Brownfields are a drag on greater Portland's economy and an eyesore for communities. Worse, they're potential threats to human and ecological health.
But they don't have to stay that way. Brownfields can be cleaned up and redeveloped for new industries, businesses, housing and open space that creates jobs and improves property values and quality of life.
Every brownfield is different, so each follows its own path to renewal. We took a look at five Portland-area brownfields to see what it took to give them a new chance at a better future.
On, Columbia: Troutdale Reynolds Industrial Park
When Woody Guthrie sang of the Columbia River's might in the 1940s, one thing he had in mind was a booming aluminum manufacturing industry on its banks, boosted by federally-subsidized hydropower from the river's new dams.
One of the most significant aluminum factories on the mighty Columbia was in the then-tiny town of Troutdale. The plant was built by the federal government in 1941 and operated for five decades by Reynolds Metals. The towns of Troutdale and Wood Village grew around it. It had as many as 800 employees at its peak.
But while it boosted the area's economic fortunes, the factory also left an unwelcome legacy when it closed in 2002: Many acres of polluted soils and contaminated wells, groundwater and surface water. Much of the contamination came from metals used in aluminum production, including arsenic, cyanide, fluoride and hydrocarbons. It became one of the region's largest Superfund sites, requiring considerable investment to clean up and contain the pollution.
The site's location remained prime for industry: 700 acres – more than 500 football fields – close to Interstates 84 and 205, two airports, two railroads and room for thousands of workers.
Seeing a lack of large, open sites like that around the region, economic development leaders sought to preserve its potential. But a private buyer would struggle to make industrial land's relatively low per-acre value pencil after a costly clean-up.
That's why the Port of Portland stepped in, said Keith Leavitt, the port's chief commercial officer, who worked on the purchase of the area from Alcoa for $17.3 million in 2007.
"This site is unique in our region," Leavitt said. "We talk a lot about brownfield redevelopment and how important it is. But this was really the first time anyone has taken on such a large industrial brownfield redevelopment...You're just not going to find a large future business park in our region of that size and scale."
Having a public buyer turns out to be essential to the area's ability to create industrial jobs, Leavitt said. Cleaning up brownfields for high-value-per-acre uses like high-density residential development can often pay for itself. But though industrial jobs are important, industrial area land values often can't cover the costs of cleanup and redevelopment from previous industrial uses.
Because a public owner doesn't need to turn a profit on a brownfield, however, it can prepare land for new jobs but keep it affordable to companies that want to lease there, while also reserving some areas for public access and restored natural areas.
That's the approach the port has taken with what's now called the Troutdale Reynolds Industrial Park, or TRIP, the second-largest industrial park in the Portland metropolitan region.
Getting the property ready for redevelopment demonstrates both the considerable costs and the value of partnerships to address them.
Alcoa spent $57 million on cleanup before the port purchased the property, removing tens of thousands of tons of polluted industrial material, soil and sediments from an artificial lake, and setting up procedures for monitoring groundwater quality.
The port estimates that it will spend a total of $80 million on the site. The Oregon Department of Transportation completed a $27 million access improvement project from Interstate 84, with Troutdale chipping in $1.2 million in local funds. Metro contributed $15 million in federal transportation funds to help upgrade roads and intersections and complete new trail connections.
Leavitt also praised a Governor-appointed Regional Solutions Team for the industrial area's success. The team helps coordinate the work of federal, state and local agencies, as well as Metro, to advance regulatory approvals, environmental remediation, transportation investments and other activities.
"It's really a forum to bring those agencies to the table to focus on the successful development of this site," Leavitt said. "Getting that cooperation is a key to the success."
The property's first phase – with three lots and 131 developable acres – opened in 2010. To date, the primary tenant is FedEx Ground, which opened a $130 million property handling hub there in 2011.
FedEx Ground now employs more than 800 people in Troutdale, making it the city's largest employer.
