For years, the Pearl District Neighborhood Association has reliably given its blessing to local development plans. Often, its response has not merely been “yes,” but “more please”—encouraging builders to go larger and higher.
That viewpoint was championed by Patricia Gardner, an architect having strong connections to both City Hall and private developers, who began chairing the PDNA Planning and Transportation Committee in 2003.
The committee’s decisions are final. While PDNA bylaws provide for appeal to the board of directors, such cases have been rare and fruitless. Gardner was also board president from 2013 until this summer, meaning appeals would be more like a rerun than a new show.
Pearl neighbors having beefs over construction noise, view-blocking luxury towers buildings out of character with their surroundings were unlikely to get a sympathetic ear at planning committee meetings.
Although Gardner has left the association, her legacy lives on through her appointees and other longtime committee members. That was evident in handling of the Fremont Apartments, a 17-story mixed-use building that will block the view of the Fremont Bridge from many spots in the north Pearl.
David Dysert, co-chair of the committee, is staying the course, which means accepting the view-blocking potential of the structure while addressing more minor design considerations.
But the old party line isn’t selling like it used to. New board President Stan Penkin is committed to a different approach, which includes tighter accountability for the organization’s representatives and respect for the concerns of residents, even those not versed in city codes and policies.
When Dysert reported on the Fremont Apartments at the November PDNA board meeting, he ran smack into the new paradigm.
New board member Ed O’Rourke wanted to know how the association might stop or delay the project.
“Why would you want to do that?” Dysert asked.
“It’s an eyesore, and it’s problematic for a lot of people,” replied O’Rourke. “I’m in the north end of Pearl for one reason, and that’s the view.”
Dysert, who works in secondary mortgage marketing for Hyperion Capital Group LLC, said only specifically designated views are protected in Portland.
“You don’t have the right to a view unless you pay for it,” he said. “That’s not a fun lesson, but it’s just a reality.”
Dysert was not moved by appeals to consider public opinion.
“We really saw very little outside participation in those meetings,” he said, referring to input from Pearl residents at planning committee meetings.
Penkin said inadequate notice may have limited attendance. Although meeting times and locations are posted, no agenda information is provided to tell citizens what topics will be discussed.
As other board members and residents in the room took O’Rourke and Penkin’s side, Dysert dug in deeper. He charged that a petition against the Fremont Apartments circulated by Change.org made false accusations of collusion and backroom dealings.
“When you start slandering individuals, you’ve crossed the line,” Dysert said.
The online petition (change.org/p/bds-portlandoregon-gov-blocked-view-of-the-fremont-bridge), which has more than 300 signatures, was not initiated by or identified with any PDNA representatives, but Dysert wanted the board to know that some opponents of the project had gone too far.
Penkin did not back off.
“If we provided a better outlet, maybe they wouldn’t have to go to Change.org,” he said.
Penkin aims to overcome the information gap by expanding PDNA’s electronic and printed communications, a topic to be raised at a board retreat in January.
He’s convinced that Pearl residents care deeply about issues such as their view of the Fremont Bridge. Had more known it was being discussed and that they were welcome to participate, “they probably would have filled the room,” he told the Examiner later.
“Give everyone an opportunity to speak,” he said. “That’s what democracy is about.”
If Dysert was unprepared for the board’s newfound assertiveness on development, it might be traced to the reaction to a similar debate two days earlier before the planning committee.
After a presentation on the Fremont Apartments by its architectural team, committee member John Hollister cautiously raised the view issue. While conceding that approval of the project seemed inevitable, he wrestled with how to respond, given his conversations with many neighbors who were universally against it.
“They would really rather not have their views blocked,” he said, adding that “I don’t think a group of 10 to 15 people should [claim to speak for] the 6,000 people in the Pearl District.”
“If those 6,000 people were willing to join this committee and take the time to understand the issues …,” Dysert replied before noting, “I think we’re getting off topic here.”
Twice more, Dysert cut off Hollister for going off the subject.
“We don’t need to hear about this silent majority anymore because they aren’t here,” he concluded.
After the meeting adjourned, Hollister asked to meet privately with Dysert, who turned him down.
Dysert told Hollister to “stop undermining the committee. … Saying the decision of this committee won’t matter undermines its standing.”
Dysert had the last word before his committee, but he would soon stumble upon shakier ground within an organization breaking past customs. n