When Mayor Tom Potter cast a lonely No vote on plans to increase the height and width of buildings in the new South Waterfront district last Wednesday, it looked like the first major controversy of his mayoral term might leave him as the odd man out on City Council.
Developers behind the $2 billion project want zoning changes to allow bulkier buildings in South Waterfront-a district first depicted, two years ago, as an enclave of skinny, bladelike towers that would largely preserve views of Mount Hood from the west. Residents of nearby neighborhoods are screaming bloody murder. Activists say the proposed new regulations, which would allow buildings with 12,000 square feet on each floor, would create a virtual wall 325 feet high. They're circulating photos and computer mock-ups to make their case.
After three hours of testimony last Wednesday, the City Council pushed along a compromise of sorts: zoning changes that would increase the maximum square footage of buildings in South Waterfront, but require more space between the tallest. Commissioner Randy Leonard, who introduced the revised zoning change, says it will allow the bigger buildings developers want while preserving views from public spaces on Terwilliger Boulevard. Potter, alone among the five council members, voted against the amended plan.
Potter won election in November on a promise to open City Hall to more community input. The 4-1 vote, however, raised the question of whether living up to his central campaign pledge-to listen-might leave Potter marginalized.
Potter wasn't available for comment. However, after Wednesday's vote, he and his staff spent considerable time trying, as one observer put it, "to come up with a more creative solution than just saying no."
If he succeeds-and leaves both aggrieved neighbors and the developers building the city's most important urban renewal project feeling OK-it will say a lot about the prospects of a mayor who vowed to open up City Hall.
To critics, South Waterfront epitomizes a high-handed approach to development. "It's been clear for a couple of years that the council isn't too interested in public input," says Amanda Fritz, a former member of the city's Planning Commission. "There's been a lot of process, so people have had a chance to speak. When [city commissioners] vote, though, it doesn't seem to matter."
Last weekend, Potter held meetings with both South Waterfront's angry neighbors and developers. The meeting with homeowners produced a laundry list of potential adjustments to the district's plan and process, as well as a push to delay final approval of the amended zoning changes. (At press time, a final vote on was scheduled for Wednesday's council meeting.) Potter also arranged for SoWa's critics and builders to meet on Monday night.
Activists, who felt shunted aside two years ago when the template for the district was first approved, hailed Potter's outreach.
"He was very supportive about the animosity the process has created," says Anton Vetterlein, a veteran of battles over South Waterfront and the controversial aerial tram that's part of the project. "He was clear that some things can't be changed, but that's not how we're going to do things in the future."
On the campaign trail, Potter's vague promise to listen was criticized by his opponent and the press, but embraced by voters. The South Waterfront controversy gives the landslide winner his first real chance to show what he was talking about last fall.
Even if the council approves Commissioner Leonard's proposed version of the zoning changes, important aspects of district's future remain up in the air. Individual projects will face design review and other regulatory hurdles in city bureaus-all of which Potter, for now, controls.