planpdx.org: Interview with Dennis Buchanan
Date of Interview: June 2001
Interview by: Ernie Bonner
Location: Dennis' home in southwest Portland, Oregon
EB: This is an interview with Dennis Buchanan in his home in Southwest Portland in June of 2001.
So Dennis, why don't you start out by just telling us a little bit about how you got to Portland?
DB: In the early 60s, I was working as a general assignment reporter in Chicago for the Chicago Tribune. Mary Ann and I had two children. We grew tired of the winters and decided to come to Oregon to meet Wayne Morse and see beautiful trees. Our idea was to stay here one year and then move on to San Francisco. As it turned out, we came to prefer Oregon over California. My first job was with the Oregon Journal.
EB: Did you have a particular beat at the Journal?
DB: My first two assignments were the federal courts and the county. Later I did general assignment and focused on investigative reporting. My investigative work included a series of articles on DEQ's failure to enforce pollution laws due to lack of funding and staffing. I also did a series of reports on the collapse of the John Day Bridge in the Christmas flood of 1964 after Glenn Jackson and Mark Hatfield said it was an act of God.
My articles acquitted God and assigned responsibility to highway engineers who allowed a change order without following prescribed procedures, resulting in the collapse of supporting piers. Three people died in the collapse.
Then I did some things on some of the City Hall foul-ups, such as awarding a bid to IBM despite a staff report finding that Burroughs had made a much better proposal. I also did reports on an ill-advised lease that the city entered with a downtown building owner and on waste of tax money at a city-owned asphalt plant. The plant was subsequently shut down.
In the mid-60's I began to focus on urban development issues. My interest here dated back to the days when I roomed with an architecture major at the University of Texas and to my army experience in Europe, where I was able to contrast development there with development here.
One of the reports I did in this area may have played a role in the design of the auditorium forecourt fountain. The city, under the leadership of Mayor Terry Schrunk, obtained the block just west of the auditorium in a land swap with Benjamin Franklin Savings and Loan and hired Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to develop a plan for the block. Following guidelines laid out by the City, SOM came back with a plan that called for paving the block in red brick with a large cement doughnut in the center. The doughnut was to be topped by a stainless steel ball with spikes sticking out of it, resembling the business end of a mace. At the corners of the square were tiny triangles in which a single tree and a few shrubs were to be planted.
The plan called for closing Third Avenue in front of the Auditorium during evening performances. Cars could then circulate around the doughnut and discharge passengers at the door. SOM developed a model of the plan, which they presented to the City. An architect friend who had seen the model called me and ridiculed the plan. This led me to interview a number of other architects, who all shared his view, and do a story quoting their statements condemning the plan. This group included George McMath, Gary Michaels, Howard Glazer and Alex Pierce. When a number of prominent citizens saw it, they rose up in alarm.
At some point, the Portland Development Commission decided to drop the idea and go back to the drawing board. PDC hired Lawrence Halprin, a San Francisco landscape architect who earlier had designed the Lovejoy Fountain, which is three blocks south in the auditorium urban renewal area. Halprin presented his model at a news conference in the old Chamber of Commerce offices on Fifth Avenue, to the applause of activists who had opposed the prior design.
After six years at the Oregon Journal, I joined the reporting staff at KGW-TV news. One of my first assignments was to cover the dedication of the fountain, a happy occasion except for a minor confrontation between police and a number of hippies who insisted on splashing around in the pools.
EB: That's a wonderful park.
DB: Thanks in no small part to the citizens and architects involved. I also did a six-part series calling for the redevelopment of the west bank of the Willamette River. In the series, I basically focused on what other cities, both in the United States and Europe, had done to preserve their waterfronts and enhance the livability of their urban environments.
One story in the series held up for viewers in Portland Seattle's efforts to reclaim its waterfront along Eliot Bay and Lake Union.
I don't know where this series fits into the sequence of events that led to the development of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, but I do recall that it was after it aired that Governor McCall appointed a task force to work on the project. This series may still be in KGW's archives.
EB: I'm going to check that out. I've never tried to get into the archives of any of the TV stations, but it would be good to have that.
DB: I would think KGW would be glad to help. Anyway, I did a number of reports like that, including several stories attacking visual pollution and calling for tighter control over billboards, on-premise signs and utility lines. On any slow news day, I would go out and do a story about signs, both suggesting the need for putting on-premise signs flush against the buildings versus having them hang out, talking about the competitive battles of one merchant having to get a bigger sign than the next merchant so that they could survive and all that. I must have done at least two or three stories a year, for all six years I was at Channel 8, on sign and utility blight, which has really gotten worse. Have you seen what they did down on Highway 26 with those giant utility poles between the tunnels and Sylvan? It looks like Chernobyl!
