Portland City Council postponed a vote on the view-blocking Fremont Place Apartments to March 7. An inconclusive council hearing Feb. 21 provided clues as to how the body is leaning, and at least one of those signs is seen by Pearl District Neighborhood Association appellants as a low blow.
The PDNA is appealing Portland Design Commission approval by a 3-1 vote of the Fremont Place Apartments, a 17-story project near the Fremont Bridge. The lone dissenting vote was by commission Chair Julie Livingston.
PDNA expected Livingston would testify before the council as she promised when the commission made its decision in December. After the decision was rendered, Livingston told PDNA members in the audience, “Should you choose to appeal it—if the appeal lands on council on a Wednesday—there will be a Design Commission member present to represent the majority opinion and a Design Commission member present to represent the minority opinion.”
The Feb. 21 council hearing was on a Wednesday, but no design commissioner testified.
Ben Nielsen, who reviewed the application for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, presented the Design Commission’s decision at the council hearing. Nielsen did not mention the minority opinion until asked about it, and then he said only that “a small section in the decision” contains the only written record of Livingston’s comments.
An audio recording of the entire commission decision is available on the city’s official website.
The section Nielsen referred to stated that “one dissenting commissioner found that the proposal did not satisfy guidelines relating to the context of the North Pearl Subarea and waterfront, particularly the overly -complicated massing of the proposal in relation to the other buildings found within the sub-area.
“Additionally, the commissioner found that the number of modifications required to arrive at the proposed building form—and particularly modification Number 5—resulted in too many impacts to the greenway that did not satisfactorily address concerns about impacts to the view of the Fremont Bridge from The Fields Park.”
The guidelines cited by Livingston dealt with identifying and enhancing the character of the Pearl District and waterfront area while complementing existing buildings and emphasizing Portland themes.
PDNA President Stan Penkin hoped Livingston would testify in person to expand upon her reasoning and to answer questions council members might have about Design Commission norms and policies.
“I feel that there was a lack of transparency, contrary to City Council’s resolution, in that the majority opinion was fully heard and no opportunity was given by council to hear the minority opinion,” Penkin told the Examiner. “Julie Livingston was in attendance and should have been called upon.”
The inclusion of minority opinions from advisory bodies is “encouraged” under an ethics reform package introduced by Commissioner Nick Fish and adopted by council in December.
At a council work session last April on standardizing practices for the city’s boards and commissions, Fish said the council benefits “when we hear a range of opinions” and not just the final vote.
“Sometimes a robust minority view takes the day at council,” he said.
At the February hearing on the Fremont Place appeal, Fish again made known his desire for minority reports, expressing disappointment that Livingston’s position was not included in the packet prepared for each commissioner.
“I’ve found it useful to hear the thinking of the Design Commission,” Fish said. “It’s unusual to hear that a chair dissents on an issue. I can’t remember that happening before.”
The commissioner said it would have been preferable to have Livingston testify than hearing her views second-hand.