Even after the holiday rush, the hub is a whirring hive of activity. At 450,000 square feet, its floor is about five times the size of the Portland Timbers home field at Providence Park. More than 30,000 parcels can pass through every hour – online orders, birthday gifts, even tires. Workers unload trucks at dozens of docks, placing parcels onto a maze of automated belts passing them quickly through scanners that then direct them to the correct dock for loading onto a new truck bound for local routes or destinations across Oregon, Washington, Alaska and northern Idaho. In a high-tech, staff monitor which trucks and belts are filling up and quickly isolate any problems.
Hub senior manager Shane Spannaus said the location offered many benefits to FedEx Ground, with its access to freeways and other transportation facilities. But he also emphasized that locating on a former brownfield is a good fit for the company's mission.
"It takes something that was unusable land and makes it something that's really a major part of the community," Spannaus said. "It also aligns with our sustainability goals as a company."
Spannaus also praised the Port of Portland and other agencies for cooperation.
"We are very proud of what we've been able to do here on the site," he said.
Port officials are seeking to create an industrial area that balances jobs with recreation and wildlife. The port is reserving over half the property as open space, recreating wetlands and connecting new trail links. Funds from Metro will help fill a gap in the 40-Mile Loop Trail, connecting to Blue Lake Regional Park to the west and the Sandy River to the east via the Columbia River Levee.
Officials around the country have noted the success of the Troutdale project. In 2011, it was awarded the Phoenix Award, the nation's highest honor for brownfield redevelopment.
Construction on a second phase of the industrial park is now underway; it will add 180 acres and nine more lots, with several ready this spring. Leavitt said that other employers are interested in space, but couldn't divulge details of real estate negotiations.
Update: On Feb. 8, 2017, Port of Portland commissioners approved the sale of about 74 acres in the industrial area for development of an 850,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center just south of the FedEx Ground hub. The facility is expected to open in 2018, according to The Oregonian.
Learn more about the TRIP cleanup
A bigger, better Eichler Park
The highly-visible corner of Farmington Road and Menlo Drive, just west of downtown Beaverton, had sat vacant since the 1990s, fenced-off and empty save for weeds and tall grasses.
The sight was all the more sorry for what sat next to it: Popular Eichler Park, managed by the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, with a basketball court, playground, community garden and a BMX track.
But now the fences are gone. The vacant lot – once home to a Texaco gas station – is now part of Eichler Park, providing more open space for a highly diverse central Beaverton neighborhood that can use every square foot of parkland it can get.
Adding to the park wasn't as simple as tearing down the fence. Gas stations often have polluted soils from leaking tanks and spills.
Using funds from a 2006 regional parks and nature bond, Metro staff helped THPRD with negotiation and due diligence for purchasing the site.
But first they had to figure out what was there. Money from an EPA grant helped with digging test holes, testing soils and more.
After the assessment, Metro the parks district bought the property in 2011, then removed all the contaminated soil and groundwater. They also monitored a nearby stream for months to make sure the pollution didn't affect it any more. They got final certification of the cleanups success from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in November 2013.
Three years later, the grassy, flat area hosts a variety of informal activities, such as pick-up soccer games or picnics, said parks planner René Brucker.
The parks district is gearing up to formalize its integration with the rest of the park. Early possibilities included a skate park or off-leash dog area. But planners want to spend more time working with the diverse neighborhood to understand its interests for the site, Brucker said, while also seeking funding to redevelop the area.
"This piece of property has been exciting because we've been able to look at what the neighborhood needs," Brucker said. "We still have quite a few options available to us."
For now, the site is more welcome open space for the neighborhood.
On a chilly but sunny afternoon in December, Maria Oropeza watched her three grandsons ride their bikes all over the park. Oropeza, who's lived in the area for a decade, said they often go there to play, have picnics and generally let off steam.
"It's a good park," she said in Spanish. "We like it."
And with new life for a once-polluted neighbor, it's about to get better.
