The Oregonian guest opinion: For a productive future, move beyond bygone projects
Author: Ethan Seltzer
Posted: July 22, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Now that the Columbia River Crossing is dead -- "vampire" dead to some, "dead" dead to others -- it's time to stand back and contemplate where we're heading. This isn't the final word on the fate of the interstate bridges, nor is it the last large project that will become the battleground for time and resources.

We can learn a lot from the CRC and from the ongoing debate over West Hayden Island and Portland's Convention Center hotel. Fighting over projects that do little to capture our imagination is not at all satisfying. If we're going to have a fight, it ought to be over the shape of the future, not the fate of the past. All three projects are about the region that once was.

The CRC was predicated on a 1960s-era understanding of highways and urban development. It completely missed fundamental changes in the economy and in consumer tastes that have led to lower than expected rates of driving and travel.

West Hayden Island is being sold as a jobs generator, but interestingly, the demise of the CRC is being met with claims from the Port of Portland that there will be no detectable impact on traffic from new port development, which suggests new development with few jobs. The hotel is predicated on ever-expanding convention business at a time when it is contracting or, at best, flat nationwide.

Old assumptions and beliefs die hard, and these three projects are emblematic of that fact. So ask yourself: What is the future worth fighting for? If our community is going to be consumed by working out our differences, what justifies that time and expense?

Each of these projects offers us hints. What if the city were the convention center? Instead of asking how we better capture people inside two buildings, maybe we should be asking how we more effectively present the city itself as the site for a major convention. Instead of investing $100 million in a hotel, what could that public money do to help further this vision?

Similarly, with people migrating here to be part of a thriving city in a beautiful landscape, what would a complementary jobs strategy look like? Anytime we spend money on the order of these large projects, jobs are created. Given the choice, why spend the money on underperforming visions of the future?

Finally, what will matter in 50 years? Most of the buildings we'll have in the next 50 are with us today. What makes the world we have a better, more effective, more just place? I doubt that the first call would be for a wider highway or the replacement of an irreplaceable natural asset with an uncertain industrial investment. Our sure bets ought to be more thoughtful than that.

It's time to find our way in a new way. If the CRC has taught us anything, it's that it is time for a new set of questions to form the basis for our planning, debates and decisions. 

Ethan Seltzer is a professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University.