A washed-up politician on the cover? A five-page interview inside? You've got to be kidding!
With most politicians, we would be. But not with Charlie Hales.
Ten years ago, this development lobbyist jumped into the deep end of the political pool and quickly began swimming laps around some of his colleagues. Two months ago he quit, midterm, to take a job with a national engineering firm. His departure prompted 16 would-be successors to file for next month's special election. They'd do well to read this interview (particularly the expanded version on the Web) and pick up some ideas from a guy who proved to be one of Portland's most effective commissioners.
It wasn't just that Hales was bright--he was also one of the few elected leaders who you could count on to tell it like he saw it. That shoot-from-the-lip philosophy was evident when he sat down with us two weeks ago to talk about his accomplishments (funding new parks) and failures (sparking a neighborhood rebellion in Southwest Portland). He critiqued his former colleagues (Erik Sten needs to appreciate aesthetics) and talked about his future plans (hint: the mayor's post isn't the only elected office he'd consider). He once again proved to be a good sport, helping us write his obituary and indulging our photographer by wading knee-deep into Jamison Fountain, which, sitting between the streetcar lines, symbolizes his legacy--new trolleys and park facilities--as well as his habit of making waves.
Willamette Week: So now that you're out in the private sector, what's a relief to you?
Charlie Hales: I didn't leave because I was frustrated and unhappy, so there's not much that's a relief.
But now that you're gone, what is it at the end of the day that makes you say, "Boy, it's nice not to have to deal with..."?
Not much. I'm not being coy about that. There's not a long list of things I'm glad to be without. I enjoy being able to really focus my time on the most productive opportunities, but I did a lot of that when I was there. I was a pretty good time manager, and I managed to get a lot done in 10 years by focusing my time. We would always say in the office, "Is this carrying out our agenda or just dealing with the crisis of the moment?" And we were pretty good about trying to increase the percentage of our time for actually getting things done. And Portland's government is unique this way. If you have your wits about you, you get to allocate a lot of your time and energy and political capital to actually accomplishing things, as opposed to just processing the work.
What does that mean?
I spent a very small percentage of my time and effort fighting intramural battles in City Hall, whereas in the Legislature or Congress, 85 percent of the work is battles over this bill or that bill. It's institutional in part and behavioral in terms of how you operate there. So I was pretty satisfied with the environment and accomplished a lot of what I wanted to do.
And what was that?
I ran for office in '92 because it looked to me like the city was about to grow. And although there were some nice people on the City Council-Bud [Clark] and Gretchen [Kafoury], Mike [Lindberg] and Earl [Blumenauer]-really only Earl was talking this growth-management stuff, and the question of how we were going to ride that wave of the '90s. I thought, and I was right, that we were about to grow and the '90s were that time in which we were able to harness that huge energy of growth to make a better city: to make a good downtown better, to take an old rail yard and turn it into a national success story of a new urban neighborhood, to take boulevards like Martin Luther King and Alberta and Hawthorne that were run down and see real new life there. So I feel very good about that whole body of work.
What's the formula you used to evaluate yourself?
I ultimately applied this test to myself: "Why are you in public office? Because you want the title and you want the recognition or because you want to accomplish things?" Well, I had a long list of things that I wanted to accomplish: fix up the park system, improve the transit system, prepare for growth, do good planning. We've done a lot of that.
Can you talk a little bit about what public service did to your personal life?
Well, it certainly is enormously demanding, of your time and of your devotion. But so is running a newspaper. There are lots of careers where you put a lot of yourself into it. I certainly did not find that being a public figure in Portland meant that I never got to have a life. While The Oregonian beat me up for taking time off, I needed that time off. I went sailing and went backpacking. It's good for my mental health and my family. I never felt like the community was asking me to subsume myself in the office. The entire time I was on City Council, I had a listed phone number. I had very few times when somebody called me at home and bothered me with something that they could have called me at the office about.
At the risk of this being an inappropriate question, you got a divorce during your time in office. To what degree did the demands of your job affect that?
I don't mind the question, but that wasn't the reason.
Look at the list of politicians who've divorced: Earl Blumenauer, Gretchen Kafoury, Darlene Hooley, Jim Bunn....
