imitation of Vancouver, with perhaps only the worst of its attributes.

Instead I think we must follow the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If we want a more sustainable, affordable region, we need to re-focus away from the neighborhoods that are already models of sustainability, and toward the lower-density, sprawling, monocultural places, as I did in my years with Hillsboro and Orenco Station. It is in these suburban areas that over 80 percent of the region lives, and arguably, over 95 percent of the region’s sustainability challenge remains.  These areas deserve beautiful, livable, walkable urbanism as much as others do.  THAT is the takeaway for equity and justice — NOT trying foolishly to cram everyone into the core, only to further damage the core, AND the suburbs.  Following Jane Jacobs, we need geographic diversity as well as other kinds of diversity.

Therefore, I strongly oppose the proposed re-zoning of the areas of the King’s Hill historic district currently zoned RH to RM4. I hereby request that this area be re-zoned to RM3.

In addition, I believe the same issues apply to the Alphabet District, and I support the request by other affected parties to re-zone this area to RM3 as well.

I do appreciate the efforts to provide historic protections within the current proposals. However, beyond preserving individual landmark and contributing historic structures, I strongly agree with the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/ Architectural Heritage Center and the local preservation community on the need to maintain the distinctive character of designated historic districts, which contribute so vitally to Portland’s irreplaceable heritage, livability, and yes, affordability.


Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D.

Is ONI – er, OCCL — still broken?

New director Suk Rhee brings in refreshing values of diversity — but basic principles of geographic representative democracy seem to be lost in the shuffle

Previously we wrote about the disturbing name change of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, to the “Office of Community and Civic Life,” — dropping the word “neighborhood” altogether.  As we wrote, that’s not just a bit of feel-good cosmetics, but we think reveals a disturbing new low for Portland’s once-celebrated neighborhood association system.  It also doesn’t seem to reflect a responsiveness to the scathing City Auditor’s Report of November 2016 — before new director Suk Rhee took the helm.

That report included  a telling passage:

While some respondents noted that Council’s responsiveness varied by issue and by Commissioner, only 46 percent of the leaders said City Council is responsive to input from their neighborhood association.

“The City of Portland seems unconcerned about the perspectives of residents as reflected through their neighborhood associations.” – Neighborhood leader

That’s a pointed criticism, suggesting the need for reforms that restore and empower the neighborhoods as grass-roots channels within the City.  The name change seems to go in the opposite direction — downgrading neighborhoods to become competitors with other voices that the City decides it wants to listen to.  Whatever its altruistic intents, that is a top-down, command-and-control approach at best, and a formula for marginalization and muddle at worst.

But are neighborhood associations even relevant anymore?   Aren’t they in decline, no longer representative (if they ever were)? Full of rich white NIMBY homeowners? Isn’t it time to move on, and listen to other voices?


The Portland neighborhood association system has been responsible for some of the City’s most important achievements, including its focus on walkable, transit-oriented, livable neighborhoods,  its preservation of priceless historic assets, and its denial of some truly disastrous planned projects, for which we can all be grateful.  The answer to a neighborhood system that is not as representative and accountable as it should be is NOT to throw neighborhoods under the bus — but to listen to the Auditor, and to reform the system.  (And with respect to Commissioner Eudaly and Suk Rhee, it is not to put a naming band-aid on a much deeper structural problem.)

Here are a few of the reasons that neighborhood associations are critical, and need to be elevated — not marginalized:

a) Portland’s at-large commission system desperately needs a complement of geographic representation, especially for Eastside residents.

b) A truly “subsidiary” democracy (flowing from the grassroots) needs a voice for people AT the grassroots, namely from peoples’ own homes and neighborhoods.

c) All politics is local, and nothing is more local than neighborhoods.

d) If the City is committed to transparency and accountability, then it needs to empower its stakeholders, including neighborhoods, even if — especially if — they disagree with the City and seek to hold it accountable.

e) Neighborhood associations have a unique obligation of open participation, public meetings, public records, and transparent disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Other advocacy organizations can be exclusive — and many are, by their very nature.  That’s often appropriate — but only geographic representative entities like neighborhoods can represent ALL the people who live there, regardless of any other factor.  And as a city providing participatory funding, we have every right to demand that they do.

That’s a fundamental difference from other stakeholder groups, who — whatever their aspirations or outward appearances — are sometimes dominated by unaccountable interests of wealth or power.

Of course the City needs to listen to other stakeholders. (But not by crowding out geographically representative constituencies, AKA neighborhood associations.)   Of course neighborhoods must be more representative and inclusive, reflecting income diversity, diversity of ownership, diversity of age, those with disabilities, people of color and/or diverse national origin, and others.  But they must also be empowered to have real influence.  The way to make neighborhood associations more relevant is… to make them more relevant, within real City processes.

My own neighborhood association board of Goose Hollow includes people from all of these populations (including a number of renters and low-income members), and we have taken a number of strong pro-active steps to be more inclusive.

