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|Wednesday, November 11, 2009|
Andrew Revkin, the great environmental writer for The New York Times, was in town last night, and once I got over his nearly unforgivable mistake of referring to Oregon as “Ore-a-Gone,” I had to admit he had some compelling things to say. One line that stuck with me in particular was, “We don’t have time on Planet Earth for impeded potential.”
My first internal response was, what do you mean we don’t have time for impeded potential? That’s like saying there’s no time for procrastination. Anybody who writes for a living can tell you that there is always time for procrastination.
Take the Rose Quarter: 35 acres in the heart of the city, with two major entertainment venues next to a busy transit station. The place should be hopping 365 days a year, right? It should be as much of a part of the Portland fabric as are the Blazers.
Actually, the Rose Quarter is an urban planning success story, if you compare it with big chunks of the waterfront downstream, in Portland Harbor. The Rose Quarter employs people, rakes in tourist money and contributes to the tax rolls. That’s not the case on the sprawling waterfront properties downstream, vacant brownfields, some of them 50 acres or larger, which sit idly as the Superfund clean-up drags on.
Talk about procrastination. Nine years gone and $75 million spent, merely to show exactly how polluted the Lower Willamette River is. Answers to the real questions (How do we clean up this mess? And who will pay?) are as elusive today as they were when the harbor was listed as a Superfund site in 2000.
There was a lot of talk at the Revkin event last night about Portland leading the way toward a more enlightened, sustainable future. It’s a noble concept, and you don’t have to look far to find examples of how it’s working. But you also don’t have to look hard to see where it’s failing.
And it’s not like Portland holds a monopoly on impeded potential, either. I recently spent two weeks traveling from one Oregon timber town to the next, to the point where I couldn’t bear to see another abandoned mill in desperate need of creative redevelopment. But when thousands of cities are chasing dozens of companies with expansion plans, the odds are stacked against progress.
The good news is that there are people working their butts off to solve all of these problems. The Trail Blazers, Nike and the city of Portland have huge plans for the Rose Quarter, including free open-air music, a slew of new restaurants and clubs and a first-of-its kind Nike-style museum. Done correctly, it will spur all sorts of progress on the East Side, especially with the new streetcar line coming soon. Further downstream, the Portland Development Commission is working with insurance companies, investors and harbor businesses to put vacant properties in the harbor (the ones that aren’t completely poisoned) back to work. And all over the state, entrepreneurs and public officials are wrestling with the never-ending struggle of how to replace the Timberland Empire of the past.
So what’s impeding progress?
In some ways, it’s the economy. Does anyone really believe that the coast is clear? The recovery still seems tenuous, and investors seem more interested in stockpiling gold than backing progressive developments.
Another culprit is democracy, the paralysis of process. It’s a way of life in Portland.
Finally, there is Revkin’s specialty, science. Science takes time and precision, and it doesn’t always tell people what they want to hear. Science does not settle for simple solutions, especially when findings are complicated by the dismal science of economics. You only want to have to clean the river up once, so before you start digging, you had better make sure you know exactly what you are doing, how and why.
In the case of the Superfund process in Portland harbor, there’s a case to be made that science is impeding progress. But that could be a shortsighted view. History is littered with examples of decisions being made in the name of progress without the benefit of good science. The decision to locate chemical plants manufacturing Agent Orange and DDT next to the Willamette River comes to mind. The result may seem like progress at the time, but it doesn’t last. How could it? It was stupid idea. The result is worse than procrastination, because at some point, what was done will need to be undone and redone.
The challenge is in the redoing. As is the opportunity.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.
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