• Allan Classen

Making things better?

Joe McGee thinks his neighborhood association should speak for residents against incompatible or outsized development. His message has been muffled for the sake of avoiding dissension in the organization. Inset: The Daily Journal of Commerce story that revealed the divide.

The Pearl District Neighborhood Association’s reputation for supporting development is well known. Former PDNA President Patricia Gardner, the guiding force in the organization for 14 years, bragged that the association had never opposed a construction project. Gardner’s successors carry on the family tradition.

PDNA Planning and Transportation Committee co-Chair David Dysert solicited a Jan. 31 story in the Daily Journal of Commerce that made his priorities crystal clear.

“We’re pro-development,” Dysert told DJC reporter Chuck Slothower. “We’re pro-density.” “We realize we can’t stop development,” Dysert later told the committee, a sentiment he has repeated many times to Pearl residents who thought the association should take their side against specific projects.

“We have seen many proposals over the years and many fights against many of them,” he wrote in an email to a constituent who wanted the association to oppose the Hyatt Place and Lawson Residences, a 23-story tower proposed at Northwest 12th and Flanders streets. (City Council is scheduled on June 4 to hear an appeal brought by a citizen organization formed to challenge the project, Pearl Neighbors for Integrity in Design.)

“Not one fight has succeeded in preventing a project from being approved or built,” Dysert said. “The success we’ve had is in making things better.”

Making things better generally devolves into discussion of minor and aesthetic modifications having nothing to do with the size or height of a building.

Heartline case

The Hyatt Place is just the most recent case in a series of major projects that tested the neighborhood association.

Grass-roots opposition to the Heartline building (above) tested the Pearl District Neighborhood Association’s allegiances in recent years. When city development goals conflict with neighborhood sentiment, whose side should the association take?

In 2014, residents of The Edge condominiums formed Preserve the Pearl to fight a 13-story mixed-use building (later named Heartline) a block to the east. They hired an attorney and took the case to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, where they lost in 2015. Preserve the Pearl members were not otherwise active in PDNA, but they gave association leaders plenty to think about.

“There was so much bad feeling over the PNCA [Pacific Northwest College of Art] site,” said Bruce Morrison, a member of the Planning Committee. “If we can lessen something like that in the future, it’s really important.”

After the appeal died, Gardner warned against a triumphalist attitude or questioning the motives of others.

“I think we’ve got to almost banish the word NIMBY from this committee,” Gardner said. “It immediately gets people’s hackles up. We have to put aside our cynicism.” It was a laudable goal but one the organization still struggles with.

Fremont Apartments

The next big thing, the 17-story Fremont Apartments about to begin construction at 1750 NW Naito Parkway, brought riled-up neighbors into the organization in late 2017. By then, Gardner had been replaced as PDNA president by Stan Penkin, who championed widely held resentment over the thought of a huge structure blocking views of the Fremont Bridge. The PDNA board overturned the Planning and Transportation Committee and appealed the project to City Council. To prepare residents to testify at a February 2018 council hearing, Penkin had to arrange for larger quarters in the Armory to accommodate the turnout. “The city is so desperate for housing that it’s sacrificing the integrity of our city,” he told Willamette Week. “Is it just build, build, build to the maximum at any cost?” City Council got the message and voted 3-2 to uphold the appeal.

Grass-roots opposition to the still-unbuilt Fremont Place Apartments tested the Pearl District Neighborhood Association’s allegiances in recent years. When city development goals conflict with neighborhood sentiment, whose side should the association take?

“Affordable housing has nothing to do with this,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, distancing himself from those who had testified that all new housing construction militates against rising housing costs. “It’s about design.”

It was as close to a victory as the resistance movement would come.

A week later, the council reversed itself upon reviewing final wording of the decision. Rather than continuing the fight, PDNA worked out a compromise with the developer, Lincoln Property Co. of Dallas, Texas, to widen a riverside walkway and to compensate the association for legal fees.

The case may also have marked the zenith of PDNA’s appetite to take on big development. As president, Penkin worked on tightening the organization’s internal communications and decision-making. These topics were hashed out at annual board retreats, leading to improved public decorum.

The internal reforms coincided with a shower of livability projects and engagement by broader segments of the Pearl population. The Livability and Safety Committee itself grew larger and more active than most neighborhood associations in the city.

Joe McGee with Behnaz Nelson, who replaced him as executive director of the Seattle-based Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 in 2017.

Nearly 50 people regularly join foot patrols to promote safety and a sense of community, and 85 serve on the Clean Team that picks up litter in each section of the district. Nearly 100 cigarette butt dispensers were purchased and mounted along sidewalks and parks, and their contents (about 100,000 butts to date) collected and recycled through a national organization. More than $200,000 was raised in local donations to install 150 tamper-proof public trash cans, which the city agreed to service, thus ending an odd omission in which the Pearl District had been the only part of the central city not receiving taxpayer-funded trash collection.

But the Planning and Transportation Committee, chaired by Dysert and Reza Farhoodi since 2017, largely stayed on course. While its meetings were periodically attended by groups of neighbors disturbed by developments, the regulars went along with the “make it better” approach to development review.