In those days, the leading advocate for improving the appearance of the community was the architect Lew Krutcher. The AIA, as it has been over the years, was also a strong voice. They certainly had their work cut out for them, considering the city council's priorities: keeping the water flowing, the toilets flushing and the traffic moving at any price. Having ruined the East bank with the expressway, they followed it up by building the Marquam and Fremont Bridges.
EB: Going back to the waterfront redevelopment, was Riverfront for People around then? You know, Allison and Bob Belcher.
DB: I'm not sure of the sequence, but Allison and Bob were certainly strong and effective advocates. In fact, Portland has been lucky to have a group of activists who cared about urban development. As I look back, I am struck by how many people and how much effort it has taken to push an enlightened development agenda.
EB: So far, okay. I'm trying to get my timeline straight here. When did you leave KGW and where did you go from there?
DB: I left KGW in 1973 or1974 and went to Kidder Peabody, a stock brokerage firm. I had been in the news business at that point for 15 years and felt it was time to do something different.
EB: That was certainly different.
DB: I'll say. While at Kidder, I was appointed to the Multnomah County Commission. This climaxed a long fight over filling a vacancy on the board that was created when Don Clark succeeded Mike Gleason as County Chair. A number of people were nominated for the position, but the Board continued to deadlock two to four weeks. The main issue was the Mt. Hood Freeway. The wise visionaries led by Neil Goldschmidt on the City Council and by Don Clark and Mel Gordon on the County Commission, had killed the Freeway with the help of Governor Straub. This was done to protect East side neighborhoods, but there was a movement to resurrect it.
One of the strategies of the leaders of this movement, which included advocates for labor unions and contractors, was to put the freeway issue up for vote on a countywide ballot. They believed they had the clout to persuade voters to vote for the freeway and that this vote would force local politicians to reverse their decisions and go ahead with construction.
In the struggle over the vacant seat, Dan Mosee and Alice Corbett were for the freeway; Don Clark and Mel Gordon were opposed. Each side was determined to get the third vote. For weeks they rejected one nominee after. Finally, perhaps because I was a stockbroker and wore pin stripes, Alice Corbett joined Mel and Don and voted for me; she committed her vote to me following a lunch in which she never discussed the freeway. Shortly after that, I joined with Don and Mel in opposing placing the measure on the ballot, in effect, upholding the earlier decision to kill the freeway.
Another freeway debate erupted in my board service over I-205. When the State first proposed it, planners laid out a plan that provided for 11 interchanges. Don Clark and Mel Gordon opposed that and sought to limit the number of interchanges on the grounds that the more interchanges built, the more strip development and urban sprawl we would have. I agreed. The County sought four or five and, I believe, ended up compromising at a slightly higher number.
Of course, Don Clark flatly opposed building the freeway at all -- even though the Clackamas and Clark County sections had already been built and all the land in the proposed right of way had been bought and cleared in Multnomah County.
One of the things Multnomah County did accomplish related to I-205 construction was providing additional space in the right of way for extending light rail to the airport. Looking back on that time, I now realize that we were in a crossroads of history with one road dedicated to the car and the other to a balanced transportation system.
EB: Right. They had enough room on I-205 for a bicycle corridor and for a light rail corridor.
DB: So that was farseeing. My perception is that the County played a pivotal role in the development of light rail with Mel Gordon and his staff acting as its greatest champions. Clark and Ben Padrow supported him in it. They emerged as advocates for light rail at the outset of the debate over what to do about the traffic problem in East County now that the Mt. Hood Freeway was dead.
As a footnote, let me add that Mel was also the guy who helped put together the new Justice Center downtown. The County at that time had the old Rocky Butte Jail out on Rocky Butte, and it was a sieve; there was an escape about every six weeks. When I was at the Journal and KGW, I used to do one story after another on the escapes. It was an antiquated facility. It required a huge amount of staffing because of the way it was built and was a huge sponge for both capital improvement and operating funds. In a word, it was an albatross around our necks.
Mel found a solution to it in the big battle over I-205. The first plan for the bypass, believe it or not, called for routing its north/south alignment along SE 22nd, right through the heart of Portland neighborhoods. There was a hue and cry over that, so they kept moving it on out. The second proposal was to route it along SE 82nd. That caused an equally heated flap and forced highway planners to reconsider. Mel saw a chance to route the freeway through Rocky Butte Jail near 92nd Avenue. So they did. Because it was an interstate highway, the federal government had to condemn the whole property and pay most of the cost of replacing the jail. Thanks to this shrewd move, the County was able to pay for most of the Justice Center with federal dollars.
