Every four years, candidates for Portland mayor pledge to reinvent the city, making it more prosperous, sustainable and just.
They say they'll raise workers' wages, hire more cops, fill potholes, expand bike lanes, create jobs, hold down water and sewer rates, house the homeless and promote inclusion—all while keeping to a budget, maintaining current programs and avoiding cuts.
Why do we believe?
Because every four years, candidates tap into our collective sense of worry that the Portland we love is slipping through our fingers. That fear reminds us that Portland can and should do better.
It's a longing for a hero.
The need is more acute this year, because no incumbent is running for re-election.
WW endorsed Charlie Hales in 2012, hoping the former city commissioner would be a Mr. Fix-It with the business acumen and urban-planning idealism to steer the city.
Hales made some headway. He trimmed fat in city bureaus, invested in community policing and embraced Silicon Valley.
But he also ran into some walls: an ill-conceived "street fee," a crisis of skyrocketing rents, a homeless problem that seemed intractable, and a chilly relationship with many of his fellow commissioners.
"Expectations were much higher," says Jewel Lansing, Portland's elected auditor in the 1980s and author of a book on Portland history. "He didn't come through."
In the next five months, candidates seeking to replace Hales will make their case that they can get the city back on track.
Wheeler and Bailey are already trying to outdo each other's pledges to make longtime social ills magically disappear.
We've heard Wheeler say he will build enough shelters so no one has to sleep outside by the second year of his first term, though he has yet to offer a concrete plan. Bailey has made similar promises—vowing to cut Portland's homelessness in half in his first term.
Talk is cheap.
We're here to help.
WW talked to three dozen Portlanders—economists, politicians, activists and residents—to ask them about the city issues that aren't getting enough attention in the mayor's race.
We've then distilled their answers into a list of seven tasks.
These aren't the only issues we hope to hear candidates talking about in the next five months. Instead, this list is a blueprint for the kind of big, bold ideas we expect from Portland's next mayor.
Think of it as a playbook for being the hero Portland deserves.
Build (cute and small) apartments.
The most urgent challenge facing Portland? Soon, no one but the well-heeled will be able to pay rent or mortgages west of 82nd Avenue.
The next mayor must find a way to add housing supply in a city where the cramped 2.6 percent vacancy rate is driving the average apartment rent to $1,200 a month.
One elegant solution? Change Portland's zoning and parking codes to bring back modestly scaled buildings such as "garden apartments."
Sixty years ago, during another population boom, Portland's zoning allowed for more housing types in neighborhoods. That's why, tucked into coveted neighborhoods like Irvington and Ladd's Addition, you still see charming old duplexes and grand homes carved into smaller apartments.
Building those types of homes is now illegal in much of Portland. So are garden apartments—the single-story apartment complexes with eight or 10 units clustered around open, grassy courtyards. (An exemption is possible—with a long public process.)
No new multiplexes are allowed on neighborhood streets zoned for single-family homes, except duplexes on corners.
In the late 1950s, when cars took over as the primary means of transportation, Portland adopted zoning regulations that made single-family dwellings the primary form of housing that could be built in Portland neighborhoods.
"We've got large amounts of Portland where the most you can build on a 5,000-square-foot lot, even within walking distance of downtown, is a single house," says small-scale developer and general contractor Eli Spevak. "In any kind of urban-planning framework, it doesn't make sense."
Chris Smith, a transportation activist and member of the Portland Planning Commission, says allowing small multifamily buildings could quickly increase housing supply.
"If you could take an existing house that's large and convert it into a fourplex," he says, "that could produce good, affordable housing."
In Seattle, where residents have faced a similar problem, a planning commission member there estimated that allowing one triplex per block in single-family zones could add 30,000 additional homes to the city.
"It's not going to be some instantaneous change," Spevak says, "but it's pretty dramatic how many units you can absorb."
Bringing back garden apartments would create new housing options on a smaller scale than hulking apartment buildings. In return, the policy change demands a concession from neighborhood associations: no more parking requirements for new, smaller apartment buildings and complexes.
Nothing demonstrates that slowdown more vividly than how downtown Portland has fallen behind other U.S. cities—from Chicago to Salt Lake City—in giving cyclists physically protected lanes.
We're not talking about green paint. The safest lanes for bicycles are separated from traffic by raised curbs and planters: anything that physically boxes out cars and gives bikes their own roads.
You can find a local model on Northeast Multnomah Street. A variation—which uses parked cars as a barrier—runs along Southwest Broadway at Portland State University.
But don't look for any other examples in downtown.
"The fact that one of the best bicycle cities in America doesn't have a protected space for people to bike downtown is a huge embarrassment," says Jonathan Maus, editor of advocacy website BikePortland. "We're putting up little plastic wands that immediately get knocked over by cars. How quickly those things get ripped up is pretty telling."
This is about more than regaining a place of pride. It's showing tangible commitment to the "Vision Zero" rhetoric officials spout about eliminating traffic deaths.
