When Vera Katz wants to talk, she doesn't wait around to be invited. So when the mayor asked to drop by and discuss last month's State of the City address, we cleared our schedule, ordered a pizza and turned on the tape recorder.
One month into her third term, Katz wanted to brief us on her ambitious plans for the Willamette River, but she also indulged us by answering questions about City Council politics, Oregon Health Sciences University's proposed tram from Pill Hill to the river, and Neil Goldschmidt's ideas about connecting the Park Blocks with a downtown retail plaza. Here are excerpts from our discussion.
Willamette Week: How are you feeling these days?
Vera Katz: I'm feeling fine. Actually, today, I'm feeling feisty.
Because I'm here...with you...which automatically makes me feisty!
All right, let's jump right in. Is this your last term?
I haven't really thought about my future, I'm starting the first month of a four-year term, so...it's not really fair to ask me that question.
So is that a yes or a no?
[Long pause.] That's a silent response.
The days of 5-0 votes on the City Council appear to be over....
Why do you say "nonsense"?
Because I keep track of important votes on the council. There has been a myth that's been perpetuated by the media that we have a lot of votes that are 3-2, and that's not quite true....
Let's look at it this way: There have been some contentious 3-2 votes, where you have three commissioners, Charlie Hales, Erik Sten and Dan Saltzman, who are, to a great degree, hitting their stride politically. How do you move your agenda ahead with them there?
I disagree with the premise that you just laid out. The last 3-2 vote people have honed in on was skateboarding...I don't think that's a major city-policy discussion. It was a vote of real disagreement about public safety. Another vote was on early childhood education, an issue that we all agreed on. It was the timing of it that I thought, and that Commissioner [Jim] Francesconi thought, was foolish because we were going into a budget session two months from that day. We didn't quite know what our revenue forecasts were, and it seemed rather foolish to make a million-dollar commitment at that time, even though all of us felt that early childhood education is an investment that ought to be made.
Still, you were deeply frustrated by the politics around those times...
Because it was a silly timing of the issue.
But you became temperamental in a way we haven't seen for a while. Why was that?
Because I have done budgets for over 20 years. And it is easy for people to spend money long before we have a revenue forecast, and in this particular case, I was aware of the fact that we'd probably end up with a shortfall and I would have to make major reductions in general-fund budgets, which are the basic services of the city-police and fire costs-and at the same time, we were thinking about spending money we didn't have.
So you're not at the point where you feel you have to choose two of the commissioners as kind of political partners?
Council really doesn't work that way. On major issues, the council members don't have those kinds of discussions or lobby with each other. On some, they do. When it comes to the budget, I will be having discussions with them and showing them what a million dollars for what they wanted to fund means to other budgets and that it might be a very high price to pay, that we may want to do something less ambitious, or delay.
Your State of the City speech focused heavily on the Willamette. For a lot of people in the city, it's just something to drive over. There's a lack of emotional connection that may stem from a lack of physical connection. We're wondering, have you ever gone swimming in the Willamette?
Have you ever been out on a small boat?
I was on the Columbia Slough, but not the Willamette. But I've walked as close to the banks as possible. I like the sense of being able to get to the river; there is a stillness and a calmness that I'm very fond of. I like the look of the city being dissected by the river, though I get angry because people on the east side can't get to the river, I get angry because the river is dirty, I get angry because for decades we've ignored it and I'm not sure to what extent people in the public arena are really committed to making some major changes in the river.
Because it's hard work. It's truly hard work.
Isn't it easier to get people to work hard when they have the connection that is lacking in Portland, when it comes to the Willamette? What in your plans will do that?
Well, let me describe why I took the approach I took in the State of the City address. It was after an interview on OPB with Bruce Babbitt. When asked what he learned as secretary of the interior, he said that his mistake was to sit in Washington, D.C., and argue about how many trees are getting cut or argue the philosophy or politics of maintaining the balance of natural resources. Finally he made the decision that he was going to identify geographic places around the country, plant his feet firmly on the ground, and people will support him and make a difference. And so the way I describe the river is around geographic areas, so that people can actually begin to see something happening in the river-the East Bank, Willamette Cove, Ross Island, North Macadam, very natural areas that people can connect with. If we can begin to show that there's something that can be done in those sites and get people to care about the areas, and participate with us, especially young people, then I think we will be able to send the right message that not only do we care about it, but we're willing to do something about it.
What's all this joy and happiness going to cost us? Has anybody even given you a ballpark dollar figure?
No. I'd like to have [some estimates] during the budget discussions, just to flag that to the rest of the council and begin the discussion of how we can pay for it.
You mentioned North Macadam as an area of the river to reclaim, but it's also a key component of your development plans. Is that going to fly?
North Macadam is a project that is going to take far longer then even I estimated and I said at day one that because we have over 20 property owners, it's going to be very difficult.
Do you need OHSU to make it fly?
Are you going to make sure they get their tram?
I don't think that's the right question.
Well, it's one of the questions that's out there in the community.
I know. But I have not yet been briefed on the tram, and I'm going to work through a six-month-to-a-year process before any of those decisions are made.
So, if they haven't briefed you, how has the tram issue gotten so far ahead?
That is the same question I ask. The issue, basically, has moved way past them, into the neighborhood. That was not very well managed by OHSU, and that's unfortunate. There's already resistance to something and we don't even know what it looks like, we don't know how much it costs, we don't know what the maintenance costs are, we don't even know who will be using the tram. Are there other alternative corridors that can be used? None of that has actually been scoped out yet.
And yet OHSU says it's a deal killer for them.
Let's talk a bit about the Park Blocks plan that Neil Goldschmidt is pushing. There seemed to be an initial wave of excitement that is now fading.
Well, let me tell you how I approached it. I have a wonderful relationship with Neil that goes back to the Legislature. He has a lot of ideas, some of them wonderful, some of them not so wonderful, and the wonderful ones, I like to pay attention to, because they are truly wonderful. So when came out with this idea, I took a walk, and looked at all the roads and what was happening inside and I looked at the adjacent streets and I looked at what my vision was for a retail strategy along those narrow streets. The local talent in the community really has focused along those smaller, narrower streets, and that adds a little bit of old 23rd at the core of the city. And I saw buildings that have historic value, including one that I'd chain myself to before anybody would tear it down...
It's the Guild Theater, with the copper top. I think it's a really lovely building.
So you concluded this was one of Neil's not-so-wonderful ideas?
I was very skeptical because I thought it would destroy our ability to do what we wanted to do on those streets. So I asked to see the plan and I met with them several times, and over the months the plan changed. I think Neil is coming to this far more open to new ideas than when he started.
So what's the status of your involvement in the process?
This was not my top priority in terms of our time and energy, but I thought it would be important, rather than just wait and have this continuously bubble without our input, to invite several experts who'll see this with new eyes, who'll understand retail, who'll understand public plazas, who'll understand what works and what doesn't work. They'll listen to Neil and his team but will also bring us and other stakeholders to the table.
What's it like to have this agenda put before you? There are a lot of places in Portland that could benefit from all the energy that's being put in a geographic area that's already successful.
You're right, but when you have private citizens who are actually putting money on the table and they're making plans to purchase buildings that they're going to turn over to us, I think it's time to have a discussion with them as to what are the city's plans. I was basically going to ignore it earlier on, but I felt I could no longer ignore it.