In theory, the resolution the Metro Council will be taking up Thursday is relatively minor, a check-off on the review of the Columbia River Crossing project and its impacts on neighborhoods around Interstate 5.
In reality, every vote on the $3.6 billion project is critical – a no vote, at any benchmark, by any of the agencies that are part of the project put the Crossing in jeopardy.
That’s why a big turnout is expected at the 2 p.m. meeting at the Metro Regional Center. The council’s resolution is only three lines long – it says a laundry list of concerns have been addressed satisfactorily, but “further refinements will be made and will include effective engagement with the Metro Council.”
One of the groups planning to speak at Thursday’s meeting is OPAL, whose director, Jonathan Ostar, is working with west Hayden Island residents to ensure that the project, if built, has minimal impacts to that community.
Ostar said Hayden Island residents, particularly those in a manufactured home community on the west side of the island, were initially left out of the conversation about the design of the project – and mitigation of its impacts.
“The decisions being made were placing a disproportionate level of burden on a vulnerable, low-income community,” he said.
Metro, particularly under former Council President David Bragdon, was responsive to community concerns about environmental justice and impact mitigation.
“I’d like to know there’s the same consistency from David Bragdon’s tenure of being responsive to community needs and committed to equity,” Ostar said. “Here’s a practical example where equity means something. It means environmental justice, and it’s a very clear path: conditioning approval of the locally preferred alternative on a successful resolution of these environmental justice concerns for the Hayden Island community.”
What are the concerns?
For starters, the construction staging area is slated to be right next to the manufactured home community. With winds coming off the Columbia River from the east, not only would the exhaust from cars blow towards the mobile home park, so would dust and exhaust from construction of the new bridge.
The other major concern Ostar talks about is ensuring a grocery store remains on the island.
“There are many folks from this community that don’t leave the island,” he said. “They go to and from the Safeway to get their food and medications.”
Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, whose district includes Hayden Island, said Thursday that it's important to maintain services for island residents during construction. He also said there were more factors than a freeway project at play in whether the Safeway stays on the island; for example, Burkholder said, fewer Washington customers have been shopping at the store.
Additionally, Walmart plans on opening a store just south of the island, at Hayden Meadows, driving up competition.
"The biggest issue is how do they (Hayden Island residents) survive construction?" Burkholder said. Assistance to businesses could be part of the answer. The northern Portland councilor pointed to efforts during the construction of the MAX Yellow Line, where TriMet bused patrons to restaurants and helped businesses advertise during carefully-staged construction periods.
"If it (the Crossing) is built as proposed, it'll be a huge benefit for Hayden Island," adding light rail and more connectivity, both to and across the island, Burkholder said. "It will develop as an exciting place to live. The tough part is construction – maintaining the quality of life there and to not make it difficult for people."
Environmental justice issues, including maintaining that quality of life, are generally covered by federal law, Ostar said. But with the island classified as one community, higher-income housing east of Interstate 5 prevents the west side of the island from receiving federal protection.
While mitigation efforts are easy to fund, enhancement – making up for the impacts the very placement of the freeway had a half-century ago – are more challenging. But they should be part of the equation, Burkholder said.
Ensuring that a re-imagined Hayden Island includes protections for the existing low-income community, so that community improvements don't force out existing residents, could be part of that equation. So could redevelopment of the project's massive staging area into affordable housing, Burkholder said.