You may remember that back in 2007, a controversial effort to rename Interstate Avenue after Cesar Chavez erupted like a cyst on Portland's civic consciousness, with accusations of racism met with vehement counter-accusations about a "lack of public process," the former mayor declaring himself "irrelevant," and ultimately, the whole thing falling apart in catastrophe.
This time around, there's a concerted effort on the city's behalf to achieve a different outcome. This morning, for example, was the first meeting of the street renaming historian panel, whose job it is to decide whether any of the three streets up for consideration, SE 39th, Grand Avenue, and Broadway, have such "historic significance," that their names shouldn't be changed. Why three streets? Well: Only one street can be renamed, but the city attorney says there's nothing in the code that prohibits considering renaming three streets in the first instance. Others with a more skeptical bent suggest keeping the options open gives "the inevitable opposition that much less time to get up in arms and organized." You decide.
HISTORIAN PANEL, L TO R: Dena Marshall, a consultant from Marshall Mediation, Mike Caldwell, a general from the Oregon National Guard, Willamette Law professor Gil Carrasco, Cully neighborhood association chief Kathy Fuerstenau, and Joe Hertzberg, another consultant from Decisions, Decisions, a survey group...
Many argue that most of the controversy around the attempted Cesar Chavez rename came about because the city didn't follow its own code regarding street renaming—17.93. Although the city has never, in fact, followed the code. It waived the process when it renamed West Front Avenue for Bill Naito, and North Portland Boulevard after Rosa Parks in 2007, not to mention Union Avenue after Martin Luther King jr in 1989. This time, however, they're going to follow the process, following the submission of 2500 signatures to the city auditor's office by the Cesar Chavez renaming committee, on January 23.
The main criteria under the code for renaming a street are the "appropriateness of the proposed honoree," versus the "historic significance" of the current name, or "significance in its own right" of the street proposed for renaming. Ultimately, it's up to City Council to decide on all this, after taking input from the historian panel, and from the Portland Planning Commission.
"Oregon is a strong state for lots of public process," says Mike Greenfield, one of the three consultants being paid a total of
$30,000 $35,000 in city money to shepherd the process through to completion. "[City council] could just haul off and do it, but there might be a little trouble at the ballot box."
In addition to surveying residents near the three streets by postcard, the group also plans to hold three three hour hearings, currently slated for March 23 (Grand), March 30 (Broadway), and April 6 (39th Ave), one near each of the streets, to ask residents about the historic significance of the street's current name, and the appropriateness of renaming the street after Cesar Chavez. On April 20th, from 7-9, there'll be a final meeting for the historian panel at 1900 SW 4th, to discuss all the public comment, and input from the city's website, and the postcard surveys, and decide on a recommendation.
This morning, the group has been discussing the logistics for those three hour hearings—they'll be in public, accessible locations, there'll be two moderators, and people will sign in for three minutes to speak, each. There'll be a plainclothes security officer present, too. All this may sound like overkill, but perhaps not when you remember that at the hearings on the issue in the past, there was chaos, with folks calling out from the audience, and increasing hostility from meeting to meeting.
The historian commission will not be hearing testimony on how much it's going to cost to rename the streets, or to print new business cards for area businesses. "That's something that would be more appropriate for the Planning Commission," says Fuerstenau.
"Hopefully the process will be more respectful and run more smoothly, and that's the whole goal, here," says Fuerstenau.
GUEMBES IN '07: Now leading a "new start..."
"This is a new start for everybody," says Marta Guembes, co-chair of the street rename committee, who led the group back in 2007, and was in the audience at today's meeting. "Each person here, I think, is expecting everything to go fairly, we'll go through the process, and the goal is to rename a street. This process is very transparent."
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!