The County also passed an ordinance during the Clark administration which required removal of all billboards in the urban unincorporated area after a five-year grace period, but the billboarders overturned it in court. By this time, the membership of the County Commission had changed and the new board lacked the commitment to modify the ordinance and move ahead with the removal of this form of visual pollution.
At another point, we attempted to set up urban renewal for mid-County, but an ordinance creating a county counterpart to PDC was referred to the voters, who approved repeal and rejected urban renewal. This left the County without the tools necessary to redevelop the Columbia south Shore and the area along the light rail in mid-County. It also left the County powerless to help promote economic development out there.
Despite such setbacks, the County accomplished a lot during the Clark administration, adding to improvements spearheaded by the City under Neil Goldschmidt's leadership.
In all the battles in urban development over the years, the AIA has stood tall on the side of progressive planning; city and county planning staffs also have been heroic. Lloyd Keefe pushed the envelope as far as he could in the days when the car may have been even more dominant than it is today. John Perry and Rod O'Hiser and others in the Planning Department also proved to be far seeing. CRAG and LCDC have also contributed a lot.
EB: As a matter of fact, maybe we should talk a little bit about CRAG and LCDC and the movement starting in 1973 for state land use legislation.
DB: That is important. In my view, passage of Senate Bill 100 was one of the most significant steps Oregon has taken to preserve its environment. It not only required statewide planning, but also empowered LCDC and regional governments, such as CRAG, to see that cities and counties did it right. This had the benefit of arming the state and regional governments with a big stick over cities and counties while buffering them against strong opposing interests; it allowed cities and counties to tell property owners irate over down-zoning, "We have to do it; it's the law." In the same way, it shielded LCDC, regional agencies and the governor behind the legislature. The bill also gave environmentalists legal ground on which to stand and fight.
As for CRAG, it did an outstanding job implementing SB 100 and coordinating regional land use and transportation planning. This was due in part to the structure of its board, which in those days was made up of appointees from the cities and counties in the region. The operative word here is "appointees". Only the most progressive members of the city councils and county boards ended up on the CRAG board. This resulted in less conflict and greater cooperation in working to achieve the state goals. All this raises an interesting question: would Metro, with its different structure, have done so well?
EB: How was it to implement Senate Bill 100 in Multnomah County?
DB: Tough! Just as it must have been in all jurisdictions. First, defining urban growth boundaries to meet state goals meant frustrating a lot of landowners who wanted to see their land brought inside the boundaries so they could develop them and enrich themselves. Scores appealed the proposed boundaries to the Board of Commissioners and showed up at hearings with blood in their eyes. Those were the most fiery and controversial hearings we had.
As I recall, before the law went into effect there was actually a petition brought in by farmers on Sauvie Island subdividing their farms into 50 by 100 foot lots. God knows how many homes were to be included in the subdivisions. People were trying to get in under the wire, so they could exploit the land to its absolute maximum. I don't know how many of them really intended to do it, but they wanted to keep their options open.
EB: You were actually establishing that urban growth boundary.
DB: As I remember it, the way it actually worked was that we and the other jurisdictions helped Metro establish the growth boundary to meet LCDC requirements, then worked on our own boards to refine them, and then sent them on to CRAG and LCDC for final approval. We had to rule on individual properties and appeals in every one of those cases where there was a conflict between existing zones and the proposed overlay; nearly all of them involved proposed downzoning with an accompanying decline in value.
One thing I am sure of is that we took the heat; the hearings on these cases were packed. People were really angry. I felt that all during my service the hardest issues to deal with were land use issues. It was a dilemma: If you saved the land for the public, it interfered with somebody else's plans.
EB: And that zoning extends to every square inch of the county, not a single square inch is left out.
DB: That's right. Old ideas die hard: "This is my land and I can do anything with it I want to" was the prevailing belief. People were blinded by dollar signs and refused to see that with land desecrated, paradise is lost.
EB: Right. Lots of people from around the country ask how Portland established the urban growth boundary. They want to do the same thing. And I always tell them to be prepared to sit in a hearing room and be blasted, you know, for days on end, and even to have people threaten your life on the phone. I think many of the local officials in this state who did the same thing the County did on behalf of that state LCDC requirement deserve a medal.
DB: I agree. And I suspect it was much harder to implement SB 100 at the local level than to pass it in the legislature.
