Elissa Gertler has a lot of experience around the Portland region dealing with the different aspects of planning, development and land use, from her time at the Clark County Homebuilder's Association to her position as the economic development manager at the Portland Development Commission. On March 20 Gertler was named the new director of Metro's Planning and Development Department after serving as a deputy director for almost three years.
Gertler answered some questions for Metro News to find out how the new job is going and what her vision is for the future. Some answers have been edited for brevity.
How has the new job been going so far?
It has been really interesting to start connecting everything I have learned over the past three years working as deputy director of the planning and development department, to the things I now have to think about going forward. I think this provides a fresh start for me, the department, and for Metro.
While we fundamentally know who we are and what we’re about, this is a chance for us to look at ourselves and decide what we want to do more of, do less of, or do differently, and to ask our partners and customers the same questions along the way. It is a great starting place to be – a strong foundation of success, a clear understanding of the evolving challenges, a healthy network of relationships, and the promise of good things ahead for all of us as we move forward together toward an even better future.
How have you been preparing for this job and what are you most excited to work on?
I have been preparing for this job with every professional experience I have had since I moved to Portland. I moved here fresh out of college because I wanted to live somewhere where I could have a genuine voice in making my community a place that I wanted it to be, and where I could enjoy living in a cool city while having access to any kind of nature I wanted. I think many of us who live here today were inspired by similar values for the places they want to live, work, and have fun, and I am excited to get a whole new generation of people inspired by the places in the region that are important to them.
In the years since the region came together around the 2040 Vision, the concept of place and community has fundamentally been changed by technology and that is exciting. We can engage people differently, we can use state of the art tools to update our definition of great places, and we can reconnect individuals and individual places with a larger set of shared values. Our work is still about making places great, but we need to use all kinds of new tools to connect people to this conversation.
Similarly, our economy has undergone significant evolution as technology and other mega trends have affected us over the last several decades. Now is an exciting time to look at how our work in regional planning and development can help us be better positioned to respond to and prepare for economic opportunities by making the most of our transportation and development assets and investments.
What is your vision for the planning department?
In short: Connections, relationships, leadership and action. These are the elements that build great communities and these are the things that will build a great planning department.
Our region’s success in land use and transportation planning was built on our connections and our shared values. As our region becomes more diverse, we have the chance to re-connect to shared values about the places we live, work, and have fun.
Our success has also been built on our strong relationships with each other and the knowledge that we can be stronger together than we are when we go it alone. We are seeing the value of these relationships in places like the SW Corridor where the cities and counties have developed a shared investment strategy and built partnerships around the transportation and development projects that are most important to them.
Leadership and action are the means to transform our plans into real results in communities. As we plan, we must always work toward how these plans will translate into action. Planning may take a long range focus, but transformative action can start immediately.
Tell us about three of your biggest accomplishments.
During my time at Metro, my team completed the East Metro Connections Plan, which brought together four cities and one county plus many community and business partners, to agree on a prioritized set of transportation investments. This led to funding and predevelopment work to move these projects forward. For years, these communities had disagreed on how to prioritize transportation needs in a way that was fair to all involved, but because we were able to link the transportation investments to broader community goals such as safety, mobility, access, economic development, and more, we were able to identify the areas that people agreed were most important to move forward together.
At Clackamas County, I am proud of the investments we were able to make in important community goals as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When the president’s economic stimulus was announced in 2009, I pulled together multiple teams to identify areas where we would be able to bring federal resources to high priority activities in the county.
We created the Clackamas Broadband Express, which received $8 million of stimulus funds to build telecommunications infrastructure that connected the rural and urban areas of the county and linked public safety and educational facilities. We also created Energize Clackamas, an energy efficiency and conservation program that brought in an additional $8 million to help weatherize homes and businesses, promote energy efficient public buildings, and help create an electric vehicle network countywide.
As Board Chair of Sabin Community Development Corporation, I helped lead a neighborhood organization that created and preserved over 100 units of affordable housing in Northeast Portland, and spurred a community based revitalization of Alberta Street. Even as the neighborhood has seen major changes, these investments in long term stability and community identity have helped preserve the historic character of the neighborhood for those who have lived there for generations. It is hard for most residents of the neighborhood today to remember a time when walking down Alberta Street after dark was a dangerous activity, but thanks to our community partnerships, we have come a long way.
How can Metro deal with those who fear or don’t want to participate in regional planning?
Not everyone finds regional planning as cool and exciting as those of us who live and breathe this stuff every day. But people are passionate about the places that are important to them – neighborhoods, parks, schools, nature. We should reach out to the region’s citizens, businesses, and institutions to ask them about the places that are important to all of us, and figure out how to work together on those important places.
For example, the Willamette River is important to many residents of the region as a community, environmental, and an economic resource, and Metro’s work touches it in all of these ways. By focusing on the places that are important to us, we can help make the outcomes of our planning work more real and meaningful to people who may not feel connected to it.
What could citizens do to get more involved in a Metro planning project?
There are always committees to join, public comment on important policy documents, and public open houses on major projects, and we work hard to make those opportunities as easy as possible for people to participate in, whether in person or online. But it can be even more rewarding and equally influential to get involved not just at the regional level, but at the local level. I have been impressed with community based groups like the East Portland Action Plan, Southwest Neighborhoods Inc, Sullivan’s Gulch Neighborhood Association, Jade District, Main Street Oregon City, and many others because their local efforts make a real connection to our work at the regional level.
Whether it’s a transit project, a trail, or a business district investment, these community based efforts are the foundation of our work in the Planning and Development department. It is our job to stay tuned in to what is happening on the ground at the local level in order for us to more effectively link these places together into a larger regional whole. And getting involved in hands on activities close to home is really a reward in itself.