Ruling clears way for riverfront link
TribTown • Right to easement granted on land between esplanade, Springwater trails
In the gritty industrial area south of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, a four-block gap separates two of Portland's most popular foot and bike paths.
The Eastbank Esplanade abruptly ends next to the Portland Opera building, tantalizingly close to the start of the Springwater Corridor a few blocks away. To continue journeying south along the riverfront to Sellwood, bicyclists and pedestrians must detour inland via potholed streets filled with construction vehicles and trucks.
'That segment represents a huge gap between two recreational facilities,' said Emily Gardner, policy advocate for Portland's Bicycle Transportation Alliance. 'It's pretty hazardous to navigate this construction area, with gravel and trucks all over the place.'
Now the BTA and other bicycling advocates are cheering a recent Oregon Court of Appeals decision that protects a future waterfront link between the two paths.
On Feb. 13, the appeals court supported Portland's right to demand an easement and greenway path through a parcel that SK Northwest, a Northeast Portland company that rents jet skis and other recreational gear, hopes to develop.
SK Northwest has a purchase agreement for a 1.8-acre lot along the river and south of the Portland Spirit dock and offices, which is itself due south of the opera building. SK Northwest prizes the riverfront parcel to repair and test vehicles in the water.
'We feel that we've reached success on this, and we're very happy,' said Karl Rohde, BTA spokesman.
Firm argues against 'taking'
SK Northwest has been trying to get approval to build an office, warehouse and parking lot since 2005 but has fiercely opposed city demands to set aside land for the path and pay for its construction.
SK Northwest argued to the city hearings officer, the Land Use Board of Appeals and the Oregon Court of Appeals that the city's demand amounts to an unconstitutional 'taking' of the company's land without compensation.
Now the company has lost that argument but may have won a related dispute about where development is allowed at the site. The appeals court sent the case back for more analysis of where to designate a 25-foot-wide setback, land protected from development next to the riverbank.
A city hearings officer must reconsider where the top of the riverbank is, which will determine how much of the land SK Northwest can build upon.
'There's not very much land there to develop,' so every foot of required setback is crucial, said Daniel Yates, co-owner of American Waterways Inc. That company owns the Portland Spirit and other vessels, and Yates also co-owns the land to the south sought by SK Northwest.
Thousands use the trails
SK Northwest owner Shawn Karambelas said he's disappointed in the Oregon Court of Appeals decision but thinks he'll prevail on the setback dispute, meaning he'll get more land available to build on.
'The project's still alive,' he said. 'We're still in negotiations with the city.'
Earlier talk of appealing the Oregon Court of Appeals decision to the Oregon Supreme Court has been scrapped, according to his attorney, Richard Allan.
Karambelas said there are no plans to use the facility for jet-ski rentals. He knows that would be opposed by kayakers and others, and it requires a conditional-use permit. 'We do not want to stir the bees' nest,' Karambelas said.
The two trails are used by several thousand people a day, and traffic is increasing each year, Gardner said. On a typical day when bicyclists were counted, 2,500 bicyclists were using the Springwater Corridor near Oaks Bottom, and 4,165 road the Eastbank Esplanade near Madison Street, Gardner said, citing figures collected by the Portland Office of Transportation.
There also are pedestrians, in-line skaters, parents pushing strollers and others on both trails.
Though the city has protected the future link between the two trails, actual construction could be years away from completion.
Project calls for patience
The SK Northwest site is one of four parcels separating the two trails. Portland City Storage plans to build a boat-storage facility at one of the other parcels, and has agreed to meet city demands to pay for the greenway trail through its lot.
But the two other parcels already are developed. Portland Spirit's office building sits right on the proposed trail connector, Yates said, and Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co. operates a bustling facility next to the western end of the Springwater Corridor.
The city's partial victory in the SK Northwest dispute won't get the connector built, Yates said, noting, 'I don't see really what this gets them, until you get rid of Ross Island and their 500 jobs, and the Portland Spirit and our 250 jobs.'
The BTA's Rohde likened it to one of the final links in the Springwater Corridor project: three bridges over the railroad tracks and Oregon Highway 99E. That took years to complete and a substantial sum of money, but it 'made a huge difference,' Rohde said.
'It's kind of one step at a time assembling all these pieces,' he said. The city lacks the appetite to condemn property, he said, so 'you have to do what you can when you can.'