Our Goose Hollow board has also taken a strong stand on the issue of ONI reform, well before Director Rhee came into post, and before the current name change and its disturbing portents.  In March of this year we wrote a letter to the Commission and Director Rhee, reiterating previous concerns and expressing further concerns about the still-unmet — and increasingly urgent — need for thorough reforms of the agency.  Here it is in full:

Dear Mayor Wheeler and members of the City Council,

The Board of Goose Hollow Foothills League has authorized me by unanimous vote to send the following letter.
It has been almost a year since GHFL forwarded a letter calling for the reform of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), following upon the November 2016 audit, Community and Neighborhood Involvement: Accountability Limited, Rules and Funding Model Outdated.
We believe it is time to revisit this. First we note that few of the issues we raised last March have even come up at either ONI BAC or Directors and Chairs meetings. The exception occurred at 2 BAC meetings, where there were briefings on the changes required by City Council’s passage of ethics requirements at its 9 November 2017 meeting, and conflict of interest statements were then signed.
However, it is disturbing to experience the general disparagement of Neighborhood Associations that has become a narrative. This has been noted and examples given in the 29 January 2018 Minority Report re the requested ONI FY 2018-19 Budget, which was submitted by two of our members.
One might conclude from this rhetoric that the ONI Audit faulted the 95 Neighborhood Associations rather than ONI and its neighborhood involvement program. That would be quite a stretch, since all of Portland’s association boards and members are comprised of unpaid volunteers who do not administer tax dollars.
ONI’s new director spoke at the 12 October Directors and Chairs meeting of the need to “create a culture of civic involvement.” We agree with that, and it is what we and other Neighborhood Associations have been attempting to do (and to maintain) for some time. That was the aim of those associations before ONI came into being –and it was supposed to be the aim of the newly established bureau (then called ONA –Office of Neighborhood Associations) in 1974.
The original purpose of ONI was to support and empower its “customers” or “end users,” i.e., Portland’s Neighborhood Associations, so that they would, as grass roots agents of the most basic kind of democracy, “do their thing.” This “thing” was to protect and advocate for their neighborhoods, their health, livability, and sense of community. Good neighborhoods make good cities.
It was understood that this advocacy would bring them frequently into conflict not only with outside interests that threatened them, but with the city itself and its agencies. That was the whole point, as the issues and values they promoted could arise only from the grass roots, not from bureaucracy.
Bureaucracies, having no grass roots validation, are unlikely agents of democratic involvement, as their approach is inevitably a top-down one. We believe that approach to be divisive, fostering disempowerment, frustration, and sometimes anger. Following ONI’s founding, its history over the past decade and more has been to shed its original purposes and instead to have the effect of discouraging inclusiveness and participation in and by the grass roots. By the disenfranchisement outlined in the referenced Minority Report the grass roots are thrown into the compost pile. We would agree that it “strikes at the heart of participatory democracy, fosters concentration of power in coteries, engenders apathy in ordinary citizens, and devastates neighborhood involvement.”
At the same 12 October meeting, it was also admitted that “Public confidence in ONI is at an all- time low.” Further evidence of this appears in the Portland Mercury 2 February story re the attempt to re-brand the bureau: involvement-and-other-great-and-ignored-suggestions-for-renaming-oni
On this matter, we quote a respected colleague: “I’d resist any renaming that omitted the word ‘neighborhood.’ The fact is that place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm and to ignore that would be a serious error. The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.” It is essential that the City recognize the fundamental difference between communities of identity and geographic constituencies.
We also find it hard to understand ONI’s “flight from a core function…(originally the only function)” and strange that the bureau has thus far not involved the largest group of its end users in a reform process. Instead this has been kept within ONI and the coalition leadership, which is unlikely to produce reform. Nor is communication with the Neighborhood Associations taking place. Reports of BAC or Directors and Chairs meetings are not made and discussed at our own neighborhood coalition meetings, for instance.
We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities. This is backwards, a reversal of the UN-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.
A bureau exists to serve constituents and if it should choose not to perform core functions, it would be logical to expect that the agency would either cease to be or to have the funding for such function(s) taken back.
We have heard considerable sentiment among Portlanders that the latter should happen. At this point, however, we would prefer “…to see a fully reformed ONI, accomplished through the involvement of those it should serve, not simply staff and vested interests,” and not to relinquish the vision “…which was seen nationally as Portland producing a model of participation by grass roots democracy in the betterment of the city.”
We would also say that the ONI Audit does not level blame on the great majority of ONI staff and we believe them to be dutiful civil servants. Likewise, ONI’s past actions and the deficiencies enumerated in the audit did not happen on Suk Rhee’s watch, and we wish her well as her tenure begins.
Since we discuss many of the ways in which we feel the system has been failing, we believe we have a responsibility to suggest ways in which it can be reformed. Along with many other citizen advocates in Portland’s Neighborhood Associations, we have thought long and hard over what ONI has been and what it should be and we are prepared to share that and to work with our city so that it once again can be a model of grass roots advocacy and participation.

