Saturday, January 11, 2014

Portland, the well-planned, model . . .

I've lived in Portland, now, for a little over twenty years. When I go "back east" to visit friends and family and generally socialize in the area, I frequently encounter a bewildering admiration for the wonderful way Portland manages city life for its inmates citizens. Portland is a model for desired solutions to modern urban issues.

So I'm told.

Well, I guess if you tilt your head to the left and look at it "this way," Portland is a model -- that is, it's a model if your model is meant as a teaching device for how blithering elected officials can blissfully spend public funds in great gobs and handfuls on personally much loved projects, without even asking for voter approval, all because they have in unerring belief in their ability to know what is the right thing. When you know what is right you need not test your notions, or consider possible adverse consequences, or compare cost to benefit, or even check your arithmetic. And our politicians are the kind of politicians who just know.

Of course, if you tilt your head to the other side, and look at it "this way," well, you'll just get dizzy.

For example, our water bureau just agreed to sell a house for a little under $400,000. It was probably a good idea to get rid of the house, and the money is going to good use, to offset a bunch of expenses. Where did they get the house? Well, a few years back some elected disaster decided that the water bureau should build a demonstration house, to show how modern methods could save water, 'n stuff. The budgeted cost to build the house was predicted to be about $250,000. So, they did it. Hey, showing people how to save water is a righteous thing to do!

The house they built was relatively modest, three bedrooms and two baths, and a little over 2000 square feet in living area. No biggie, right?

Except, they didn't get the needed approval of the City Council. They just went ahead. And, ratepayer funds were spent to build the house, in spite of the fact that the law says that ratepayer receipts are to be spent to supply water, only, not houses. Oh, and they spent a little more than $900,000 to build the damn thing. For those of you who recently graduated with a liberal arts degree, the arithmetic is $900,000 cost, less $400,000 sales price, equals $500,000, (that's a half a million dollars if zeros confuse you) flushed down the drain, for an unauthorized project paid for illegally, at a cost three times what is should have been, if the numbers they used to justify the thing was more than mere mumblings in their ears by dream unicorns.

Was anybody indicted? Well, some people in less enlightened cities might be a little perturbed off if their elected officials behaved in this way, but this is Portland and we expect this sort of thing from our political betters because we are a model for how other cities could and should do things. Portland is the city that works. It says so on city properties.

What's the proof of that bold statement? Well, for one thing, we have a tram. It goes from down there, to up there, despite complaints of homeowners who were concerned about the tram, a gondola on wires, pulled over their house. And then, a big pedestrian bridge was built, so as to enable pedestrians to get to the tram from up here so they could go down there, to get on the tram to go up there. Evidently insufficient pedestrians were using the tram because they didn't want to dodge traffic to get to the tram. But the tram is a pleasant way to go and take a ride from down there to up there if you need something to do with the family some afternoon, because, hey, we have a tram.

For another instance, we have bicycles. On the whole, bicyclists and bicycles are great. Oh, there's a few bicyclists around for whom bicycling is a divine calling, and a few more who bike in protest of capitalism, but mostly, bicycles are great. Who wouldn't enjoy seeing cyclists in elastic pants peddling their legs like crazy just to give their ass a ride, said ass being above the level of their ears? Yeah, mostly, bikes are great.

It's politics that suck. Portland politicians worship and revere bicycles, so much so that they are now converting four lane direct routes into two lane direct routes, so as to give bikes an easier commute. Because a ratio of seventy-five cars for every two bikes means -- we need more bikes. Oh, and because cars are an anachronism, anyhow, in a hip city like Portland.

Why would anachronistic cars be required, when we have a splendid transit system, including choo choos? Because there is nothing anachronistic about trains, a 19th century gamechanger, here, now in the 21st century. We like trains; we can ride for free, if we don't get caught. And our political masters like trains, so much so that they are spending public funds to build light rail into places which have emphatically said they don't want Portland light rail. Not that those places know what's good for them, being merely voters. Of course, adding trains to places where they are unwanted is not an easy task. Bridges must be built, roads must the closed and re-routed, and properties must be confiscated, because that's what us modern, progressive, hip cities like us, do.

Nevertheless, Portland traffic is generally managed creatively.

I remember an old three stooges movie where the stooges were plumbers. One of 'em was was trying to fix a leak, and kept making pipe connection after pipe connection, chasing the leak around, until he was completely and creatively caged in his own pipes. It's that's kind of creativity I mean. For example, the northbound exit on I-5 to the Ross Island bridge cannot be described accurately to anybody who hasn't been there. It's mighty stooge-worthy.

Something else that Portland is good at is managing urban sprawl, using an "urban growth boundary." The idea is to forbid building any more city beyond arbitrary boundaries under penalty of law, thus preventing the city from becoming "too big, and too spread out, like L.A." Of course, L.A. has more people in it than the entire state of Oregon, which has lots of unused space, but Portlanders want that unused space to remain unused, so that they can "enjoy nature," which means they like to go look at it from time to time. Accordingly, the city is increasing the population density, shrinking building lot size and discouraging yards and garages which take up space where people could and should be living, so as to preserve us from urban sprawl. Why would somebody need a car in a garage when you have public transportation, like light rail and a tram?

Why do we like urban population density? Probably because it reminds some city planner of the time when he still had hair, the summer he spent in Amsterdam between junior and senior year, with it's little streets, small apartments, bicycles, pot, and prostitutes with charming accents.

I can see a possible vision of the future of Portland, now. There we all are, wearing our well-planned proletarian grey-blue clothing, all trudging in single file on our well-planned way to the transit stations to report to our allotted tasks to earn our right to a 6 by 9 cubby and three bowls of food a day at the community center, because from each according to his ability and to each according to his needs.

So, yeah. Take a look at how we do things here. Portland is a model city.

As was a not so well-planned Detroit. Once.

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