I don't think it's the pressures of office. I think it's everybody's individual story.
OK. Assume that you walk out of this interview and you need to get a copy of The Geography of Nowhere because you've loaned your copy to someone else...
That's true! I've given away several copies of that book.
...so you walk across the street to the library, and you're so excited about a night of reading about urban livability that you don't see the streetcar coming.
I get run down by the streetcar? HA ha ha ha....
You're the first fatality...
Oh! Bury me right there. Under the streetcar. I want the plaque in the street!
Help us write your obituary.
We'll get you started. "In a tragic irony, former city commissioner Charlie Hales, while crossing the street, was killed by the one of the very streetcars he helped bring to the city. Hales, age..."
...joined the City Council in...
He considered his greatest achievement to be...
Greatest achievement? The streetcar. I mean, I think the streetcar is probably the greatest achievement....
It's a close call.... No, I'll take that back. I think the greatest achievement was the parks bond measure in '94. Many other people helped move the streetcar forward, but no one had even thought about doing anything about the parks system. And when I was first elected, I immediately got the parks assignment, and it was a surprise. And in a very short period I had seen the problem, found a solution, got the community behind that solution, got it approved and addressed the problem. So over five years I rebuilt the community centers, ball fields and parks all over the city. And I tell you, I cannot walk into the Mount Scott community center or the Gabriel Park community center and see all the life and joy in there without getting all choked up. And I say, "Damn, that looks good." So maybe on an emotional level for me, that's the one that I love.
OK, back to the obit. "Critics say....?"
Probably that I pushed things hard enough and fast enough that I bruised some people as I moved forward.
I should have intervened more decisively in the train wreck of the Southwest Community Plan. The Planning Bureau, with my approval, was out trying to take forward a plan that was politically unwise and that, particularly the density portion, wasn't going to fly. I didn't figure that out fast enough.
"In a recent interview with Willamette Week, Hales said his greatest regret of 10 years of public life was..."
My greatest regret? I don't have any big ones. I have a number of smaller ones. I didn't do enough management by wandering around the people who work for you as commissioner. They look to you for leadership and inspiration, and they want to know that we care about what we're doing. And I did some of that. I helped the forestry crew plant trees, and spent the day with the asphalt crew. But in retrospect I should have done more because those folks are performing the real public service. The city is a big blue-collar operation for the few people in the suits. Most people spend most of their time in uniforms or dungarees, laying asphalt or cleaning sewers, testing the water to make sure it's safe, putting out fires. I've spent some time with the fire department. But if I had to do it all over, I would do more of that. Because the more you know that stuff, the more you are able to find the problems and push through the solutions.
OK, we're almost finished with the obituary: "What few knew was that in his private life, Hales..."
Well...I'm an avid backpacker and sailor, and spend a lot of time in the wilderness.
"In lieu of flowers, the family asks that a donation be sent to..."
Friends of Trees. I love that organization. In fact, I haven't gone on any boards yet, but I'll probably go on that one. It's a great organization that planted more than 150,000 trees over the city. They've got a shoestring budget and a cool bunch of people. I've taken all my kids tree-planting, and they loved it. So I guess that would be my designated charity. I'd better get this stuff in my will. Thanks for reminding me.
List your former colleagues and tell us what you think each of them does particularly well. Let's start with the mayor.
The mayor's demeanor and affection for the community make people feel good about being a Portlander. But she's not just good at the ceremonial part of being mayor. For example, she's an amazingly thorough budgeter.
Jim reminds us about justice and injustice. Cities need to focus on the physical stuff, and I am particularly drawn to physical: What's the place going to be like? Are the parks green? Are the pools still full of water? Are the streets paved? But Jim thinks about the humanistic: Are there people on those streets being left behind? He thinks about that a lot-and reminds the rest of us that that's important, too.
Erik is smart, and I like him a lot. Of all my colleague relationships in council, his was the best. He is a great synthesizer. He can take these facts and those facts and get to a creative solution really fast. He's bright and creative, and I wish him very well.
Dan's strength is focus. He focuses on a few things and pounds away and pounds away and pounds away until he gets them. He is like a very good lobbyist.
