Mayor Ted Wheeler Offers New Money for Roads and Sidewalks—and an Ambitious Vision for the East Bank of the Willamette

He's ready to re-shape the Rose Quarter.

Delivering his first State of the City speech at the close of a fraught week that saw him dodging protesters at his own home, Mayor Ted Wheeler laid out a key priority for his first budget: to fund roads, sidewalks, transportation and other infrastructure through bonds.

The city expects to receive increased tax revenue as urban renewal districts begin contributing taxes directly to the general fund, beginning in 2020. Wheeler wants to borrow against that money to fund roads and other projects, beginning this year.

"In the years ahead, I propose something new, an innovative financing strategy to significantly ramp up our investments in these assets," Wheeler said in the speech, delivered forcefully, to an audience of the City Club. "This plan does not require new taxes."

The mayor's offices says they have a goal of $50 million in bonds in this year's budget, "mostly addressing the maintenance backlog on roads," says Wheeler spokesman Michael Cox, for the program they're calling Build Portland. Another $100 million in bonds would be issued five years from now.

The City Club crowd applauded the proposal. But the idea isn't entirely without controversy.

Portland Development Commission, for one, had an eye on those dollars as it lost tax increment financing dollars from urban renewal districs. And it would, in effect, represent a shift in the city's priorities.

Since 2006, upwards of 30 percent of urban renewal dollars have gone toward housing. In 2015, that increased to nearly half of all urban renewal funding.

"We are talking about a portion of returning revenues, not all, and are actively working with PDC on a sustainable funding model," says Wheeler spokesman Michael Cox.

"We are picking a priority—transportation—because it represents the vast majority of the total maintenance backlog, because studies show transportation has among the best [return on investments], and because we have more robust funding mechanisms in the other areas"—parks and housing.

Wheeler's speech included wide-ranging goals for the city—highlighted by ambitious aims, stated only in general terms, to redevelop the Rose Quarter and take the initial steps to remove or bury I-5 on the inner east side.

After laying out the Portland's history that "marginalized and pushed aside" people of color, "particularly black people," Wheeler also renewed his efforts to increase trust in the police, through community policing.

The area surrounding the Memorial Coliseum and adjacent to the Moda Center has languished for decades—and mayor is hoping to succeed where others have failed in getting a new project off the ground.

"I am particularly impressed with proposals that find creative ways to not only avoid gentrification and displacement, the hallmark of the prior redevelopment  of the Rose Quarter, but actually reverse its most negative impacts by bringing back people into the community who were the most impacted by the original Rose Quarter Development," he says.

"Let's be the first city in the country to not only address the worst aspects of gentrification and displacement, but let's be the first to actually reverse the trend."

That sentiment echoes the goals of the group looking at Rose Quarter redevelopment, brought together by Moda Health executive vice president Steve Wynne. That group includes Rukaiyah Adams, Meyer Memorial Trust's chief investment officer, and former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who told WW the group aims to "reverse gentrification" as part of their ambitious project.