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City left with fewer options after port drops island plans

Businesses see 'wakeup call' for jobs; city seeks sites


by: COURTESY OF ALVARO FONTAN - The Port of Portland bought most of West Hayden Island two decades ago to build marine terminals along the Columbia River west of the rail bridge. Now the ports project is being shelved for the second time. Score another win for the environment in Portland’s long-running fight over marine trade terminals proposed for West Hayden Island.

Environmentalists and island residents are basking in victory since the Port of Portland shelved a request for the city to annex its 800-acre property, and back out of a city-port agreement guiding future development on 300 of the acres.

But the port’s Jan. 8 announcement leaves the city with fewer avenues to provide industrial land for future jobs, as required by Oregon land-use law. That could put pressure on Metro to expand the urban growth boundary, perhaps converting more Hillsboro-area farmland into industrial acreage — and diverting future jobs outside Portland.

Bob Sallinger, the Portland Audubon Society conservation director who led opposition to the West Hayden Island shipping terminals, praised Mayor Charlie Hales and fellow city councilors for “standing firm” on the environmental protections approved by the city Planning and Sustainability Commission as a condition for annexing the port parcel. Sallinger hopes the undeveloped west half of the island might be protected as permanent open space.

Port of Portland leaders had sent a letter to city commissioners Oct. 7, days before their pivotal work session with planning commissioners, asking to cap its expenses for environmental remediation at $43 million. Port leaders wrote that planning commissioners’ conditions would cost up to $82 million, rendering the project too expensive to pencil out for grain or other terminals.

The port envisioned 900 to 1,200 well-paying blue-collar jobs at the marine terminals, plus spinoff jobs that could add another 1,400 to 3,100 positions.

But Hales never mustered the same enthusiasm for the development as his predecessor, Sam Adams, who had coaxed the port to make another stab at developing its West Hayden Island property in 2009, after losing an initial attempt years earlier in the face of environmental opposition.

“What I saw over time was people taking a look at the facts and becoming more doubtful about going forward,” Sallinger says.

In mid-December, Hales told the Portland Tribune editorial board that the West Hayden Island project was “not a lot of economic development for the trouble it’s caused,” and that it would only add “a few jobs after the construction period.”

The day after those remarks were published, Port Executive Director Bill Wyatt met with Hales, though port spokeswoman Martha Crawford says the timing was coincidental. Wyatt came away empty-handed, as Hales refused to change the planning commission’s terms.

The mayor never accepted the notion that those shipping terminal jobs were so critical, or the “guns versus butter” argument that environmental sacrifices were necessary to lure those jobs, says his spokesman Dana Haynes.

The Portland Business Alliance, which supported the port in lobbying Hales and other city commissioners, had expected the mayor would “temper” the expensive requirements set by the planning commissioners, says Bernie Bottomly, the alliance’s vice president for government affairs and economic development. But in conversations with Hales, “he never said to us he was for it,” Bottomly says.

Why the port balked

It wasn’t just the high cost of environmental mitigation that caused the port to shelve its plans, says Susie Lahsene, the port’s transportation and land-use policy manager. The City Council shut the port — the landowner — out of the October work session with the City Council, Lahsene says, and seemed to be proceeding as a “reluctant” partner. The port would have been required to invest millions before the city would rezone the property for industrial use, she says, and the port, and potential terminal operators, wouldn’t risk such investments without certainty the project could go forward. The port didn’t want to get the property annexed and then shelve the project, she says, because it would lose the ability to reshape development requirements in the future.

Business leaders see the City Council’s reluctance to promote a viable development as turning its back on Portland’s history as a port town, and another sign the city doesn’t value family wage blue-collar jobs.

“We need a wakeup call about Portland’s economy and about how many people we have that are not feeding their kids dinner,” says Corky Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association.

Bottomly says many in the city disregard industrial jobs, but then celebrate new creative jobs with an advertising firm hired by those same manufacturers. “There’s a perception that manufacturing jobs are dirty,” Bottomly says.

It’s almost as if the city is practicing “job gentrification,” he says.

by: COURTESY OF ALVARO FONTAN - Oregons largest mobile home park sits in shouting distance from where the Port of Portland hopes to develop marine terminals. Neighbor concerns  about noise, air pollution and traffic seemed to find sympathetic ears among Portland city commissioners.

Industrial land shortage

For months the city has struggled, as part of its comprehensive land-use plan update, to provide 635 acres of new industrial land to help site some 33,000 new industrial jobs projected here between 2010 and 2035.

To provide that acreage, a team of city planners and other specialists devised creative ideas to speed up reuse of polluted “brownfields,” especially along the Willamette River, to improve rail and road connections so the port and others can site more jobs at existing industrial parcels, and rezone golf courses in the Columbia Corridor for industry. But that effort was a struggle, and 300 of those 635 acres were supposed to come from West Hayden Island — which now are off the table.

City planner Tom Armstrong says he and colleagues will go back to the drawing board in the next few months to make up those lost acres. Conversion of brownfields, Armstrong says, may be more feasible once the federal government assigns cleanup duties in the long-running Superfund saga along the Willamette River. There also may be a new shipping terminal site on the Willamette at the polluted Time Oil property, he says.

City planners don’t have to be fixated on the 635-acre number, Armstrong says, but they do need to demonstrate that Portland can provide space for expected industrial jobs.

“There’s got to be a dose of market reality to it,” he says, or Metro and state regulators will reject the city’s plans.

Collier says city planners already were “grasping at straws” to cure the deficit, such as plotting conversions of golf courses whose owners have no intention of selling their land. He and other business leaders are skeptical planners can make do without the West Hayden Island land.

Sallinger counters that it’s only proper for the city to focus more on reusing polluted brownfields, rather than “destroying our natural areas” such as West Hayden Island.

Sallinger blames the port and business groups for supporting past conversions of industrial lands, such as allowing residential condos on the port’s land north of the Pearl District, and allowing Ikea and other “big box” retailers near the airport.

And critics of the West Hayden Island development, including some city commissioners, question how long a landlocked city like Portland can continue to come up with additional industrial lands to accommodate growth.

“There will be a time when we cannot continue to add acreage, when it is not available,” says Ron Schmidt, president of the Hayden Island neighborhood association known as Hi-Noon. “We say the time is now.”