THE MAYOR makes killer eye contact. “I know I have piercing eyes,” he tells me. One wonders whether Adams wears those Jean Lafont glasses to protect the innocent, sort of the way Superman spares Jimmy and Lois from his X-ray vision. The Clark Kent comparison isn’t unwarranted—Adams is that handsome. Even his name carries wattage, considering he shares a moniker with a founding father and a popular beer (Boston Beer Co once threatened to sue Adams for blogging as Sam Adams). Nonetheless, Adams has made his name partly by being approachable. A quick trip to pick up a carton of milk can take an hour, as Portlanders inevitably stop him to tell their stories. The demands on his time are so heavy, he often has to schedule dates even with his partner of nearly a year, Peter Zuckerman. “I know I have to share Sam,” sighs Zuckerman, a twenty-nine-year-old reporter who covers Clackamas County for the Oregonian.
Yet there was nothing glamorous about the new mayor’s workspace when I visited him. His office as commissioner featured a tidy desk pushed into one corner and black leather sofas arranged around a coffee table made of burlwood salvaged from the bay in Reedsport; here, Adams or his assistant, Cevero Gonzalez, politely served coffee so terrible they might have tapped it straight out of the bosky Willamette. Adams’s office is like his suits: fitted for utility and convenience. And despite his new title, the somewhat austere environment will follow him to the mayoral suite, on the third floor, along with a personal staff of about two dozen.
His critics say he tends to surround himself with yes-tykes—young employees who won’t challenge him. Yet Adams’s staffers caution outsiders not to confuse unity with servility. They say the staff does argue—about ideas. Adams himself and his old boss, Katz, fought “like an old married couple,” as Katz puts it. “Most of my staff couldn’t believe how he talked to me,” she says, “but I loved it.”
At the moment, Adams’s ideas-people are turned toward the mayor’s personal mecca: Amsterdam. Like Portland, Amsterdam is organized around water, and shipping, and small-business innovation. “Amsterdam was an enormous trading center in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” says Gil Kelley, the city planner. “Since then, they’ve suffered an inferiority complex. London, Munich, Paris have passed them by. In a way, Portland has experienced that, given Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.” Adams, who believes Portland’s uniqueness will make the city increasingly important, has been immersing himself in the history of Amsterdam’s commerce and its current resurgence as a European hub. Tom Miller, his chief of staff—sort of like Kissinger, but with a skateboard—even keeps a bicycle map of Amsterdam on his wall.
Closer to home, a more immediate and potentially unpopular transition involves automobile traffic. In 2002, the city council agreed to make one-way streets of W Burnside and NW Couch streets—the so-called couplet project. Forty thousand autos per day travel on W Burnside, making it one of the city’s top three busiest corridors and the busiest downtown. Yet the no-turns ordinance and the tight sidewalks west of the park blocks present problems, including, significantly, pedestrians being hit by cars. In the past decade, four pedestrians and one cyclist have been struck and killed, and eighty-five people have been injured (including nineteen cyclists), on W Burnside Street between the Willamette River and 19th Avenue, a statistic that represents a disproportionately large percentage (4.6 percent) of the city’s pedestrian fatalities for only a twenty-block stretch of roadway.
What started out as “a small let’s-fix-the-roadway project—repave, relocate some storm drains, widen the sidewalk a little,” as the planning bureau’s Mark Raggett puts it—turned into a long-term vision of a one-way Burnside with parking and with left turns. Burnside/Couch, reimagined, would almost certainly have one clear effect: it would lead to greater potential for development. The greater the number of businesses, the greater the city’s tax base. Not everyone buys that Adams wants to change Burnside solely as a public safety measure, and few like the sound of a project that started at three-quarters of a million dollars only to grow to a projected cost of $86 million—just for W Burnside Street. The issue is expected to come before the council again early this year.
Similarly, Commissioner Adams raised eyebrows for supporting an expensive initiative to send the Oregon Ballet on a trip last year to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC; several years earlier, Adams had dated the ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Stowell, for about six months. And then there was the $5.2 million plan to build a bike bridge from the Pearl District to Northwest Portland, an idea that pleased bicycle activists but enraged others, who point out that Adams supported the bike lobby while many areas of the city still don’t even have sidewalks. When Dozono attacked the bridge plan during the mayoral race, Adams withdrew his support two months before the election. He maintains his decision was far more complex than critics understand.