Sincerely, Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D. ,President, GHFL
Copy: Ms. Suk Rhee, ONI



Advice to Design Reviewers: Beware of False Renderings!

Unreal transparency, happy people, and lots of trees and shrubs are among the sins of “Photoshopping”

From our friends at the “Architecture Uprising” (Arkitekturupproret) in Sweden, here is a timely warning to design review boards, to clients and to citizens: what you see is too often not what you get.  Sexy renderings that look like glowing crystal layer-cakes, smiling crowds of people and bikes everywhere, nice soft trees and shrubs, might translate into… something different.  Objects may be uglier than they appear…

First up is the “crystal box” (above, top).  This is a common trick: the building is going to be a luminous jewel, an absolutely lovely sight to behold.  It won’t be an ugly strip of panels and glass, festooned with even uglier signage.   But that’s what residents of Gothenburg, Sweden actually got (above, lower).

Next up is the “throng of pedestrians” trick.  It’s easy to make a dead space look lively by Photoshopping in happy people and bikes everywhere, like this example from Copenhagen.  But as the photo shows, these projects often deliver rather more dismal results:

We think of Copenhagen as a very human-scaled, bike-friendly place — but in its car-dominated modernist outskirts, not so much.

Lastly, the oldest trick in the book, “shrubbing it up.” Just throw in a bunch of trees and landscaping elements, whether or not they accurately depict what is built — as this example from Piteå, Sweden illustrates:

We are reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s quip at a cocktail party, “you doctors are lucky that you can bury your mistakes.  We architects have to plant vines.”

To see more “fake views” from Arkitekturupproret — or to learn more about this remarkable group, 30,000 strong and growing — visit the links below.  Thanks to our friend Yulia Kryazheva in Amsterdam for passing on this item!

Fake views – Kontrasten mellan visionsbilder och verklighet

About us (English)

ONO!… Office of Neighborhood Involvement changes its name to “Office of Community and Civic Life”

Neighborhood-based geographic representation gets a further apparent major demotion

The new “brand”.

This just in from the former Office of Neighborhood Involvement:  the direct, simple idea of neighborhood-based participation in city government has now been officially euthanized, replaced by a feel-good title, “Office of Community and Civic Life.”  City activists who are already troubled by poor geographic representation under Portland’s at-large system have another major reason to be alarmed.

So do the many other groups that are currently under-represented in city affairs.  While the new move represents an attempt to give them a bigger voice, there is no democratic means for doing so, and only those who are acknowledged by the City will be… acknowledged by the City.

We noted some months ago that such a move was afoot  (see  We warned that the current situation is an inversion of the fundamental  democratic principle of geographic representation, and that the way to deal with an inadequate neighborhood involvement system is to make it more representative and more accountable, and not to marginalize it.

Can you spot the neighborhoods?

But this week’s news makes it clear that neighborhoods — along with the venerable neighborhood involvement system itself — are going under the bus.

The chart that came with the announcement has a dizzying number of elements, only one of which is “Neighborhood Program.” That element is a bit hard to spot, well below “Crime Prevention,” “Information and Referral,” and “Cannabis.”  In total, “Neighborhood Program” is one of twenty elements in the chart.

This week’s email from Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Director Suk Rhee:

Dear friends and colleagues:

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement has been the gateway to civic engagement in Portland for 44 years. While the bureau was originally created in 1974 to connect Neighborhood Associations to the city, the bureau’s responsibilities have evolved over time. Just as the services that ONI provides have evolved, so must the way we represent our bureau to you: our constituents and partners.

Effective July 1, 2018, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is becoming the Office of Community and Civic Life. This change is the result of a recognition by many, through focus groups, research, and dialogue, that our name should better represent the wide range of ways our office supports and engages with all Portlanders.

While the public roll out is scheduled for July 1st, we are sharing the news with community partners and city colleagues this afternoon. We want you to be the first to know.

The Office of Community and Civic Life strives to connect the people of Portland with their city government to promote the common good. We chose the word Community to include all Portlanders, and the word Civic to highlight our role in engaging the public in local government.

Our mission remains the same:  Promoting a culture of civic engagement by connecting and supporting all Portlanders working together and with government to build inclusive, safe and livable neighborhoods and communities. It will take all of us to realize our shared goals. As the Office of Community and Civic Life, we will maintain our strong, longstanding community partnerships and expand our efforts to bring new voices to the table. 

The website, bureau, and program materials will be updated on July 1, 2018.  We will be re-introducing ourselves to our city and community partners through longstanding events like National Night Out and Spirit of Portland Awards, a social media campaign, and printed materials.

For further information about our name change and the rebranding process, please visit our website. We welcome your ideas and invite you to collaborate with us as we begin our next chapter as the Office of Community and Civic Life.

Thank you,

Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner                                                                                   Suk Rhee, Director, Office of Community & Civic Life