When Bruce Warner got the public nod as the Portland Development Commission's new boss, more than a few staffers crowding the agency's meeting chamber looked puzzled.

They were not alone.

Running the city's powerful urban-renewal agency is a monster job. The executive director commands an agency that controls hundreds of millions of dollars along with the fate of whole neighborhoods.

So when Don Mazziotti-a hard-charging, flashy leader who steered PDC into a briar patch of controversy-announced his resignation, speculation about his replacement centered on high-profile Portlanders from politics and business.

But the selection process run by a PDC search committee (widely acknowledged to be heavily influenced by Mayor Tom Potter) last week anointed Warner, the head of Oregon's state transportation department. In past jobs at Metro and Washington County, Warner guided a major organizational reshuffle and numerous economic-development projects.

He gained a reputation along the way as a personable, ethical, proficient technocrat who can solve complicated managerial problems.

"He is a very steady guy," says Metro President David Bragdon.

Still, even Warner's fans concede he's not a light-up-the-room visionary. That's part of the reason many wonder just how he emerged atop a heap of applicants that included ex-City Commissioner Charlie Hales and others.

"I think it was a fair process, but one that left me scratching my head a little bit," says current City Commissioner Erik Sten, himself once mentioned as a candidate. "I look at the problems at PDC, and I don't see the answer standing before me. I see a sharp guy with a lot of talent, but it remains to be seen if he's the right choice."

Even members of the volunteer search committee that nominated finalists express some reservations.

"I felt personally that he is probably a very good bureaucrat," says Mary Edmeades of Albina Community Bank, a member of the nine-member volunteer committee. "But PDC is a wounded arm."

"There were 62 applicants whose names we never even got to see," committee member Roy Jay says. "[And] on a scale of 1 to 10, he came out a mild 7. But this thing got down to Warner, and I'm willing to give him a shot."

Many observers considered Warner the dark horse even among finalists, who included veteran urban planner David Knowles and Karen Williams, PDC's former top lawyer (a field that was underwhelming enough for a backroom push inside City Hall asking Potter to delay the appointment and seek new candidates). While Warner's managerial skills could help an agency with low staff morale, some think his ascension owes as much to his low-key demeanor and ethical reputation.

Current questions about PDC contracting, expenses and transparency "will all be non-issues'' under Warner, says ex-PDC chairman John Russell.

What will Warner do for Potter? The mayor has made no secret of his desire to rein in PDC's swagger. Some see a scenario where Warner sorts out internal problems, Potter controls the big picture, and PDC operates more like just one city bureau instead of an independent mini-government.

Even if that happens, Warner faces a tough job. "This job will either make you," says Jay, "or send you to the Betty Ford Clinic."