A crush on Portland

City officials look to the Pacific Northwest for urban-planning inspiration

What better qualities could City Hall want in a Valentine?

He's cute, smart, and best of all, totally progressive on transportation and environmental issues.

As often as Minneapolis leaders like to talk about Portland, Ore., it's not a stretch (OK, maybe just a little) to imagine our city as a crush-stricken schoolgirl gazing off at that weird boy in social studies class.

They pass policy notes, visit after class, even sit together on the school bus, er, streetcar.

What's up with all the love for Portland lately at City Hall?

City officials swoon about Portland's streetcar system and its environmentally friendly city agenda, among other things.

Portland's program for the homeless was listed as something to aspire to in the Minneapolis-Hennepin County plan to end homelessness, and the gem of the Pacific Northwest was held up as a shining example of good urban planning at a recent Uptown Small-Area Plan meeting. Council members are even pushing for a peak oil task force and an intersection art program just like Portland has.

The admiration isn't just from afar, either. Three City Council members packed their bags last fall and headed to Portland to talk to officials there about the streetcar system launched there in 2001. Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward), who has family living in Portland, suggested the trip and went on it along with Council Members Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward), Ralph Remington (10th Ward) and Robert Lilligren (6th Ward).

&#8220Everyone around the country sees Portland as a mecca for best practices in urban planning,” Schiff said. &#8220Once anybody goes to Portland, they are inundated through every sense by so many layers of good government practices.”

Remington couldn't say enough good things about Portland and was notably taken by the city's Pearl District, which he said has maintained a character similar to Uptown while figuring out how to embrace height and density. He also lauded the city's progressive agenda and acknowledged that Minneapolis officials do seem to have something of a crush on Portland.

&#8220We're always looking to Portland,” Remington said.

That might largely be because Portland is similar in size to Minneapolis and reflects some of the values Minneapolis has and things it wishes it did better, Glidden said.

&#8220Many of the things they're working on are similar to what we're working on,” Glidden said.

Council Member Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) sensed something between Minneapolis and Portland since before he was elected. In fact, part of his campaign message two years ago was about how tired he was of always hearing about Pacific Northwest cities including Portland.

&#8220My main point was that I want Minneapolis to be seen as a leader in terms of environment and transportation,” said Gordon, who has never been to Portland.

The city's love for Portland might be less romance and more sibling rivalry, he said.

&#8220I don't know if I want to go out on a date,” Gordon said, but Portland is &#8220a good role model to aspire to” on certain subjects like streetcars and creating pedestrian friendly environments.

It's those issues, too, that make Portland attractive to Mayor R.T. Rybak.

The mayor, who went to college in Boston, said he always looked to East Coast cities for policy examples until he first visited Portland in 1985.

&#8220I realized I wanted Minneapolis to be much more like Portland than a traditional Eastern city,” Rybak said. &#8220It isn't a full love affair. It's a warm admiration with a hardy handshake and maybe a hug.”

That warm admiration is exactly what the National League of Cities would like to see more of, Media Relations Director Sherry Appel said. The organization encourages elected officials to get ideas from their peers, she said.

&#8220They can learn what works and what doesn't, and they don't have to repeat the mistakes of others,” Appel said.

It might be a passing fling, though. The mayor said Portland's strength has been weaving all its amenities together with a great pedestrian and transit system. After years of growth and development, Minneapolis' challenge today is to do the same.

&#8220When we do that, we'll be a whole lot better than Portland,” Rybak said.

Reach Dan Haugen at dhaugen@mnpubs.com and Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com.