EB: CRAG also took some heat in implementing Senate Bill 100. Were you involved in it in any way?
DB: I served on the CRAG board for a number of years as the Multnomah County delegate. In those days, each jurisdiction appointed a delegate, so that CRAG was made up of elected officials appointed by the majority of each jurisdictions's board or council. When Mel got tired of serving as delegate, I got the job. Basically, CRAG had the more progressive members of each of the county commissions in the region on its board, and CRAG became a real force, an enlightened force for implementing Senate Bill 100 and regional transportation planning. There were good people -- Corky Kirkpatrick, who died recently, Wes Mylenbeck and Bob Shoemaker.
EB: That's a good point. Because of the way it was structured at that time, you had people who really liked the regional idea.
DB: Right, and they also believed in land use planning and stood up for it. I was pretty pleased with the cooperative way decisions were made and with what CRAG accomplished.
EB: Okay. One of the things I wanted more information on is this whole citizen participation idea. The City had a resolution setting up these neighborhood organizations as official or semi official bodies. What was the County doing at that time?
DB: There was an informal structure in the County. I can't remember whether it had been created before I got there, or whether it was something put together by a grassroots effort. There were certain neighborhoods that showed up, and there were others that were totally silent. But it was a very loose and informal neighborhood structure, usually interested in very narrow issues, mostly land use.
EB: Like Maywood Park, for instance, incorporated as a village to fight off the freeway, right?
DB: I think that's right. While the County lacked a formal structure, we did have access to the City's structure, which embraced the majority of the county's constituents. If we had a matter of concern to them, all we had to do was call the president of the neighborhood association and appear at their meeting. To be candid, we weren't anxious to have more input from East County, mainly because opinion out there on controversial issues tended to conflict with what we perceived that the majority in the City of Portland desired. To complete the picture, I should add that there were many active service clubs in East County and we spent far more time with them and neighborhood groups out there than we did with people in the city. It was a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease.
EB: Who were some of the important individuals at the County that you remember that contributed in one way or another to the things that were going on in community development?
DB: The first name that pops into my mind would certainly be Don Clark. He was a strong advocate for preserving the environment, and he was also a gutsy leader. Mel Gordon also was progressive on environmental issues. They also put together strong staffs to work for constructive changes. One of the key staff persons was Martin Crampton, who was hired by Don essentially to implement Senate Bill 100. Martin was tough, articulate and analytical, and so composed, calm and self-assured. He was just great in those difficult situations because he could stand up there in front of a screaming mob and just talk as analytically as a clinician. Bob Baldwin was always a stalwart -- he stood for all the right things. B. B. Rucker was a strong advocate for light rail. Dave Hupp was great. Rena Cuzma deserves kudos for carrying out Don's agenda. Thor Lyshaugh created a model for energy and land conservation by building the county shops underground on the site of a solid waste dump and installing solar panels on top of it. Mel Gordon spearheaded this project on the Board.
EB: And Lee Brown, who's now Mayor of Houston. Is that right?
EB: You had lots of good people. Let me ask a question on another subject. In the County Executive form of county government, there was a separation between the board and the executive, right? It was a change?
EB: There was the Board with a Chairman, and then they went to a separate Board and an Executive?
DB: Right. The Executive had veto power but did not sit on the Board.
EB: I see.
DB: The County Executive had no vote in policy, but led in policy development just as the governor does at the state level. The Board, on the other hand, decided policy and had the final say on the budget, which was developed and proposed by the Executive. Board members had no role in administration; they could not even give an order to a county employee. It was just like the governor and the legislature.
EB: And that happened in the middle 1970s?
DB: That's right. Don Clark was the first County Executive. I succeeded Don. It changed again when Gladys became Chair. A charter commission recommended going back to the old form. I left at that time. The County charter said anyone running for another office had to resign when they filed for that office. So, as County Executive, I would have had to resign to run for County Chair. The charter also required the voters to set the salary of the new County Chair. So I would then have been running for an office with no approved salary. In sum, to run again, I would have had to resign my office to run for what in effect was now a lesser office with no salary. So, I decided I was ready to leave County government.
EB: It seems to me that the major achievement of your administration was Resolution A, which you initiated, spearheaded and implemented through a coalition with the cities of Portland and Gresham. What impact did this resolution have on urban development?