OK, you knew this was coming: Where could they improve?
Erik doesn't care enough about urban design stuff. He cares a lot about affordable housing, but he doesn't care enough about the aesthetics of the city.
What's an example of that?
The details of how a city looks and feels are accumulated over time. Whether Tiffany's has blank walls with vaults in them at street level or windows you can see through-that stuff does matter. But there were a lot of times you could tell it was not a priority for him. And I've talked to him about that.
Dan needs to develop a broader agenda and move from the human-services stuff he was focused on at the county and into the urban services of city government.
Jim needs to focus. That's not new, and Jim knows that. He wants to do everything all the time, and he can't. You don't do things well when you're trying to do that.
Vera needs to remember that this is a commission form of government and you succeed by walking down the hall and listening to other people and their ideas about what you want to do, rather than pretending this is a strong-mayor form of government and that City Council is the Legislature.
What about the mayor and the criticism that her chief of staff, Sam Adams, is running the city?
That was never true, and it's not true now. Sam has a lot of authority and exercises it as he and Vera see fit. Sam does not have inappropriate authority. Any commissioner can designate a tough guy, and Sam is capable of being pretty tough.
Your business card says you're now a transit planning principal. What does that mean?
It means I'll be doing a combination of streetcar projects and planning projects around the country. There's a rising interest in the streetcar. It's really a new tool in the transit tool kit. There have been subways for a long time. There has been light rail for the last 30 years, and there have been buses for, you know, 50 years or longer. But the streetcar is really a different animal than the other forms of transit.
It's for circulation within an urban area, not to bring people in for jobs or entertainment and then back out at high speeds and high volumes. And it's much cheaper.
How much cheaper?
The typical light-rail project is $50 million to $100 million a mile. The streetcar was $12 million a mile. So there are lots of cities that can afford to build a streetcar that couldn't afford to build a light rail.
So you get hired by governments that are thinking about building a streetcar?
Yeah, right. Design it, supervise construction, come up with operating plans.
When you decided to leave City Hall, you obviously considered a number of other positions prior to choosing HDR. Can you tell us about that?
I was in conversations with several firms, including Bechtel and some local real-estate developers. I'd rather keep those confidential.
So why HDR?
There are plenty of great engineering planners who will design transit projects for you, whether you're in Kansas City or you're in New York City. But this company's philosophy, as well as mine, is that you've got to do the place-making and planning work, that you don't build a train to nowhere. Everyone is talking about transit-oriented development, but we also have to have development-oriented transit.
What do you mean?
In Seattle, they're talking about building more monorail. It's a crazy idea. The monorail was a 1960s idea for moving through the city, and to hell with what happens at the street level. Well, the streetcar is the opposite of that. With the streetcar, the street is the stage. The big window in the streetcar means there is an interaction with the passengers and the sidewalk. People believe in that. They do the land use and the transportation together. And this company believes that, too, so there's a compatible mix.
What if anything could be improved about Portland's streetcar?
Well, you have to take this with a grain of salt, because I think this is great, but I don't think anything could be improved about it. I mean, it's a great project. If we had more money, could we have gone farther? Of course. If we had more money, could we have done fancier station stops? Of course. But given what we spent and what we got and how it worked? These cars have been 99.96-percent reliable in the first year. That mechanical pencil in your desk drawer isn't 99.96-percent reliable.
Reliability is important, sure. But the other day I needed to go up to PSU. I didn't even think to use the streetcar, even though it runs right past our office. Why not? Because it doesn't come often enough. It was faster for me to walk.
But that's a cost problem. There's nothing wrong with the streetcar. Its goes fast enough once you get on. How many of them there are on the track at any given time determines how long you have to wait for the next one.
So we could have streetcars every five minutes?
Absolutely. You can have streetcars every three minutes. It's a matter of money.
When you got this going, wasn't there a lot of opposition internally, even among transit advocates?
Tri-Met was not enamored of the streetcar. Dick Feeney and some of the others at Tri-Met were pretty resistant to the streetcar initially. And Dick is a friend of mine and now is very supportive of the streetcar, but he was very derisive early on. He used to call it a "donkey trolley."
Did they view it as a competitor?
