Make way for the Orange Line and a Milwaukian Renaissance


Milwaukie is undergoing major changes: a new light rail line, a new 8.5-acre waterfront park, a new two-mile neighborhood greenway, two new bike trails, and increasing public and private investment in its downtown. Now, the former riverboat town and then sleepy suburb of 20,000-odd people – only six miles from downtown Portland but qualitatively much farther – appears poised to make a major entrance into metro-area society.

“I believe the opening of the Orange Line will be the beginning of a renaissance for Milwaukie’s downtown,” Wilda Parks, who served as Interim Mayor of Milwaukie earlier this year, said.

Although the largest project by far is the new MAX Orange Line, opening September 12, a number of smaller investments have already begun to make significant impacts on the city.

“Many projects have been or will soon be completed that will help shape that next period for Milwaukie,” Interim Mayor Parks said. “The Riverfront Park’s second phase is completed open and many people are enjoying it daily.”

The park was recently renovated with a new boat launch, paths and public restrooms. Phase III of the project will include a playground and open air amphitheater, encouraging residents to make use of the attractive bit of real estate.

In recent years, the demographic has been shifting, and the median age lowering. In part this is due to a new generation of families putting down roots in the area.

“I think that we’re seeing more young families moving into Milwaukie. More young people generally,” Milwaukie City Counselor Lisa Batey said.

The downtown area has been undergoing intense renewal over the past ten years, and is now home to a farmers market, numerous small shops. To them, the line will bring much needed business and will help the city grow more connected to Portland.

 “The Orange Line is expected to bring folks, who normally reside in urbanized areas of Portland and Oak Grove, to the Willamette River to enjoy a variety of recreational activities and festivals that are scheduled to take place in upcoming years,” Mitch Nieman, Assistant to the City Manager of Milwaukie, said.

“Businesses will have an opportunity to market to a new target audience: those who commute to and from Portland and those who are restricted by limited transportation options. Businesses like Zoe Outfitters will increase their market exposure because they will be able to connect urban dwellers to water recreation activities.”

And the new MAX line won’t be the only project to overhaul transportation in Milwaukie, though. Despite bordering Sellwood, with its many bike commuters, and Eastmoreland, home of Reed college, Milwaukie has been sadly lacking in alternative transportation. The Milwaukie Transit Center is already a hub for many lines stretching into Portland and the outer areas of the metropolitan area, but one problem is how to get people to the Transit Center to begin with. The answer is in the bike.

The most direct route from Sellwood to downtown Milwaukie is a straight shot along 17th. It’s a narrow, two-lane road with a steep grade on one side. It’s already a thoroughfare for cars that don’t want to get on McLoughlin, which leaves little room for bikes.

Even the experienced cyclist’s knuckles will turn white during stretches of it. At best, the bike lane is a single white line sprayed about two and a half feet from the runoff. At worst, it’s like something out of the 1985 video game Paperboy, complete with low-hanging branches and bushes jutting out into the lane.

It’s the kind of stretch that, if one came across it for a short distance, they’d apologetically take the entire lane and put up with the honking and glares of motorists. But this stretch is about a mile – about a mile too long to ride safely.

Now, thanks to the Milwaukie city council, there will be a new mixed-use bike path, about twelve feet wide, to the west side of the road. The road will be moved east to make room for it – a feat of engineering considering the steep grade. When it opens, bikers and pedestrians will be able to travel between the two neighborhoods – and to and from the Orange Line – more easily.

Meanwhile, another mixed-use path has already opened to the south. The Trolley Trail, named after the abandoned interurban railroad grade it follows, extends six miles south to Gladstone. When the trail along 17th Avenue is completed, they will combine with the existing Springwater and Eastbank Esplanade trails to form a near-continuous path parallel to the Willamette from the Clackamas River to the Steel Bridge.

Also on the horizon is a plan to turn Monroe Street, which runs side-by-side with the car-heavy Harrison Street in downtown Milwaukie, into a neighborhood greenway for bikes and pedestrians. The stretch of new greenway would run from 21st Avenue across Highway 224 and out to Linwood, the city’s eastern boundary.

The street provides a clear, continuous east-west shot through Milwaukie. It will connect the Orange Line station and existing Transit Center to the eastern residential areas of Milwaukie, allowing residents a safe and easy package to the new MAX line.

A neighborhood greenway, as defined by a document released by the city Planning Department is a “low-traffic, low-speed route that provide safe, quiet routes for motorists, pedestrians, and bicycles” that “reduce cut-through traffic from outside the neighborhood.”