Learn more about this property's cleanup
A place for peace: Siskiyou Square
Places of peace and opportunity can hide even in the most unlikely places. Dharma Rain Zen Center found such a place off of 82nd Avenue in Northeast Portland, behind a parade of fast food restaurants, gas stations and strip malls.
"It's an astonishingly pastoral place," said Kakumyo Lowe-Charde, a monk with the center who helped lead its efforts to purchase, plan and redevelop the site.
After decades in an increasingly crowded neighborhood near inner Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, the Buddhist community decided in 2011 to seek more space for spiritual as well as community activities. But they also wanted to stay in Portland, where many of their members live.
After seeing a lot of abandoned warehouses – "everything we saw was incredibly concrete and gray," Lowe-Charde said – they happened upon the 26-acre site in the South Madison neighborhood.
When state highway authorities were looking for a place to dump debris from the construction of Interstate 205 and other freeways in the 1960s, they found what seemed like an appropriate place in a former quarry off 82nd Avenue. So they bought it, eventually dumping thousands of truckloads of demolished buildings, trees, rocks and anything else in builders' way before closing the landfill in 1983.
And there it sat for more than 30 years, largely choked with blackberries, mostly visited by people "who don't want to be seen," Lowe-Charde said. Fenced off in an urban neighborhood, it became a curious open space, albeit one marred by illegal dumping, drug use, polluted runoff and methane gas intrusion concerns.
But where others saw pollution and decay, Dharma Rain saw possibility. They purchased the eastern 14 acres of the site to create a new campus they've named Siskiyou Square.
It was a longer journey than anticipated, Lowe-Charde said – and they had no illusions about it being easy in the first place. A lot of partners came to the table since they started work more than five years ago.
The cleanup and redevelopment has cost $5.5 million so far, Lowe-Charde said. Dharma Rain went all-in: It sold its inner Southeast building and applied all its savings, took on private loans, brought in funding by leasing a portion of the site, completed a crowdfunding and capital campaign and obtained more than $700,000 in grants.
The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services' brownfield program provided funds for initial assessments and to complete cleanup plans – mostly, containing the polluted areas and allowing them to decay in place, buried under many feet of clean soil. To encourage the property to be an asset to nearby neighborhoods, Metro chipped in $90,000 from its Nature in Neighborhoods program to create a trail connection from Rocky Butte to 82nd Avenue, and another $25,000 for nature education programming.
Then there was the power of community – both to imagine the site's future and to create it with their own hands. Dharma Rain held focus groups with nearby residents to see what they hoped the site could do. Portland State University students also contributed research.
"In fact, what they cared about was the same sort of things that we would want to have, so it was a good fit," Lowe-Charde said.
Now, tens of thousands of volunteer hours have now planted thousands of oaks, fruit trees and shrubs and raised a beautiful temple building graced with natural light and a calm air, plus a communal kitchen. Nearby, a barn/workshop is nearly complete and community gardens are ready for planting by members of the spiritual community and the nearby neighborhood.
It's the first step of a 20-year plan. The next phase will create monastic housing in a refurbished duplex that will be trucked in. A co-housing group has also leased two acres for a 31-unit apartment building. A preschool shares a temporary building with the community's offices right now; a future phase will build a permanent school building.
But much of what the remediation has made possible is about access to the site, not just what happens on it. Trails cross through and follow a ravine surrounding it, linking 82nd Avenue and Madison High School to homes and Rocky Butte to the east.
The property is popular with runners and wildlife – on a recent day bald eagles swooped above the temple and Lowe-Charde showed visitors owl pellets as light snow began falling. Native grasses and oak saplings are taking root where blackberries once choked almost every other living thing; more than 6,000 trees and shrubs have been planted. Classes from Madison High, Portland Community College, Portland State University and two elementary schools use the site to study science, ecology and urban agriculture.
The Dharma Rain community never thought it would be easy, and it wasn't, Lowe-Charde said. But now it's paying off.
