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City is shortchanging public, habitat, recreational interests

TWO VIEWS • Portland is diving into riverfront development with two major projects, but not everyone agrees on what's best for the Willamette

Local headlines howled a few years ago that the National Marine Fisheries Service was mandating a 200-foot riparian setback to protect endangered Columbia Basin salmon habitat.

But instead of dropping the ax on further urbanization of the banks of the Willamette River and local streams, the fisheries agency seems to have dropped the ball. In fact, all the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies have remained oddly silent as Portland approved two huge waterfront redevelopment schemes Ñ the River District and the South Waterfront Urban Renewal District (formerly called North Macadam). There's no 200-foot setback, but there are big promises of hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies to housing developers.

Riverfront restoration could have been a priceless legacy for our children's generation Ñ a continuous green park along the river. Instead the City Council invented a worthless moniker, River Renaissance, to create the pretense that subsidies to waterfront landowners would benefit the river environment.

Abandoned Willamette riverfront industrial areas, contaminated by decades of pollution from the Port of Portland and other industrial users, had no value until the council upzoned lands for high-density residential and mixed use.

If Portland officials had not changed the zoning designation from industrial to high density, our riverfront could have been acquired very cheaply for public use and recreation. Grant money for parks, fish habitat and flood plain restoration also has been available for years from federal and state sources for riparian cleanup. But the city wastes the money on pointless studies and bureaucratic fiddling.

Compared to the current schemes for $500 million or more in public subsidies and tax abatements in the riverfront urban renewal districts, a possible $20 million to $30 million for land acquisition and conversion from industrial to open space zoning would have been an incredible bargain for the public. Now, instead of a beautiful, continuous riverfront park that could be used to leverage state and federal habitat and water quality funds, the Portland public is stuck with huge bills for irresponsible urbanization.

Besides lost opportunities for public benefits, the public utility infrastructure is being constructed on unconsolidated old fill. Both riverfront urban renewal districts are on former riverbanks and mud flats. The River District encroaches on former Guild's Lake and Tanner Creek flood plains.

Development on earthquake- and flood-prone fill materials creates a risk to public health and safety. The 1989 San Francisco earthquake was a lesson in the tragic consequences of constructing urban housing on mud flats.

Portland's City Council would be irresponsible in pledging our tax dollars to guarantee revenue bonds and other subsidies to urbanize the Willamette River flood plain. Banks and lending institutions shouldn't be investing in these areas, either Ñ they're taking advantage of the City Council's shortsightedness.

Liz Callison is a director at large for the West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. She ran for a seat on the Portland City Council in 2002.