They differ from a designated bike boulevard in that they claim to be shared spaces that are safe for bikes and pedestrians without discouraging cars. Instead greenways aim to reduce cars’ speed through the use of traffic calming measures (mini traffic circles, speed bumps) and traffic diverters to reduce the volume of trips taken down the street. Drivers will naturally avoid the low-speed road with the traffic circles in favor of the alternative. In the case of Monroe St., its parallel-running cousin Harrison / King is more ideally situated and laid out for car traffic.

Eventually, the greenway could be extended further east to OR 213 – better known as 82nd Ave – and connect with the Clackamas Town Center and the Green Line, completing the path that was dreamed about some 40 years ago with the North / South MAX Project.

Sidebar: How Light Rail Came to the Region

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For the hundreds of people who commute between Portland and Milwaukie every day, the new Portland to Milwaukie “Orange” MAX line will mean shorter trips and less congestion on Highway 99E, the main drag that connects the two. 

Despite its closeness to Portland, transit to and from Milwaukie can be hit and miss. With the exception of the 75 line, which comes from south east Portland via Caesar Chavez Blvd and Woodstock, most lines run along McLoughlin Blvd.

When traffic is good, a trip from downtown Portland to the Milwaukie transit center can take as little as 20 minutes. But trying to traverse the stretch during rush hour adds time and uncertainty to the trip – feelings that are unwelcome for weary commuters who are trying to catch another bus at the transit center.

For them, the new line will mean a quicker and more reliable trip in relative comfort, as well as fewer missed buses when they get to the transit center, and a more pleasant commute.

Sidebar: What Milwaukie Was, What Milwaukie Is

Each station is designed to fit with the neighborhood’s unique character. The glass windscreens on the shelters are etched with reeds and other designs found in nature, and each stop is fitted with unique art to represent their identity.

The South Waterfront / Moody stop, just south of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry will feature a “sonic dish” built into the support was of the bridge deck, which will focus sound into a single point, as well as lights moving along the wall that echo the sounds of the river.

The Clinton Station features a giant sculpture made out of reclaimed freight rail, the shape representing the curves of the tracks of the transit system. Those traveling by bike to the station will be able to gaze upon artist Horatio Law’s “Velosaurus” a set of eight panels set into the walls under the 17th Avenue overpass at Powell Blvd, containing bicycle parts arranged to resemble the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.

Clinton Street is a popular bicycle boulevard, and numerous changes were made to make route safer and more direct.

Portland artist Bill Will – who also created a sculpture at the Washington Park Station – created a series of metal boats that appear to float along the line as it passes through Brooklyn, reflecting the origin of the neighborhood and the name.

Milwaukie was not the only town name inspired by the convergence of rivers (see sidebar). The neighborhood was originally called “Brook Land” in reference of the rivers and creeks that used to – and still do – run through the area.  One of them still flows, buried under what is now 17th Ave. The new line will run right over it. Over the years, Brook Land became known as “Brooklyn” – a name it now shares with the rail yard.

Further south, at the Johnson Creek / Tacoma stop, artist Thomas Sayre created two sculptures of giant wheels made from compressed earth, as a tip of the hat to Lot Whitcomb’s historic sawmill that once stood there.

Milwaukie will see its share of new art and beautification, too.

“The city’s new mural program has accepted the first mural, to be painted by local artist Chris Haberman,” Interim Mayor Parks said. “His art, which will depict faces, places and phrases of Milwaukie will be painted on the back of one of the Milwaukie High School buildings, facing the light rail stop at Main Street. The city’s new plaza, Adams Street Connector will be a place to gather.”

Another thing that will be changing in Milwaukie as a result of the project is that it will be quieter. Gone will be the familiar sound of train horns. Numerous safety improvements were made at various points along the route in both Southeast Portland and Milwaukie, allowing the crossings to become designated quiet zones where train operators won’t have to sound their horns as they approach an intersection (except in cases of emergency).

As of completion, the project was under budget in the range of $10-$40 million, leaving money for additional station shelters that were originally scrapped to save money.

When it opens, the line will have 10 stations, 718 Park and Ride spaces, and 445 bike parking spaces. It’s expected to carry 22,765 weekday riders by 2030, eliminating 9,100 vehicle trips and cutting travel time between the South Waterfront and Milwaukie in half.

With Metro forecasting nearly one million new residents in the area by 2030, many planners think connecting the two cities is crucial to the growth of both. They foresee nearly 100,000 new jobs in the area, as well as 40,000 new jobs in downtown Portland. Additionally, it will service the growing population along the South Waterfront.

The exact route has shifted a couple times, but the goal remains the same. The first time around, planners wanted to follow the existing rail lines. That plan was ditched due to safety concerns.

The train will now run from Portland State University, across the Tilikum Crossing. From there it will continue to just south of OMSI, through the Brooklyn Neighborhood, and into Milwaukie along McLoughlin Blvd. Eventually the line may extend to Oregon City along McLoughlin, but for now it will end at Park Avenue, just south of downtown Milwaukie.