DB: Let me start with a bit of background: Resolution A was, in effect, a plan to change the governance of the unincorporated area of Multnomah County. It set forth the policy that the County would stop providing the municipal services to the unincorporated area after 3 years without a vote of the people. This left the residents of the unincorporated area with the choice of annexing to Portland or Gresham, or doing without the services, primarily police patrols, neighborhood parks, and permits. This area contained (if my memory serves me) about 135,000 people and extended from the Columbia River south to the Clackamas County line and from S. E. 82nd Avenue east to Gresham and Fairview. The plan, accomplished through a coalition which we developed with leaders of the Cities of Portland and Gresham (including Mayors Frank Ivancie, Bud Clark and Margaret Weil) drove annexation of the area east of 82nd to 165th to the City of Portland and annexation of the area east of 165th to the City of Gresham. In Portland, this doubled the size of the east side and jumped the population by 75 to 80 thousand people. It jumped Gresham from a tiny village to one of the top five largest cities in the state.
As for the impact on urban development: the annexation introduced urban renewal and the City's urban development policies into this large suburban area as well as key service capacities the County lacked, including the ability to develop sewer and water facilities in a planned way on a broad basis to support economic development. This allowed for the subsequent development of the Columbia South Shore east of the airport and areas along the light rail, including Gateway. Resolution A also strengthened the city's hand in dealing with the Legislature on land use issues by converting legislators in the districts in mid-county into city stakeholders.
Parenthetically, Resolution A also helped in achieving several other goals: it drastically reduced duplication of municipal services between the county and the city; it helped the county deal with a $14.5 million budget shortfall and avoid a tax increase and larger layoffs by transferring scores of county employees to the City of Portland; it addressed the problem of an urban subsidy in which city residents paid twice for an array of municipal services; the county took their money for police patrols, neighborhood parks, planning, zoning and permits, but delivered these services only in the unincorporated area.
As a matter of fact, it was the desire to deal with these issues and accomplish these goals that drove the coalition to support the adoption and implementation of Resolution A in the first place.
In implementing Resolution A, the county transferred the bulk of its sheriff's patrols, 14 neighborhood parks in East County and its permits section to the city of Portland. Similar transfers were made to Gresham, of course on a smaller scale. As part of this program to rationalize service delivery the County also transferred all of the County's regional operations to Metro, the Expo Center, and Blue Lake and Oxbow Parks.
It should be noted that my administration could never have accomplished these sweeping changes without the strong support from the majority of the Board of Commissioners, which was led at that time by Earl Blumenauer, and of the Mayors of Portland and Gresham. The key player on my staff in all this was Steve Telfer, a former city manager, who helped guide the restructuring of city-county government through a maze of fiscal and personnel issues.
EB: Turning to another subject, what role, if any, did the County play in the development of the Oregon Convention Center?
DB: Our key contribution was to propose that the facility be regionalized, paid for and operated regionally and not paid for just by the taxpayers of Portland. The next morning after being elected Mayor, Bud Clark announced a breakfast meeting of the Portland Convention Association in the Marriott Hotel that he would build a new convention center. There were at least a thousand people packed into the grand ballroom, and everyone applauded and cheered. As soon as I got back to the office, I called Bud up and recommended that the City go regional, pointing out that the center would serve suburbanites as much as Portlanders and that for Portland to pay for its construction, and underwirte its operation would be another form of urban subsidy. Then and there, on the spot, But agreed and enlisted me to help him build a regional coalition to get the center built. I furnished him with names for a steering committee and joined him in lobbying an endorsement of the project through the City and the three County Commissioners. Later, I voted with the minority to locate the center near the railroad station. The key player among the citizen volunteers in leading the project to success was Bob Ridgely, then President of Northwest Natural Gas.
EB: Have you been involved in urban design issues since leaving the County?
DB: For the most part, my new jobs pretty much took me out of the loop of local government, but two years after I left public office, I did initiate one project that is still alive and kicking: the redevelopment of the so-called Midtown Park blocks between Southwest Taylor and West Burnside. My role was to form a task force that produced a plan calling for redevelopment of this stretch. Bing Sheldon volunteered to help and produced a booklet laying out the plan and presenting our task force vision in a number of illustrations. The plan was presented to the City Council, which expanded the urban renewal boundaries to include the area and appropriated $50,000 to conduct its own study under city auspices. A key component of the plan was to use the city's urban renewal powers and tax increment financing.
The project appeared to be moving along, but hit a snag with the passage of a ballot measure that undercut urban renewal financing. The task force was made up of 10 to 12 businessmen and women with businesses along the park blocks. Key membership included Bill Naito, Doug Goodman and Tom Moyer. To his credit, Tom Moyer stayed with it; at some point after this, he teamed up with Neil Goldschmidt in an attempt to get things going again.