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Building boom, baby boom collide in the Pearl

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chapman School kindergarteners Emaline Porter, (left) Tess Groom (in pink), and Caroline Pittman play soccer in The Fields Park, across from a construction zone.Barring any sudden change of heart, Hoyt Street Properties will begin pile-driving a block away from a new kindergarten in the Pearl District next Tuesday.

Hoyt Street, the major developer of the Pearl District, is using the noisy equipment to build a new 21-story tower on the block bounded by Northwest Quimby and Pettigrove streets between 11th and 12th avenues. That’s causing conflict with Portland Public Schools, which just relocated a kindergarten two blocks away at The Ramona apartments.

Though several developers in the district have bowed to pressure to use less-noisy construction methods, Hoyt Street President Tiffany Sweitzer says her experts are telling her that’s just not possible on this site. The soil conditions on Block 20 — a former rail yard next to the Willamette River — require an impact pile driver to bore holes in the earth strong enough to hold up a 21-story building, she says.

“Our soil conditions are different than anyone else, practically, in the city,” Sweitzer says.

This won’t be the last project to resonate off the ear drums in the neighborhood.

Sweitzer says that in her meetings with Portland Public Schools officials, she has made it clear that this is not an isolated event. There are five city blocks near The Ramona and The Fields Park that are still on the path to development during the next five to seven years.

“I’m not sure what they were thinking was going to happen on those lots. It’s a construction site,” Sweitzer says. “We may have a two-month issue here, but there’s a bigger issue if you want to keep kids down here.”



Education and construction ‘fundamentally incompatible

Parents are arguing vehemently that the sounds and impact of a nearby pile-driver are more than just a nuisance or a distraction.

Research from the Federal Highway Administration puts pile-driving at 101 decibels from 50 feet away as about equivalent to a rock concert. Damage to hearing begins above 85 decibels, according to The National Institutes of Health.

The new location of the Chapman School kindergarten — in the bottom of The Ramona — is about a couple hundred feet away from the new tower, but across the street from another lot slated for development. The kindergarten has four sections, totaling about 100 5- and 6-year-olds.

It is unclear what the exact effects of repetitive loud noises on child development could be, but the Environmental Protection Agency lists noise pollution as the source of some stress-related illnesses, speech inference and loss of productivity.

“It’s a problem,” says Courtney Wilton, Portland Public Schools interim executive director of facilities operations. “The city has approved two fundamentally incompatible uses in close proximity to each other ... They shouldn’t have done it. It shouldn’t have happened.”

There are few options for recourse. The pile-driving is perfectly legal, only subject to a notice requirement, which Hoyt Street provided to local residents Sept. 2.

“They’re in the driver’s seat,” Wilton says.

Paul van Orden, the city’s noise control officer, was not available for comment before press time. But Wilton says he has met with him and van Orden believes this project’s noise will not be harmful to children’s hearing as long as they stay indoors.

“In that setting, I think that’s probably true — we need to gather more evidence — but it’s still this consistent noise that’s distracting and obviously not suitable for education. It’s just not. It’s awful,” Wilton says.

Molly Porter, a Chapman kindergarten parent, says she is infuriated that no government agency has stepped up to fix the problem. A community meeting on the issue Sept. 21 reportedly drew 70 concerned neighbors and parents.

“It seems our only option right now is the court of public opinion,” Porter says.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Chapman School kindergarteners - moved this year to The Ramona apartments on Northwest 13th Avenue and Quimby Street - walk by multiple construction zones on their way to The Fields Park for recess.

Its not reasonable’

Chapman School kindergarteners just can’t seem to catch a break.

Overcrowding at the school — largely due to the construction boom — caused Portland Public Schools officials to decide last spring to move the four sections of kindergarten out of the K-5 school. Kindergarten is now in facilities built to be a preschool in the bottom of the low-income Ramona housing complex at Northwest 13th Avenue and Quimby Street. Even if the kindergarten hadn’t moved there, there would still be many young children at that location, not to mention the families who live in The Ramona and surrounding buildings.

Chapman parents have complained at school board meetings that, among other things, the courtyard playground is too small to offer reasonable chances for the young children to run and stretch. So, the kindergarteners walk about a block to The Fields Park for recess.

Come October, they would be walking by the massive new Hoyt Street construction project. Hoyt Street’s notice says they anticipate pile-driving from Oct. 4 to Jan. 27, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., except holidays. Sweitzer says she expects it will be more like 60 days in all, but she wanted to give her crew a contingency for holidays and the unexpected.

Wilton says they are discussing mitigation efforts, such as stopping the hammer blows during recess, but there are no firm commitments yet.

Sweitzer says Hoyt Street has offered two alternate locations for the kindergarten, but that would involve moving the students again.

“The better approach would be to mitigate the noise,” Wilton says.

Porter says she doesn’t have many options. “It’s a public school. I have to send my child there.”

But because kindergarten is not mandatory, she might decide to keep her child home.

“All day long and that loud, I cannot send my child to school there,” Porter says. “It’s not reasonable.”

Alternative available

Mary Sipe, who organized against Pearl District pile-driving beginning in 2014, says she believes Hoyt Street could use a quieter alternative but doesn’t want to spend the money.

“It’s almost out of spite, you know?” Sipe says, claiming that the cost to Hoyt Street to auger drill the foundation of the nearby Cosmopolitan building was $500,000. The Regional Multiple Listing Service lists two open units in that 150-unit building, each selling for more than $1.5 million.

Swietzer declined to state how much the Block 20 project costs, stating simply: “Too much.”

Patrice Hanson, who organized the neighborhood opposition with Sipe but now lives in California, says Hoyt Street and DeWitt Construction did a lot of the lobbying against changing the regulations to favor quieter methods.

Regulators at the city recently tightened up the hours of the day that pile-driving could occur but stopped short of requiring quieter foundation-building methods. Hanson says most Pearl District construction companies eventually ran out of reasons not to switch and bowed to neighborhood pressure.

“I think it was really interesting how so many developers did just switch,” she says. “My take on (Hoyt Street’s decision) is, it’s a power play.”

Sweitzer says the auger method has its own impacts on the neighborhood, such as dirt storage, covering and removal.

“You’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she says, adding: “I care about the neighborhood I created. This isn’t something I take lightly. ...What is the alternate? Just to leave it vacant land?”

Sweitzer says cost is a consideration, but mostly it’s that her engineers and geotechnical experts tell her this is the best method.

“This is different soil conditions than the guy next door,” she says.

Sipe and Hanson were neighbors in The Sitka, an income-restricted building just south of the project. Sipe says it is mostly filled with low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and young families.

“We probably have more children living in the proximity to this than the whole rest of the Pearl District,” Sipe says.

Sipe planned a surprise protest in front of Hoyt Street Properties for this week and Porter says she will keep organizing, too.

“It feels like if we make enough noise, we could win this battle,” Porter says.


Shasta Kearns Moore
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