Mayoral candidates joust with rhetorical spears

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A selection of Portland's mayoral candidates debate at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in preparation for the May primary elections. Ellena Rosenthal/PSU Vanguard

Portlanders piled into the First Congregational United Church of Christ to hear mayoral front-runners Ted Wheeler, Jules Bailey and Sarah Iannarone explain why they should be the next mayor. What began as a three-member debate expanded to five panelists when an spectator demanded that candidates David Shor and Sean Davis join from the audience.

“Keeping Portland Portland” was the topic of the Feb. 25 debate. Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, moderated the event and asked questions focused on themes of historic preservation, housing affordability and sustaining Portland’s green initiatives under the demands of a rising population.

As Portland continues to see rapid growth, Moretti started by asking the candidates to speak about their vision for the city’s future.

“There is going to be an increased height over 400 feet for buildings, increased density, more infill, more density and height all the way down to the river level which is a new precedent, especially at the bridge heads,” Wheeler said. He expressed concern for small family stores that make Portland unique.

Davis emphasized the importance of affordable housing, mixed-use housing, and supporting the growth of small businesses, all in an effort to maintain the essential character of Portland.

Moretti then asked about incentives to preserve more historic buildings in Portland. Iannarone said that right now, Portland doesn’t have enough tools in its toolbox to figure out how to keep Portland historic. “We need to update our inventory–we haven’t done that since the 80s” she said. Iannarone proposed the idea of digitizing this process, and possibly getting young people involved. “We just lost our oldest building and no one even knew it was going down.”

Wheeler agreed with Iannarone, but cited tax credits as not being enough for people to want to preserve their homes. “The mayor of Portland needs to take another run at that or we are going to lose our historic inventory,” he said.

The candidates went on to discuss how Portland can achieve the affordability. Shor cited the need for more minimum wage jobs in Portland in order to prevent people from being displaced from their homes. Iannarone emphasized the need for, “a spectrum of affordability across the spectrum of income ranges.”

Moretti tapped into ongoing conversations regarding Portland’s placement within the Cascadia subduction zone, asking candidates their plan for handling a major seismic threat. All candidates agreed that accelerating the rate of seismic retrofitting is important. Bailey told the audience that there’s a new program between county and state, and that this said program won’t cost taxpayers anything. Part of the program is providing seismic upgrades and retrofitting to buildings in Portland.

Davis has experience working with disaster relief efforts; he responded to the aftermath of Katrina as part of his military service. “We better be ready…right now our city, state, county and federal don’t talk to each other how they should…they must correct that before something happens,” he said. He also stated that Portland needs a disaster preparedness response team, and that neighborhoods need to get involved with this process.

The forum ended with Moretti taking questions from the audience. When candidates were asked about their thoughts on cultivating architecture that encourages sustainability efforts, Shor offered that Portland must think consciously about how the city wants to see neighborhoods change. Iannarone commented that historic neighborhoods should not be enclaves for people of privilege, suggesting that Portland keep a walkable interface to designs.

Another audience member asked about addressed new real estate for families in lower income brackets. “The market can’t solve this problem,” Shor said in response. “We don’t have the ability to control the market so we need to get creative.” He went on to offer up ideas on public housing and community housing. “I propose that we create community managed housing,” he said, suggesting that this housing be affordable to the public and viewed as a public investment, benefitting the community over the long term.

The forum ended with a discussion of sustainability. Moretti asked candidates how they would approach increased automobile use while still making environmental impact a priority. Iannarone mentioned car-free cities, and imagined what Portland would be like without cars. “Our streets are one of our greatest assets,” Iannarone said. “Parking structures in neighborhoods is one way to keep cars from the edges of places.”

Shor said the current transportation infrastructure needs to be safer for bicyclists, and Wheeler cited neighborhoods needing to stay walkable and livable.

In closing, all candidates cited the current era as a turning point for Portland, noting that critical change is happening in the city’s history.

The Portland mayoral election will take place on May 17. For a full list of mayoral candidates, visit https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/544311.

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