Initially, I think, they were fearful that the city would be trying to get transportation money from the feds for our streetcar that would compete against light-rail funding. They came to understand that that was not the case. And they came to believe in the streetcar as a technology. [Tri-Met GM] Fred Hansen in particular has been very supportive.
Can you explain the management structure of the streetcar? It's definitely not a public entity.
Well, there's a nonprofit corporation created to supervise the construction of the line and now to operate it, and it's all under contract with the city. The nonprofit corporation has an unpaid board of directors. It's mostly private citizens, but also includes the transportation commissioner, so I was on the board of directors, and Jim Francesconi is now. Then they have contracts with Tri-Met, the operators. So the entity, Portland Streetcar Inc., is organized as a management structure.
So a year ago, the streetcar was unveiled with tremendous accolades from the business community. It's a great public-private partnership. Everyone does a group hug. Twelve months later we have more than a dozen candidates running for your old job, and it seems all of them are trying to outdo one another in talking about how unfriendly the city is toward business. The whole civic dialogue in Portland has shifted. What's up with that?
Yeah, I'm puzzled by that, too. Some of it, I think, is personalities. There are people in that discussion who've chosen to make that their rhetorical stand.
Sure, there's political rhetoric. But my impression is that the candidates are responding to the business community. Where does that City Hall-bashing come from?
I think it's the economy in general. Times are not as good, traffic is worse, the permit process is still hard, and, on a cloudy day, things just don't look as nice. There's an unfocused disgruntlement that must go somewhere, so it must be that damn City Hall. And it must be that damn permit process. And it must be that they're not listening to us down there.
You get around. Is this business bitching unique to Portland?
I just spent a couple of hours with a bunch of businesspeople and a city-council member from Seattle, and they are in awe of the accord that we've built between the real-estate and development interests, businesspeople in the Pearl District and the city. In Portland, we've had this tradition-people now call it a public-private partnership-where we agreed on what we wanted: We want a city that's like this, or we want a district that's like that. Then, we say, "What do you have to do, Homer Williams, as a developer in order to get there from here?" For example, in the Pearl District development agreement between the city and Homer, it says that his minimum density went from, I think, 15 units to the acre to 100 units to the acre once the city figured out how to fund the streetcar. In essence, in Portland, you have elected officials and private developers walking arm in arm, looking at each other saying, "Are you ready for the next step? Are you going to do your part?" They're amazed by that in Seattle.
So when you hear Nick Fish, who was sitting in your seat a week or two ago during an interview with us, say he's running to replace you because he wants to give business a better seat at the table in City Hall, does that strike you as...?
That's understandable political rhetoric in a race where the business community is grumpy. But what that really means in terms of policy changes, I'm curious to hear. I'm not being evasive. I just think the leadership of the Association for Portland Progress, which is now the Portland Chamber of Commerce, has chosen that theme, and I am not sure how many facts there are to support it.
So that's not a legitimate concern in your mind?
I don't think "the city" is terribly hostile to business or terribly cozy to business. I think the city has done some things well and some things not so well. I'm not going to be a complete apologist for everything we've done in the last few years; we did some things right, we made some mistakes. But again, this unfocused grumpiness about the "business climate" has much more to do with the economy than it does with anything specific in City Hall. Again, I come back to our permit process. I worked on that a lot, and we got some things working better. But it's like the Sisyphean state with them: You're never going to be finished with administrative reform in a big bureaucracy. But by comparison to other big-city permit processes, ours is fast and friendly and reliable. But, if you've never gotten a building permit in Seattle, or New York City, or L.A., you don't know that.
So aside from the occasional anecdotes, like what happened to It's A Beautiful Pizza, is your guess that if you go out to Hawthorne or Sellwood and talk to small-business owners...
Would they have complaints? No doubt. But would they have any more complaints than 20 years ago? Probably not. Are there times when the city has screwed up and treated people badly? Yes. But is the city as a corporate image hostile to business? No. Nor is it particular friendly to business. It's just a big bureaucracy that puts out fires, makes inspections and issues permits for parades.
There was a period of time in this city, and not that long ago, when the Planning Bureau was the spiritual heart and soul of this community, and the planning director helped make this city distinctive. I'm sure that Gil Kelley, the current director, is a nice guy, but that no longer seems to be the case.