Protecting cyclists wouldn't take a lot of money: The mayor could start by simply ordering classic concrete "jersey barriers" along five high-traffic routes to work. Ugly? Sure. But it beats deadly. A lot of klutzy tourists are going to be hopping on rented Nike-sponsored bikes starting this summer, without a single protected lane—a hazard City Hall should fix.
Take a tax holiday.
The next mayor must spark innovation and creativity in the city's entrenched bureaucracies. That means hitting the "pause" button on tax proposals.
Compared with other big U.S. cities, Portland's tax burden on individuals sits in the middle of the pack, according to a report from the chief financial officer of Washington, D.C.
But the last two Portland mayors expended goodwill on tax schemes: Adams on an arts tax, Hales on a street fee that went nowhere. Next week, city officials will vote to refer a gas tax to the May ballot.
City officials are also contemplating fixing homelessness with an affordable-housing bond.
"There's never a problem that can't be solved with a check," says Eric Fruits, a former chairman of Multnomah County's Republican Party. "Any time someone comes up with a new issue, the knee-jerk response is, 'Let's come up with a new revenue source.'"
Some of these responses are good ideas. When the gas tax comes to our editorial board, we'll consider the proposal on its merits.
But these measures disguise a deeper problem: City Hall still can't balance its checkbook.
City revenue increased 17 percent to $1.6 billion in 2014, nearing an all-time high. Yet the city is still spending more than it brings in.
The next mayor must grapple with the fact that Portland faces a dire reckoning with its long-term finances.
When Hales took office in 2013, the city's expenses exceeded revenue for eight of the 10 previous years, the auditor's office says. The city balanced its budget partly by breaking out its credit card, using debt to cover spending. At the same time, huge liabilities loom—including obligations to fund retirement accounts and maintain assets.
"We remain concerned about the long-term fiscal sustainability of the city," says Drummond Kahn, director of the Portland Audit Services Division. "There are known costs and risks that could extend for decades."
Yet Portland spends money outside the city's domain: close to $1 million funding TriMet passes for students in Portland Public Schools and $129,000 for community college scholarships.
Several of the city's bureaucracies—including those handling bridges, mental health and gang outreach—are duplicated by the county, with both governments refusing to clarify who's in charge.
If the next mayor wants voters to support new programs or spending decisions, he or she will first need to convince them that the city has taken a comprehensive look at its long-term budget, and isn't just patching holes using taxpayers as an ATM.
In other words: Take a two-year break from tax-hunting, and use that time to decide how the city can balance its budgets long-term. Then we can talk taxes.
Make it easier to fire bad cops.
The next mayor needs to know when the city's police force acts wrongly against citizens, and have the power to fire a bad cop.
That's an authority the next mayor must fight to win. Language in the city's labor contract with the Portland Police Association all but guarantees the city can't dump a bad cop.
The contract says when the mayor fires an officer, the union can appeal to an arbitrator, who gets the final say. That's why Mayor Hales last month was forced to rehire Ron Frashour, the officer who in 2010 killed an unarmed black man named Aaron Campbell by shooting him in the back.
The next mayor needs to change that language and other clauses in the contract that protect violent officers. That includes abolishing the so-called "48-hour rule" that gives officers who kill Portlanders two days before they have to answer questions about the shooting.
"It's an important thing to get out of the contract," says Dan Handelman, who's been bird-dogging police with his activist group Portland Copwatch since 1992.
Hales promised in his 2012 campaign to change that rule. Once in office, however, he could not remove the 48-hour rule from the union's 2013 contract.
"The police don't want it [out], but if you're willing to offer them something that they really want, they might forgo it," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who was police commissioner under Adams. "It's negotiable."
The police union has something it wants very much: more cops. Despite historically low crime rates, union president Daryl Turner claims Portland needs to increase the force by more than one-third.
Both Wheeler and Bailey opened their campaigns by suggesting they would hire more cops.
They're throwing away a valuable bargaining chip. The next mayor of this city should link hiring of officers with the power to properly investigate and fire cops.
Act locally on climate change.
Portland prides itself on being a global model for standing against fossil fuels warming the planet.
The next mayor must start fighting the effects of climate change on constituents.
Multnomah County Chief Operating Officer Marissa Madrigal recalls how public health officials warned people to stay indoors last summer when massive wildfires filled the air with smoke.
"A cruise along 82nd that day revealed apartment after apartment with open windows and kids sitting outside," she says. "I could feel the smoke in my chest after only a few minutes outside between the car and the supermarket. But what choice did they have? Risk heat stroke inside or breath toxic air outside."
Madrigal says the next mayor must prepare for extreme climate events to become more common. That means planting trees in East Portland to break up the sizzling stretches of asphalt parking lots. And it means being ready to open community centers and indoor pools for free during heat waves and fires.
"When you're making a plan," she says, "don't forget the people who don't have options."
The next mayor must jump-start programs that have already shown results.
Then-Mayor Adams' food-composting program greatly reduced the volume of garbage sent to landfills, reducing carbon emissions, but it's still not mandatory at apartment complexes—where one-third of all Portlanders live.
Adams also offered financial incentives to build eco-roofs. During his term, Portland added close to 400,000 square feet of rooftop vegetation that absorbs carbon dioxide and provides other environmental benefits.
