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City, developers gush over rain gardens ...

... but some area residents find reason to grumble
by: Jim Clark A bicyclist rides past a Southeast Stark Street curb cut that allows water from the street to flow into the adjoining rain garden.

Lanky blades of grass and leafy trees are popping up all over.

Along Kane Road.

In the middle of Hogan.

And even on smaller residential streets like Southeast 176th Avenue.

Rain gardens are not a passing fad, say Gresham officials.

'That's kind of our new normal,' said Jennifer Belknap Williamson, watershed division manager.

When streets get a major overhaul - like the reconstruction of Hogan Road - or when there's a big transportation project, the city is turning to rain gardens for treating stormwater runoff instead of the traditional but more expensive method of storm grates, catch basins and filters, said Steve Fancher, director of Gresham's department of environmental services.

'Rain gardens are one of those solutions that touch upon many different problems,' such as federal requirements to clean rain water running down streets before it hits local creeks and waterways, Fancher said.

The gardens can be designed to slow traffic and improve pedestrian safety - like the landscaped medians that double as rain gardens on Powell Boulevard, which Gresham retrofitted in 2005.

But they also serve as a patch of nature in what would otherwise be a concrete jungle.

'And increase the overall aesthetic for Gresham,' Fancher said. Take recent road improvements to Southeast Stark Street between 190th and 199th avenues. Curbside rain gardens are tucked along sidewalks, while trees take root in raised medians separating east- and westbound lanes of traffic.

'Stark is pretty barren in terms of trees,' Fancher said, noting the lack of shade for pedestrians and residents. 'These will really help a lot.'

Or take the northern most link of the Gresham-Fairview Trail, which begins at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and runs south along 202nd Avenue.

Motorists whizzing by will miss them, but not the cyclists and walkers using the trail; nestled in stretches of green grass growing between the curb and paved pathway, Oregon grape, blue oat grass and soft rush work with soil and rock to filter impurities from rain funneled through U-shaped cutouts in the curb.

Developers and businesses - such as a dentist on the corner of Burnside and Cleveland - also are increasingly turning to rain gardens for stormwater treatment, Belknap Williamson said. Especially since the city created a guide for green development practices and stormwater management in 2007.

The guide includes details on rain gardens, the more eye-catching planter-box style gardens that are on Hogan and porous pavements, including asphalt and concrete mixes, as well as pavers.

More recently, an influx of federal stimulus funds for transportation projects along Hogan, Kane, Stark and Burnside allowed Gresham to add four major rain garden systems last year to its growing collection.

'They're pretty simplistic systems,' Belknap Williamson said. 'It's more like how nature is meant to manage rain water.'

At least one critic

But not everybody is wild about them, and some take particular umbrage with the bulbous pavement pushing out into the street.

Scott Muilenburg jokes about taking a jack hammer to the rain garden just across from his house on Southeast 176th Avenue between Stark and Division streets.

'People are driving into it,' he said, pointing out how the rain garden curves into the lane of traffic. One truck hit the rain garden's curb, crashed into a tree and took out a rotten stump. A few weeks ago, a kid riding his bike on the street swerved into the road to avoid hitting the rain garden when it curves out.

'And here's a car behind him that is passing him just as this kid juts out into street,' Muilenburg said. 'It almost hit him.'

He also worries about cars passing in front of the rain garden's bump out.

'When two cars pass there, there's very little wiggle room,' Muilenburg said.

The city did add reflectors to the rain garden's curb where it pushes out to catch motorists eyes. Muilenburg just wishes the rain gardens were flush with the rest of the curb.

'At the very least it could be straight. Why can't it be squared off like the one across the street?' he asked, pointing a few houses north where a rain garden is contained between the parallel lines of a sidewalk and curb.

'I just think this is over built. I'm gonna start digging out concrete, so they can do it right.'

Fancher said the developer building homes on the lot where the rain garden is located needed to bump it out to get enough space to treat the volume of water generated from that lot.

And a rain garden that bumped out into the street seemed like a good way to slow down the 'high speeds on that street,' he added.

Residents and motorists along Powell voiced complaints similar to Muilenburg's in 2005 when the boulevard was retrofitted. Some still complain about damaged tires and wheels from running into the raised landscaped medians between the two directions of traffic.

The city's take on rain gardens has evolved since then, Fancher said. Now, the city emphasizes rain gardens on roadsides, particularly shoulders, instead of medians, Fancher said.

But residential areas are tricky due to the piecemeal nature of infill development: When a lot is developed, the developer must treat stormwater generated on site and many are using rain gardens to do that. The downside is the lack of continuity it can create.

Residents typically are most concerned about who is responsible for maintaining the rain gardens. Answer: The city maintains gardens in and along major roadways, while business owners maintain those in their parking lots.

Or residents complain about what looks like a dirt-filled hole until the plants become better established, usually within a year, Fancher said.

Check 'em out:

• Powell Boulevard, 2005 - 2,500 feet of median rain gardens, reducing runoff to Johnson Creek by 4 million gallons a year.

• Northeast Holladay Street, 2007 - rain gardens retrofitted on one side of the street, with porous asphalt on the other side to compare the two methods side by side.

• Northeast 201st Avenue, 2008 - private developer retrofitted rain garden planters on one side of the street, reducing runoff to the Columbia Slough by 800,000 gallons a year.

• Northeast Beech Street, 2008 - underground cistern installed under the road covered in porous concrete pavers, which collects and stores stormwater that's then used to water street-side landscaping thanks to a solar-powered pumping system. Reduces runoff to Johnson Creek by 180,000 gallons a year.

• Gresham Center for the Arts Plaza, 2009 - Surrounding streets (Northeast Second and Third streets and Hood and Kelly avenues) include 'bulb-out' rain gardens, reducing runoff to Kelly Creek by 650,000 gallons a year.

• Hogan Road, 2010 - 42 rain gardens retrofitted in and along the street, reducing runoff to Kelly Creek by 2 million gallons a year.

• Kane Road, 2010 - rain gardens installed on one side of the street, with porous asphalt underground rock trenches and clay dams in another section of roadway. Reduces runoff to Kelly Creek by 1.5 million a year.

• Stark Street, 2010 - Rain gardens added to urbanized streetscape.

• Burnside Road, 2010 - Rain gardens added at spots along arterial roadway.