Sam Adams
Image: Thomas Cobb

NEW YORK CITY’S planning chief, Amanda Burden, is turning her flawlessly made-up face into the Portland drizzle, asking almost indiscreet questions about the size of the footprints of the towers going up along the South Waterfront. Burden, as famous for transforming Manhattan’s dumpy Battery Park City into a viable neighborhood as for being Charlie Rose’s longtime girlfriend, is on a pilgrimage. “Every year I visit a great city,” she explains. “Last year it was Rio; the year before, it was Copenhagen.” Now, little Portland.

SoWa, as some call the South Waterfront, is existentially empty on the day of Burden’s October visit. Human voices can’t compete with the hydraulic heartbeat of the drills and excavators marking the erection and expansion of residential monoliths—the Meriwether, the John Ross, the Atwater. In her white Burberry jacket and pants pressed to a knife’s edge, Burden is more drawn to the spaces between the buildings—the “public realm” that showcases Portland’s love for its residents over its love of “starchitecture.” On the South Waterfront, that means the bench backs that double as skateboarding platforms; the bench seats, built a comfortable seventeen inches deep; and the corner streetlights, with rain bonnets to keep pedestrians dry. Never mind that in SoWa, the life is largely still missing—the benches and skateboarding platforms and rain bonnets will be excellent if the skateboarders and pedestrians ever come. Yet Burden pronounces SoWa good, describing the alternative: “New York planners hate people and want to keep them out of parks. So they used loopholes to make public seating thirteen inches deep and then turned [the benches] to face a wall.”

Out of the clouds, the tram floats into view, a soap bubble out of which the South Waterfront developed. The tram marked a turning point in the city’s history—infamously connecting the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) complex on Marquam Hill to SoWa—and in the professional trajectory of Sam Adams. Were Adams here with Burden, the subject might come up, but as it is, no one mentions the tram’s connection to the nice benches and rain bonnets, or how the tram became a symbol of citizen outrage over wasteful spending, costing an astonishing $42 million more than expected. Adams was former Mayor Vera Katz’s chief of staff during the tram’s early planning stages; later, as the city’s transportation commissioner, he inherited its disorganized mess. The project’s ultimate cost overrun happened on his watch, as did infighting and at least one bruising firing. The fracas might have cost another politician his career, but Adams, in typical Adams fashion, emerged not only unscathed but also bound for higher office.

Adams, who is forty-five, becomes mayor on January 3. He ran as a first-term city commissioner (and had been Katz’s chief of staff for eleven years before that), capturing 58 percent of the vote to beat Sho Dozono, who owns Azumano Travel. The job pays $118,144, for which Adams will oversee a budget of about $3 billion, manage a city government of 8,985 employees, and serve as the public face of Portland. His rise to leadership comes at a pivotal moment, as the city grows in the national consciousness as a leader in “green” issues and a coveted place to live, as communities struggle to do more with less in a desperate economy, and as mayors begin to rival governors and members of Congress as celebrities.

In conversations about the evolution of American city politics, Adams is sometimes mentioned alongside other bright, young mayors who have entered office with more on their agenda than filling potholes—Gavin Newsom in San Francisco; David N. Cicilline in Providence, Rhode Island; and Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey, stand out. They belong to a breed of politicians who insist the political machine is dead and that ideas matter; in pushing transformational agendas they aim to deepen citizens’ tribal sense of place. “[New York City Mayor] Mike Bloomberg has taken on incredibly unpopular issues like big fines for beeping your horn, congestion pricing, trans-fat labeling—issues that are hard to see through to law,” Adams tells me one early-winter morning. “Gavin Newsom took over a city that was considered green and wholesome and took it to a whole new level—he put a carbon tax on the ballot. [Mayor Richard M.] Daley took charge of a Chicago that was moldering and rusting and had some amazing difficulties. He invested in arts and culture. Chicago now has a green sheen to it.”