The incentive expired under Hales. Eco-roof building has dropped significantly.
Hales made climate change a signature issue—and took some good steps, like last year's resolution to block fossil-fuel companies from expanding their pipelines, tanks and terminals in Portland.
The next mayor should continue with Adams' and Hales' zeal—but focus the city's energy on solutions that directly impact Portlanders.
"Portland already has a built-in lead that it risks losing," says Bob Sallinger of the Portland Audubon Society. "One of the things the next mayor could do is revive the investment in green infrastructure and really make sure Portland is the greenest city in America."
Make the Office of Equity work—or start over.
Adams and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz worked together in 2011 to launch a city bureau devoted to equity for women, minorities, immigrants and the disabled.
The Office of Equity mission statement says it will break down "systemic barriers to fair and just distribution of resources."
But the office is almost entirely focused on internal matters. It has had successes: Most notably, it backed a city resolution to ban employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories.
More often, it conducts sensitivity training. City Hall sources complain it's a feel-good operation that rarely produces practical results.
"Most people I talk to agree it's ineffective," says Fred Stewart, an African-American businessman who is running against City Commissioner Steve Novick. "It's internal. Nobody out in the public feels it."
The next mayor must ensure the Office of Equity gets results that regular Portlanders can see.
Minority contracting would be a good place to start.
City rules direct contracting dollars to women-owned and minority businesses. But those rules include a loophole: "Emerging small businesses" owned by white men qualify, too.
That allows the city to claim it is meeting its equity goals—without actually giving the contracts to women and minorities.
Maurice Rahming, an African-American who is president of O'Neill Electric, says the Office of Equity shows little interest in toughening the city's contracting rules. "You would think this would be their biggest issue," says Rahming, who sits on the city's Equitable Contracting and Purchasing Commission.
Judith Mowry, a senior policy adviser with the Office of Equity, says her colleagues have worked to address the disparities but can't do it alone.
"We're influencers," she says.
The next mayor must give the Office of Equity authority to address the loophole.
The mayor should also examine bureau leadership. Director Dante James violated city policy in 2014 by telling a female employee she had "beautiful eyes," and disbanded a citywide equity committee that clashed with him.
James doesn't even work in Portland right now. He's been "loaned" to Oakland until April, helping that city open an equity office following Portland's model.
The next mayor should welcome James back, then give him tangible goals for making a fairer city.
Prepare for the big one.
Every New Yorker subscriber knows about the catastrophic earthquake that will someday strike Portland, pancaking buildings, bridges and schools.
The next mayor must prepare the city by making the owners of dangerous buildings reduce the hazards.
City officials estimate 60 percent of buildings in Portland are older than the seismic safety codes that came into existence in 1978. Current city code says buildings need retrofitting only when owners significantly remodel their buildings or change the type of occupancy.
The city also has an estimated 1,800 buildings that are highly vulnerable to severe earthquake damage because they're made from unreinforced masonry. That includes churches and schools.
City Hall is seeking tougher rules requiring the owners of those especially perilous buildings to make them safe by a deadline that's likely to be decades away. The next mayor must follow through—and then go further, by using creative measures to sweeten the incentives for complying with the rules as quickly as possible.
"As requirements kick in, people are going to come back and say, 'We can't do this,'" says Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. "The next mayor should continue to push to get assistance for people who are required to reinforce their buildings."
And those aren't the only buildings that could flatten Portland.
About 100,000 homes built before 1975 aren't bolted to their foundations. The next mayor, Novick says, will need to aid efforts to pass a statewide requirement that owners disclose this fact before they sell their houses. He or she also will need to persuade industry along the Willamette River to secure their large fuel tanks, both so the fuel doesn't contaminate the river and so emergency responders can gas up their vehicles in the event disaster strikes.
"Indirectly, it will save lives," says Carmen Merlo, director of the Bureau of Emergency Mangement. "Ensuring an adequate source of fuel is vitally important."
Merlo's bureau has made a list of how to respond in the aftermath of a megaquake. The next mayor must make a similar list—but one for before the quake, prioritizing which pieces of Portland infrastructure need bracing, year by year. (This is part of the long-term budgeting we talked about.)
The next mayor can't save us all. But he or she must make hard decisions about how to preserve the city in a disaster.
Talking about earthquakes reminds us: Perhaps more than any other quality, Portlanders need a mayor who will offer the city stability.
That means we need a mayor who will stick around. This city hasn't had a mayor last more than one term since Vera Katz won for a third time in 2000.
The job requires endurance—and that will require picking priorities, then sticking to them no matter the political winds.
In these pages, we've offered a few of our big ideas. We expect to hear more—both from candidates and citizens.
But what we most want to see is somebody with a compass so firm that he or she can still navigate when big ideas meet with fierce opposition.
This is a changing city. Whoever gets elected this year must guide Portland with 2020 vision, understanding that in four years the city will face new dilemmas and new opportunities.
The next mayor will become a superhero by expecting the unexpected—and not giving up.
Vision. Priorities. Collegiality and staying power.
"That's the simplest way," says City Commissioner Nick Fish, "to describe how to be successful in this building."