The short version of the long and tragic tale of Goldschmidt is that the former mayor and Oregon governor (not to mention President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of transportation) was the youngest mayor of any major US city when he was elected, at age thirty-two, in 1972. Historians credit Goldschmidt, a Democrat, with revitalizing downtown, abandoning a despised Mt Hood Freeway plan in favor of the MAX light-rail, and opening city government to neighborhood activists and minorities. In 2004, when confronted with an impending Willamette Week exposé, he admitted to having had a sexual relationship with his children’s fourteen-year-old babysitter many years earlier, while in his thirties and while mayor. In Oregon, sex with a person under age sixteen is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Goldschmidt confessed but was not prosecuted—the charge is subject to a statute of limitations. He resigned from various high-profile boards and now lives here only part time.
Despite Goldschmidt’s disgrace, the city still draws much of its identity from the civic work he started via the 1972 Downtown Plan, which today is known simply as the Portland Plan. The plan started as a citizen-driven land-use initiative to revitalize a blighted downtown. It has grown into the city’s official strategy—its written blueprint—for addressing economic, cultural, environmental, and social issues, from affordable housing to transportation to climate change. “Neil took [city] guidelines and breathed life into them,” says Alan Webber, Goldschmidt’s former assistant, who worked with him on the plan. “He turned the guidelines into a consciousness. When people talk about the plan, they’re really talking about this consciousness.”
‘Sam falls in love with big ideas,?big projects. He has to learn how?to land from three thousand feet.’?—former Mayor Vera Katz
The Portland Plan revived downtown with the addition of Nordstrom, Pioneer Courthouse Square, and Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and has since reined in sprawl by creating strong neighborhoods, light-rail, and transit hubs. The Pearl District was created under this vision, as was the tram. Today’s Portlanders may feel cool, funky, and oh-so-original, but we are creatures of the ideas Neil Goldschmidt enacted, living in the box that Goldschmidt built.
State law now requires cities to update their plans regularly. Because the Portland Plan is updated only every decade or so, not every mayor gets to leave an imprint. Like Goldschmidt, though, Adams will—his revisions are due in 2012. The plan’s importance ranks up there with wise spending and with representing Portland well around the world—one wrong move could damage the city’s soul. This is, after all, a place known for its quality of life—a city with more miles of bike lanes than any in the country, and with an ordinance limiting building heights so as to protect the distant view of Mount Hood. “Global cities like Tokyo, New York, London, Cairo, Mumbai, São Paolo—huge cities—are self-perpetuating,” says Gil Kelley, director of Portland’s planning bureau. “But midsize cities like ours have a more precarious position in the world. We have to work harder to be high-performing cities. Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis are not at the top of anyone’s list anymore. They’re taking down unoccupied glass towers and turning them into gardens and grass to keep the city from being completely abandoned. If you don’t tend your future, that’s what can happen.”
Once primarily concerned with downtown development, the Portland Plan now involves a much larger context, which Adams will have to contend with as mayor. Can all Portlanders share in the quality of life? Can Portland’s quality of life be turned into a brand and replicated elsewhere? Can “twenty-minute neighborhoods” diminish traffic congestion by providing all the services residents need within a short distance? Can a transformed city support new growth in schools, in design and fashion, and in critical areas such as poverty? “We don’t just do [urban planning] to create a sense of order,” as Kelley puts it, “but to vault to a sense of who we want to be economically and socially.”
Adams wants to turn the plan into a strategic fix for what he calls the city’s three primary concerns: the ability of Portland’s public services to meet the needs of the one million people expected to move here over the next decade; a 43 percent eighth-grade dropout rate, which may swell public assistance rolls; and a dearth of good jobs, which could divert talent to other cities. “My definition for success is not how bold [the Portland Plan] is, but how smart,” Adams tells me. “We have a lot of remedial work to do. Urban development and economic justice are not two separate agenda items.”
Portland’s zoning codes contain nothing, for instance, about family-friendly planning. As an example, Adams explains that economically disadvantaged children usually come from families where the parents earn an hourly wage. “We know … it’s going to cost half of this parent’s daily pay to travel to his kid’s PTA meeting,” he says, adding that local businesses must work harder to give some employees time off. “Academic success should be part of the plan—it’s part of Portland’s future.”