"That's a lot to ask a group of us to pull through. The visceralness was something I was not expecting," he said. "The actual work of it is unabridged delight. It's so fantastic to watch the land respond in the way it has and to see species showing up that haven't existed here in recent memory.
"When you first stepped on the site you couldn't step more than 10 paces without a machete," he added. "Now you look around and mostly see what you want to see: the shrubs and native grasses. It's gorgeous."
Learn more about Siskiyou Square's cleanup
More to the cup: Ava Roasteria
Downtown Beaverton is a busy place. But despite a library, park, popular farmers market and plenty of foot and vehicle traffic, the part of town south of Farmington Road once lacked what many would consider one of the basic pieces of a complete Oregon neighborhood: An independent coffee shop where people could gather any time to study, meet friends or coworkers or simply get away from it all over a latte or pastry.
What the area did have, at the corner of Hall Boulevard and Second Street, was an abandoned gas station and auto body shop.
Amy Saberiyan, a 15-year resident of Beaverton, passed that site daily on the way to her job as an environmental consultant, a job in which she helped manage big cleanups on other polluted sites. She thought about what it might take to clean up the eyesore and make it more of an asset for the community.
Finally she had enough.
She reached out to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to see how bad the situation was and what would need to be done to make something new of the site. The challenges were serious. The site was an "orphan," meaning its owners had essentially abandoned it, after some inadequate cleanup work. Leaking petroleum tanks had left plumes of contaminated soil, some of which had affected neighboring properties. But with the source still in place there was a path to cleaning it up.
Saberiyan purchased the site in 2005 and began cleanup, with a $120,000 seed loan from Business Oregon's brownfields fund, which was created by the Oregon Legislature. Contractors trucked away the leaky tanks and contaminated soil; all told, cleanup cost about $300,000.
Meanwhile, she worked with city leaders, community members and a business consultant to hear what they wanted to see downtown. She heard a clear desire for a business that could also serve as a community gathering and event space, particularly for people going to the nearby Beaverton Library and farmers market. As a mother of a then-teenage son, Saberiyan realized that young people in particular need safe places to gather with friends at all hours.
Thus did the environmental consultant become coffee shop owner. She hired expert staff to get the shop off the ground even as the cleanup continued. Ava Roasteria opened in mid-2006 and quickly became a local favorite with 24/7 service. At the same time, Saberiyan continued monitoring remediation for three years, finally getting certification from DEQ in 2009.
Cleanup was expensive and complex, but Saberiyan said one of the biggest challenges was finding private lenders to provide capital to start her business on the site.
"Conventional bankers don't give loans for contaminated properties," Saberiyan said, because they often worry about liability for future potential owners. She worked with DEQ to convince a bank to fund the project, but it took a lot of work – and, she thinks, remains a barrier for other potential brownfield redevelopment. Altogether, she borrowed about $600,000 to revitalize the site, of a total cost of $1.2 million. Her passion for making it easier for future small businesspeople to do similar projects led her to complete a doctoral dissertation on the topic last year.
"My hope is that one day, with this project being successful, the financial community will be able to finance this kind of project," Saberiyan said. "It's not just cleaning up the property, but revitalizing it to the value it had.
"All of these properties have the potential to be thriving small businesses, as they were before," Saberiyan said. "They created jobs for the communities, they had a customer base, but because of the environmental liability they lost all that potential. Creating a standard, or a package that would help potential property owners or developers in the steps they have to take to bring these places back to what they were before. If there is a risk, there is an opportunity."
Despite a lot of work, Saberiyan feels the risk has paid off for Ava Roasteria in Beaverton. About 700 customers come daily and into the night to study, hang out or have meetings. Evenings often include events or live music. Ava has since expanded to five shops and a bakery, with 70 total employees.
Saberiyan said she has been approached by other communities with similar brownfields and is hoping to complete similar projects in the future to continue to show the potential of the concept.
Beyond serving coffee and food, it's a passion to prove what's possible that keeps her going.
"It has been so rewarding in so many ways, that I would love to do this in more communities," she said.