I think that question is the victim of a bit of hyperbole. Gil is a good planner, but it's never been the case that the planning director determines whether we are Camelot or Mudville. The Planning Bureau has done some good work in the last decade, is doing some good work now. Some of the planning critics are thinking about downtown; they're not thinking about Montavilla. Well, Portland is more than downtown. Now, with annexation, it's a lot more than downtown. Part of our job was getting our planning bureau not just focused on the 20-block radius around [architecture firm] Zimmer Gunsul Frasca's office. The Hollywood Plan, the Hillsdale Plan, the Sellwood Plan resulted in tangible and obvious change in those neighborhoods. Go look at new Sellwood branch library, on the ground floor of a mixed-use building, a direct cause of the Sellwood Neighborhood Plan. Go look at Belmont, Hawthorne, Alberta. They're the result of careful, confident city planning. The Pearl District is another example of very good work.
So Gil Kelley is doing a fine and superb job?
Gil is a fine fella who needs to pick some key changes he wants to make and push for them.
I ask because there is some criticism in City Hall that he is completely ineffectual, and some people say they heard you say that.
I have been concerned that Gil has not been able to focus and move things forward.
We need to decide what the North Macadam District is going to be and try to make it happen. We've been through something like 17 planning exercises on that same piece of real estate.
Is this in part the city's inability to make decisions?
In part. But I think the city is also the victim of several standoffs. There's a standoff between the Schnitzer family and the Zidell family, over when to develop, how to develop. There's a standoff between the Zidell company and the city, over the company's desire to keep building barges, which is incompatible with the future of the district. There are multiple standoffs, and as a result nothing is happening down there.
But isn't that the absence of real leadership?
I'm not willing to hang that on Gil. I am not sure if Gil has been given that priority by the mayor.
But look at the Pearl District, which you hold out as a wonderful success. I could argue that the city can take no credit for that other than staying out of Homer Williams' way, that the Pearl is really the mastery of private developers.
I agree with that statement. Homer Williams and other private-sector activists had a better idea for the Pearl District than what was on the city's planning books. And they approached me and the mayor, and we had the good sense to recognize that it was a better idea and build an agreement based on that. But then we had to carry out our part of the agreement by carrying out the plans for the streetcar and parks.
Which is wonderful, but on North Macadam it strikes me what you have is again a vacuum. That the best thing that has happened in the Macadam District in the last few years is that Homer Williams has bought some property there-which is nothing that City Hall can take credit for.
You're absolutely right. But, cities, Portland included, can still plan for places. They say, "This is what this neighborhood should be." And then they develop regulations to make sure the bad stuff-the gated entries on the waterfront-doesn't happen, and try and make the good stuff happen. We can't go in and get a building permit-that is still a private decision. No one in City Hall can do that.
Does that mean the city is always a subservient player to private developers?
No, I am not saying that. Homer happened to be first with a good idea in the case of the Pearl District, but it does not always have to happen so. Gil Kelley or someone else could develop a plan for that district. Here's another way I characterize the difference in Portland. Developers here are not perfect. They're not saints. But there is a difference between the way these developers and developers in other cities operate.
In other cities, the developer wakes up in the morning and throws open the curtains and says, "How do I make some money?" In Portland, they throw open the curtains and say, "How do I implement the city's plan and make some money?" Those developers are not saying, "What we really need here is a Wal-Mart, dammit." Our developers are in it to make money, but typically here they are trying to make money by realizing a vision that has been made between them and the city. And that is the real genius about how we have been growing Portland in the past 10 years.
Talk, if you will for a moment, about what should happen with the inner east side. What is the vision there?
I think the inner east side should be an urban neighborhood, with a mixture of housing and business, with public space and nonprofits there. A real neighborhood is not just houses and streets-it's also churches, synagogues, museums, schools. I believe the inner east side is the great opportunity in front of Portland in the next 20 years.
When will it get realized?