Hyatt Place

The peace was shaken when Hyatt Place developers took advantage of greatly increased height allowances under the Central City 2035 Plan, revising an 11-story initial proposal to go for 23 floors. It broke new ground for its height and bulk, as well as in squeezing so much structure onto a quarter block while providing no off-street parking. Traffic congestion around the pick-up and drop-off zone was also feared. If that weren’t enough to upset the natives, a grand old tree would have to be removed.

Patricia Cliff, a former real estate broker from New York City who joined the PDNA board and the Planning Committee, had strong objections to the project. But after seeing the limited oversight role played by the committee, she formed Pearl Neighbors for Integrity in Design to challenge the size, character and impacts of the hotel and apartment tower.

Cliff and her supporters filled hearings of the Portland Design Commission, but their concerns were not aired at neighborhood association meetings.

Meanwhile, the PDNA Planning and Transportation Committee issued a letter of nonsupport for the project, asking that its recommendations concerning the building’s design, shape and building materials be addressed by the commission “in a meaningful way.” Dysert would later emphasize the nonsupport letter as proof that the committee had acted independently on behalf of the community.

“We believe our efforts have made the proposal significantly better than it would have been otherwise,” he said.

The Daily Journal of Commerce story, however, did not even mention the nonsupport letter. After reading the story, Cliff and other residents were aghast at the singular pro-development message portrayed. They also learned that Dysert had privately gone to the architect’s offices to discuss the project, an event he never shared with the committee

“A very disturbing article … appeared in the Daily Journal of Commerce,” Cliff wrote to her supporters.

“It signals that the Planning and Transportation Committee of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association has worked privately with the architect and developer of the Hyatt Place development to promote the approval of this project to the Design Commission in spite of the opposition of the majority of the community members that they represent.

“It also serves to indicate to all future developers that the neighborhood association is in favor of and will give its support to all of the super-tall, overly dense developments on the remaining 14 quarter-block surface parking lots in the South Pearl.

At the following meeting of the committee, Dysert fielded the criticism, blaming the reporter for sowing confusion.

“Unfortunately, that story made it sound that PDNA is pro-development regardless of the project,” he said. “The perception out there is incorrect.”

He also said that that “all engagement” with the developer’s architects “was to clarify committee goals and concerns.”

The committee moved to have Dysert send the DJC a letter setting the record straight. The letter was not designated for publication, nor was it a demand for correction. It was not printed nor was a correction or clarification made by the newspaper.

Word of warning

Joe McGee, a retired attorney who moved to the Pearl with his wife in 2017, found the whole process troubling, and he wrote an 800-word email to Dysert explaining why:

“I can see why so many of us are confused, as you acknowledged that many are. You and the association oppose the project but you nevertheless give your time, energy and effort to making it as good as possible. That’s just so absolutely contradictory. Actions speak louder than words, and opposition seems like just a superficial and almost meaningless label if by your actions you’ve helped the developer accomplish its approval goal.

“Thanks to the DJC article, the overarching message seems like a resounding endorsement of the project by the association. It celebrates cooperation and facilitation of the developers’ aims. Nowhere in it did I get the slightest impression that there was formal association opposition. Thanks for clarifying that in your response but, to the extent the article gave ‘false impressions,’ I think you and other association ‘leaders,’ who seemed to enjoy press adulation for your (unwarranted) cooperation, have an obligation to set the record straight.

“What do you plan to do to let the DJC, the developer, the Design Commission, the City Council and this community know that a distorted and incorrect impression was created? Privately trying to explain it away to those of us who complain is inadequate in light of the damage done and the impressions created, which you yourself called false.

“I think it is also lamentable that the organized neighbors who are troubled by this project and who have repeatedly shown up at meetings to make their concerns known were effectively marginalized by you and the DJC article. It seemed from the press spin that this other group [PNID] was making trouble and creating awkwardness while you proactive leaders were working hard to get a positive outcome, FOR THE DEVELOPERS!

“Which side are you on? … Aren’t you supposed to be representing us? What efforts were made to fully understand, appreciate and effectively convey the opposition of what I would assert is a record number of people opposed to a Pearl District development?”

The private meeting with project architects also failed to meet McGee’s smell test.

“Having secret meetings with the developers in this case, essentially colluding with the very entity you claim to oppose, is in my view less than being even advisory and more a case of selling out the very neighborhood you are supposed to represent and its long-term best interests.”

Penkin saw McGee’s email but did not list it as one of the communications received in his president’s report at the next PDNA board meeting.

In response to NW Examiner inquiries, Penkin defended the committee co-chairs and faulted the reporter for mistakes, such as describing PNID as a splinter group of PDNA and stating that Farhoodi attended the meeting with architects.

“What else might Mr. Slothower have gotten wrong?” he asked.

“Meeting with developers is a normal part of the process in—yes—trying to make projects better, as we all know it will ultimately be approved by a city that approves virtually every project. All decisions made by the Planning Committee are public and transparent—not made in back rooms.”

Penkin said his concern was over “creating the false perception of dissension within PDNA.” In a way, Penkin is right. Voices of dissent were not heard at PDNA meetings. They were kept at arm’s length, where those at the fringe of the organization tend to erupt in times of crisis.

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