Occasional comments about business and politics in Portland, Oregon, mixed in with stories from our city's colorful if not always compliant past.
"The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly." -- Touchstone
It's odd that even though big business regularly complains about the national government, when the national government shuts down, Wall Street tumbles. The stock market is down about 5% since mid-September, when it became apparent that the House wouldn't agree to fund the government past September 30.
Although the Monsanto Protection Act, SB 863, which the legislature passed in its special session last week, appeared to come from nowhere, it was a remnant of the regular session earlier this year, when it made it through the Senate under the name of SB 633, only to die in the House. Its original sponsors were a bipartisan mix: Democratic Senators Betsy Johnson (Scappoose) and Arnie Roblan (North Bend) and Republican Senators Herman Baertschiger (Central Point), Bill Hansell (Pendleton), and Jeff Kruse (Roseburg). In the regular session, the Senate passed it on not quite party lines: 14 R's and 3 D's voted yes, and 12 D's voted no.
In the special session the bill passed the Senate on the same 17-12 vote, with one interesting switch: Senator Johnson, one of the sponsors of the original bill, voted against it. The final tally was unchanged because Senator Prozanski, who had voted against the first incarnation, did not vote the second time around.
Though designed to prevent local governments from regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the bill is written so broadly as to have some unintended effects, including on blackberries and bongs. I'll have some more to say about the bill's side effects presently.
Cell phone companies occasionally send me solicitations to switch to their services, usually with promises of better reception, wider coverage area, or lower rates. Today's mail brought a cell phone company's solicitation, with a pitch that I'd never read before.
This one is from CREDO Mobile, a name that's new to me. It opens with "Dear Fellow Progressive" and leads with "If you get your mobile service from Verizon Wireless or AT&T, you should know that they contribute big bucks to radical right-wing causes." The letter states that since 2009, Verizon Wireless has given "an incredible $220,600" to members of the House and Senate Tea Party Caucuses, and AT&T has given "a massive $1,080,000."
That sounds like a lot of money, but then there were a lot of Tea Party Caucus members. Wikipedia says that in January 2013 the caucus included 49 representatives and five senators. Taking that as the caucus's typical membership level, AT&T's contributions work out to be about $5,000 per member per year. Verizon's donations work out to be about $1,000 per member per year. That's a lot more than I give to our congressional delegation (sorry, Earl), but it's less than half my annual cell phone bill. AT&T's contributions work out to be about one cent for each of its one hundred million customers. Far from being generous to the right wing, it looks to me that AT&T and Verizon are being rather stingy. They're certainly nowhere close to competing with the Koch brothers.
The Austrian physicist and philosopher Erwin Schrodinger, in a famous thought experiment, asked us to imagine a closed box containing a cat and a timed device. The device may go off sometime between now and six hours from now, when we will open the box. When it goes off it will kill the cat. Whether it has gone off can't be determined without opening the box. Schrodinger asked whether, in that six-hour period, the question "Is the cat alive or dead?" has any meaning. In his view, which he likened to quantum states of particles, until the box is opened Schrodinger's cat is both alive and dead: in physical language the cat's two possible states exist in superposition until the box is opened.
In June, afte the Washington legislature rejected a measure to fund $450 million of the Columbia River Crossing, Governors Kitzhaber of Oregon and Inslee of Washington declared the CRC dead. Dead it may have been declared, but pieces kept on twitching, to the point that three weeks later Willamette Week called the CRC a Zombridge, as the CRC team continued to work on getting the DEQ to approve pier work in the river, and the Coast Guard continued its review of the CRC team's application for a permit to obstruct the river. Since then it's been announced that the two states' departments of transportation have agreed to pay off two businesses that the bridge would hurt, and the Oregon Department of Transportation has agreed to pay off a third business in the same situation. Governor Kitzhaber has made noises about calling the Oregon legislature into special session on September 30, ostensibly to deal with PERS, but the behind-the-scenes talk is that he will also ask the legislature to fund the CRC whether or not Washington chips in. And yesterday evening, the C-TRAN board (Clark County's trasportation district) voted to get back into the CRC planning process.
So: is the Columbia River Crossing alive or dead? Or is it, like Schrodinger's cat, alive and dead at the same time? We'll open the box on September 30 and find out.
Identity crises abound this month. Paul Allen has sold the naming rights to the Rose Garden arena to the insurance company formerly named ODS Health Plans, itself struggling to reestablish its identity after changing its name to Moda earlier this year. This has sparked a protest movement, "Rose Garden Forever," wanting Mr. Allen's enterprise to turn down the $40 million and leave the name unchanged, or at least leave "Rose Garden" in the name somewhere.
It wasn't that long ago -- only in 1995, in fact, a Laquedemian blink of an eye -- that Mr. Allen ignited protests when he announced that he would name his new arena the Rose Garden, muscling over the famous Rose Garden in Washington Park. "How can he take this historic Portland name for himself?" Portlanders complained back then. Ah, well, we've got over it, and have accepted "Rose Garden" for its reference to our city's nickname, the City of Roses.