I'm not sure. There's three things that need to happen in the central east side. Two of the three have to happen at about the same time: You need to build excellent local transit in there, like the streetcar, and not just transit going through it on the way to other neighborhoods. You need to change the plan for the place from an industrial sanctuary to an urban neighborhood. Some character and other details of that obviously need to worked out. And you've got to deal with the freeway.
Move it? Get rid of it?
Yes, one of the two. Put 'em in a tunnel, get rid of it. But that freeway retards, suppresses, stops the renaissance of that district.
Is there anybody in public office, besides [U.S. Rep.] Earl Blumenauer, who feels this way and is willing to step in front of this issue?
Not that I know of. But I think it will happen. I may, at some point in my career, try to help make it happen, because I believe it's the next big thing that must happen for Portland to be a great city. Great cities don't have freeways on their waterfront. Great cities don't have gas stations occupying full blocks on the main street of the downtown neighborhood. And the only private development not funded by [Portland Development Commission] in the central eastside industrial district in the last five years-maybe 10 years-is a gas station. A full-block gas station. That's not the destiny of that district.
What's your take on downtown's destiny?
You can't make downtown Portland cheaper than the suburbs, you can't make our permit process faster than some compliant county that hasn't thought very much about what they want to be when they finish growing, and you can't make our taxes less than some edge suburb. You can't do it. You can try to be competitive on those bases, but you can't be faster and cheaper than the suburbs in a downtown anywhere in the world. But if you make the quality of the place good enough, then people will come there.
Does the park-blocks plan put out by Neil Goldschmidt and Tom Moyer help or hurt that effort?
I don't believe the park-blocks scheme is a good idea. I like Tom a lot, and I respect him, but I don't think tearing down historic buildings to create more park blocks is the No. 1 priority for improving downtown. And in fact, show me a place where retail on park blocks anywhere is a great success. Retail is a great success when it's across the street from other retail, and when it's a nice little narrow street like Park.
So if that's not the way to reinvigorate downtown, then what is?
Downtown's pretty invigorated already. It's one reason why I leave City Hall with good conscience, because I don't think things are going to hell here. Of course, the market's not helping very much right now, and there all kinds of forces that are trying to suburbanize and get rid of urban life in this country, but I think we're going in the right direction. What is the No. 1 thing that's needed in downtown Portland today? Probably the renovation of the Meier & Frank building. The symbolic damage that the departure of that store would cause is so great that it would be very harmful to the atmosphere and the hope and the agreement about where we're going as a city. So city leadership should-and I think they are-pull out all the stops and make a deal with Meier & Frank whereby it reinvests in its building.
If you were a betting man, what are the odds you'd place that you'll run again for public office?
At least 50-50. I'm going to enjoy and learn a lot from this chapter in my life and stretch and grow. But I'll never live anywhere else, and I'm not done with leadership. It's a blessing and a curse, but I got it. And exercising it on behalf of making a good place better is why I ran for office the first time, and sometime I'll do again if I'm needed.
How will you know if you're needed?
Again, my test for myself is saying, "Am I the person that's needed right now?" I don't think that's true right now. It's not like I'm unwelcome in City Hall. I was getting things done and had a good relationship with my colleagues and had reasonable support from the community. But I think my skills and energy level, which is high, are really best applied right now in the private sector. And perhaps they'll be better applied later in some position in public leadership.
Aside from mayor, what other post might interest you?
I'm not going to run for Congress-that's one you can bet I will never do-but there are state and local offices that could pass that test. "Am I the guy for the job? Can I show up and make a difference?" When the answers to those two questions are yes, then I'll run for office.
What state jobs pass?
Governor could pass that test at times.
OK, Gov. Hales, what will you do?
One of the things some governor soon should do is take on a major expansion of the state park system. Voters passed a measure that they thought would do that, but it got subverted and we haven't done it. And there's only so much land, and there are only so many great beaches, and there are only so many miles of roadless trail. And some governor sometime soon should say, "It's time for Oregon to build a great park system." And I would volunteer for that job.
Hales was interviewed in
's offices by
John Schrag and
After leaving office in May, Hales spent a month sailing around the San Juan Islands. In July, he settled in to a new job as a transit principal for HDR, a 3,000 - employee, Omaha - based engineering firm, which just moved its 50 - person Oregon office from the suburbs to downtown Portland.