The nonprofit organization developing the first affordable housing project for North and Northeast Portland residents displaced by gentrification wants everyone to know the once-polluted site will be completely cleaned up before anyone moves in.
"We heard from the community about the pollution before we bid on the project. There's so much distrust about government that some people say that's the only reason we got it, but that's not the case," says Maxine Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Portland Community Reinvestment Initiative.
The Portland Housing Bureau selected PCRI to build the project on land it owns on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Cook and Ivy streets. The Beatrice Morrow Building will have 80 units affordable to those earning from 30 to 60 percent of the region's median family income.
The property is well-known in the community as the site of the former Grant Warehouse, which was discovered to be contaminated with a wide range of hazardous wastes in the late 1990s. Residents still remember being warned to avoid the property, even though it was cleaned up in a process that involved the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. That history is documented on a page on PCRI's website on the project titled "The Beatrice Morrow: Environmental Safety."
According to PCRI housing development director Travis Phillips, the development team retained GeoDesign, an independent environmental consultant, to test the property for any lingering pollution and work with DEQ on a plan for additional cleanup, if needed.
Additional cleanups ordered
Phillips said soil and other tests conducted by the company determined that the initial cleanup was very thorough, but that two areas require additional work. Lead was detected in the soil in one area that will be removed and disposed of at a licensed facility. Soil in another location was polluted with dry-cleaning chemicals that will require the installation of a vapor barrier and venting system.
Phillips says the development team will obtain a new certificate from DEQ declaring the building to be fit for occupancy before anyone moves in.
"It is important for everyone to know that we take the health of the residents who will be living there very seriously," Phillips says.
It is not unusual for developers to encounter pollution when redeveloping properties in urban and even rural areas. For example, much work was required to mitigate the pollution in the South Waterfront area that built up over many years when it was part of the working harbor. Developers of the 4th Main Apartments in downtown Hillsboro discovered and had to remove several underground fuel storage tanks left behind by a former gas station at the location.
Both Portland and the state of Oregon have brownfield programs to help pay for the full range of environmental activities — from assessments to cleanup — to help valuable but polluted properties be reused.
Toxic uses in past
However, contamination at the Grant Warehouse was more extreme than many if not most other brownfields. Many businesses that generated pollution had been located there over the years, including a dry cleaner and metallurgical laboratory. Responding to a dispute at the address in October 1998, police were shocked to find large quantities of chemical waste in the main building, stored in containers ranging from vials to 55-gallon drums stacked four high. The wastes included corrosives, oxidizers, poisons, flammables and even potentially explosive compounds.
The EPA served a search warrant on the property the next month. After collecting and analyzing the chemical waste, the EPA removed and disposed of it at a cost of $1.2 million. After several years of negotiations, the owner sold the property to the Portland Development Commission in January 2004. The PDC then obtained a $200,000 cleanup grant from the EPA that was matched with a $125,000 grant from the Portland Brownfield Program for additional cleanup, including the demolition of the buildings at the site. When the work was done, DEQ issued a No Further Work Required letter, meaning the property met its standards for commercial purposes.
That was noted in the Request for Qualifications the Portland Housing Bureau issued in April 2015 to find a developer for the property. In August 2015, the bureau announced that an affordable housing project would be built on the property by a team that includes PCRI, Gerding Edlen, Colas Construction and Carleton Hart Architecture.
Phillips says his organization was well aware that DEQ has a higher cleanup standard for residential properties when it responded to the request.
"Upon verification that we've done what we have said we will do and that systems are working properly to ensure health and safety of the residents, DEQ will issue a Certificate of Completion," Phillips says.
Ground was broken on the project April 7. It will have four studios, 32 one-bedroom units, 32 two-bedroom units and 12 three-bedroom units. It is the first one to be built as part of the city's North/Northeast Neighborhood Housing Strategy, which has a preference policy for former neighborhood residents displaced by gentrification who want to move back.
The cost is $26.7 million, with the Housing Bureau donating the land, which is valued at $3.6 million. Project partners include Oregon Housing and Community Services, U.S. Bank, Bellwether Enterprise Real Estate Capital, Home Forward, and the Meyer Memorial Trust. Construction is expected to be completed next year.