Learn more about Ava Roasteria's property cleanup
Homes from the ground up: Esperanza Court
Longtime Portland residents will remember the corner of Southeast 28th Avenue and Powell Boulevard as a thrift-shop destination, a large St. Vincent de Paul store. Behind the store, the nonprofit had a food bank and warehouses where it sorted through donated goods.
More than a decade ago, St. Vincent de Paul closed the Powell store. This created an opportunity for another nonprofit with a social-service mission and a desire to consolidate operations: Catholic Charities.
Catholic Charities, whose mission includes a variety of housing, legal services, job training and other services for low-income families, immigrants and refugees and others in need of help, sought to consolidate scattered regional offices under a single roof in a highly accessible location. It also saw an opportunity to build more homes for people left out of a housing market that was then booming almost quickly as it is now.
The agency first completed Kateri Park across 28th Avenue from the St. Vincent de Paul site. The 50-unit apartment building houses families and refugees from around the world.
The agency also built a four story office building and rehabbed an 1890s Victorian house on Powell to create 12 permanently affordable housing units.
But the largest building, with 70 1- and 2-bedroom housing units, would be called Esperanza Court. The building would be funded with a variety of state and federal grants and tax credit programs.
But when crews demolished the old warehouses and began digging Esperanza Court's foundation, they found something unexpected: piles of old trash.
Further investigation revealed that the area had been an informal landfill from the 1940s, or even earlier. People had dumped all sorts of things in to what had then been a ravine behind homes.
"No one knew it was there, and then we knew it was there," said Terri Silvis, who then led Catholic Charities' housing development work.
The agency worked with the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services' brownfields program to investigate the site further. The news was mixed.
The site had some significant methane concentrations and the soil was contaminated with arsenic and some copper and lead. There was also some gasoline contamination from old underground tanks. The contamination wasn't severe enough to prevent industrial or commercial uses, but additional remediation would be required before a sensitive use like homes could be put there.
Some agencies might change their plans, but Catholic Charities pressed on – with an eye to the mission of providing housing for people who need it.
"The best option was to rethink: Who knows how to help us, what do we need to do and how do we get there?" Silvis said.
The agency completed a purchasing agreement with state regulators outlining the steps it would take, obtained additional assessment funds from the city brownfields program, and worked with engineers to remove more than 500 tons of soil – the weight of about 83 Asian elephants – then cap the rest to prevent methane from leaking out. Building construction included special techniques to block vapors from getting inside.
The agency also installed monitoring equipment installed to make sure methane levels stayed at safe levels before and after people moved in to the new apartments.
In November 2008, after getting approval from DEQ, Catholic Charities opened Esperanza Court to 70 families.
Silvis remembers the moment well.
"I remember thinking what a good team of people we had because it really took everybody," she said. "My job was to keep everyone working together and the pieces moving so we could get to the end."
Trell Anderson, Catholic Charities' current housing director, noted that some of the challenges Esperanza Court faced are likely to reemerge in future infill housing projects, but they are important to overcome.
"In particular where you have infill projects in already-developed neighborhodos, funders and investors understand that remediation of some kind is often going to have to occur," Anderson said.
"It's really important to move through that, though, because otherwise you miss very important opportunities for affordable housing in strategic locations," he added, noting how close Esperanza Court is to several public schools, parks, frequent transit and job opportunities. "The general location of this provided so much access that it was really important to overcome whatever environmental (issue) there is."
On a recent Thursday, toys and kids' bicycles on the balconies of the colorful six-story Esperanza Court reflected the families that live there. A troupe of middle school age boys played outside in late-December twilight. They were clearly at home.
Learn more about Esperanza Court's cleanup
Cleaning up the McLoughlin corridor
Metro, Clackamas County and Oregon City are partnering on a three-year grant to identify and assess brownfield sites in the McLoughlin Boulevard corridor between Milwaukie and Willamette Falls. Learn more about this project