The hidden joke is not in the Rose Garden's name, but in the history of Moda's name. Before it called itself ODS, it was Oregon Dental Systems, a name it abbreviated to ODS as it moved into the broader field of medical insurance. Having now disposed of the last remnant of "Oregon" in its own name, to advertise that quirky fact to its Oregon customers, it's paying to remove the Portland reference from the Rose Garden too.
I'm mostly over my irritation at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) inviting me to join that fine group more than two decades before I expect to retire, and of occasionally qualifying for "senior citizen" or "honored guest" discounts at restaurants. American businesses often look for younger markets. Still, one business, I thought, has overshot the mark: yesterday the Laquedemitasse, not yet old enough to obtain a driver's license, received a solicitation from Neptune Cremation Service of Northeast Portland, inviting him to "plan for a dignified resting place to memorialize [his] loved ones," and to enter a drawing to win one free cremation.
Much as I would appreciate the sentiment that the gift would carry, I will be just as happy if tomorrow morning he presents me with a tie.
Complain as I do about the eccentricities of the Portland city council, they have been making the city a more desirable place to live, at least if housing prices are evidence. Now and then it's been reported that people who are priced out of the Portland housing market are finding less expensive housing -- even in Lake Oswego.
Five years ago I told the story of how some prominent Portland charitable organizations got together a few years earlier to encourage a Person Of Standing to make good on his pledges to those charities. They wrote identical letters to the Person Of Standing, who was an well-known investment manager active in the Republican Party, all saying basically "You made a very generous pledge to our organization last year. If things are tight for you right now, we can work out an installment plan so that you won't be embarrassed about not meeting your pledge." The Person Of Standing, no doubt realizing that the well-connected trustees of these charities all talked with one another, paid his pledges by return mail. He quietly ended his relationships with the charities and moved to Florida.
I don't know whether times were in fact tough for the Person Of Standing ten years ago, but they are now; this week the P.O.S. was arrested and charged with two counts each of securities fraud and wire fraud. I'm guessing that none of the trustees of those charities were still doing business with him.
The humps in the middle of the Interstate Bridges are two of the reasons that proponents of the Columbia River Crossing point to when explaining why a replacement bridge with a light rail line is the most pressing transportation need that merits $450 million, plus interest, of Oregon's tax dollars. The interesting thing about the humps is that they were built not as a problem but as a solution.
The original Interstate Bridge (what is now the northbound bridge) had a drawspan, but no humps. The road was level. When the southbound bridge was built in the 1950s, the highway department wanted to reduce the number of bridge lifts, and built the southbound bridge with a hump, under which some river traffic could go without requiring a bridge lift. When the southbound bridge opened, the northbound bridge was closed so that a matching hump could be added.
The basic problem with the project, and a possible solution, occurred to me a few days ago, and I'll share the problem and the solution this week.
Wednesday the Land Use Board of Appeals reversed Portland's approval of an 80-unit mixed-use building at 37th and Southeast Division, proposed to be built without any off-street parking. (Thanks to Willamette Week for the story.)
LUBA reversed the City's decision, not for reasons relating to the lack of parking, but because of how the City wrote its zoning code. The site is a rectangle with one of the short sides along Division and one of the long sides along 37th. The developer proposes to build retail space on the ground floor and apartments upstairs. The portion nearer Division is subject to the City's "Main Street" zoning, which is intended to make buildings along certain streets, including that portion of Division, look like buildings in small town Main Streets. One of these standards says that if any of the building is in a non-residential use and the site is on a corner, then "for portions of a building within the maximum building setback, at least one main entrance for each tenant space must (a) be within 5 feet of the facade facing Division Street, and (b) either (1) face Division Street, or (2) be at an angle of up to 45 degrees from Division Street, measured from the street property line."
In that zone, the maximum building setback is 10 feet, meaning that the building's Division Street wall can't be more than 10 feet from Division Street. In fact, it's built on the lot line, so it's set back 0 feet. The portion of the building within that 10-foot area includes both street-level commercial space and twelve upstairs apartments. The main entrances to the streetfront retail face Division Street, but the entrances to the apartments don't -- they're around the corner, on SE 37th, and are more than 5 feet from Division Street.
The City planners rallied valiantly around the developer, and argued that this provision of the zoning code was never intended to apply to apartments, only to non-residential uses. LUBA rejected the City's argument, saying that the plain language of the code states that at least one main entrance to any tenant space within the 10-foot setback must be within 5 feet of the Division Street facade.
Here are the developer's options, none very attractive:
1. Convert all of the street-level space to apartments so that the building will be residential-only, increasing the construction cost and reducing the rental income.
2. Take out some of the commercial space on Division Street (the highest-value portion of the building) and put in a Division Street entrance to the apartments, also increasing the development cost and reducing the rental income.
3. Remove the portion of the upper floors that's within 10 feet of Division Street; that is, chop off portions of 12 apartments.
4. Persuade the City to change its zoning code very, very fast, before the neighbors force the City to make the developer tear down what is now an illegal and unpermitted building.
I'd be worried if I were the developer. I'd be even more worried if I were the developer's lender.