Being a city divided by a river, Portland has been known for some years as “Bridgetown.” The bridges were mentioned by Jack Kerouac in “The Dharma Bums,” where he mused about “crossing vast eternity bridges as draws went up behind us to allow crane barges through in the big smoky river city scene.”

There are currently a total of 15 cross-river bridges within the city of Portland (three spanning the Columbia River and 12 crossing the Willamette), with the newest to the family – the Tilikum Crossing – being as a result of the project.

The location of the bridge was chosen as part of the 1994 South/North project. It sits just south of the Marquam Bridge, and is the nation’s largest car-free urban crossing. While cars are banned, the bridge carries the new MAX line, TriMet buses, the Portland Streetcar, as well as public use for bicyclists and pedestrians. Particularly, the 9, 17, and 19 TriMet lines will move from the often-congested Ross Island Bridge to the new crossing.

The Crossing was originally just referred to as the “Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge” or the “Caruthers Bridge” in reference to its name under the 1994 project. The name “Tilikum Crossing” was chosen by TriMet amongst a selection of names submitted by the public. The name itself pays respect to the indigenous Chinook people, including the Clackamas tribe that inhabited what is now Milwaukie, and which the county is now named after.

“Tilikum” is a Chinook word for “people” or “tribe.” Other names considered were the “Abigail Scott Duniway Transit Bridge” in reference to the Oregon suffragist, the “Cascadia Crossing Transit Bridge” and the “Wy’East Transit Bridge” referring to a Native American name for Mount Hood.

The bridge will be temporarily opened on August 9 for the 20th annual Providence Bridge Pedal, but will not officially open until Sept. 12.

* * *

As Milwaukie enters this new phase, Interim Mayor Parks and others are optimistic about the future. They see new businesses and new transportation options as a way to set Milwaukie up to continue being the city they know and love.

“The good news is that Milwaukie won’t lose it’s community feeling. Its neighborhoods will continue to thrive, and the residents and visitors will enjoy the small, hometown feeling that exists today,” Parks said.

“Several restaurants of a wide variety of foods already call Milwaukie home: chocolates, popcorn, coffee shops, wine and brew pubs. And there’s room for more. With more people living in downtown the city will enjoy even a more robust economy, and be a safer environment as people make the center city their home.”

Ben Maras is a Portland area freelance writer who grew up in Milwaukie, Oregon.

Cross-laminated Timber: An innovative building material takes hold in Oregon


In a rapidly urbanizing world fueled by the enormous demand to house and shelter billions of people in the upcoming decades, building materials must be utilized that have a lighter climate impact than today’s commonly used energy-intensive building materials.

Is there an alternative to the energy-intensive concrete jungle that is both sustainable and financially viable? How can our built environment enhance, rather than destroy, the natural environment? Part of the solution lies in a recent innovation that uses one of the world’s oldest building materials, wood, with a modern twist: cross-laminated timber, often abbreviated as CLT. These wood-based structures can create an integration between the urban built environment and the natural world.

Cross-laminated timber is a wood panel consisting of multiple layers of lumber oriented at right angles to one another and then bonded together with glue adhesives to a solid, straight rectangular panel. Structurally, this is a much stronger material than conventional wood structures that consist of smaller components such as two-by-fours tied together by plywood and plaster board. The Portland region has become a national leader in promoting this material, fostering research, production, and innovation in constructing buildings that utilize CLT. The region is such a focal point for CLT research that the 2016 International Mass Timber Conference was held in Portland, and is scheduled to occur again in Portland in 2017. This conference attracts the world’s leading industry professionals in research, production, design and construction of mass timber products. In addition to being a leader in CLT research, the Portland region is one of the first American cities to support the construction of all- wood mid-rise buildings.

Portland’s position as a hub of CLT production, research and design is important because local leaders are increasingly concerned about addressing pent-up demand for building construction while ensuring that these buildings are constructed with materials that have a lighter climate impact than energy-intensive materials such as steel or concrete.

Construction and operation of buildings are responsible for up to 40 percent of global energy use, and at least one third of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is primarily due to fossil fuel consumption in building operations such as heating, cooling, and lighting. Thus, the large carbon footprint of buildings must be reduced for the world to address climate change. Concrete and steel, which are the primary building materials for commercial structures, have a large carbon footprint and use highly energy-intensive foundation materials. Carbon dioxide is the world’s dominant greenhouse gas, and concrete production is responsible for eight percent of CO2 emissions.

Trees foster carbon sequestration by utilizing the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen while storing the carbon. The reduction in carbon emissions occurs when the trees are sustainably harvested to be used as wood products. After a tree has been harvested, 50 percent of the weight of the wood is carbon. The wood stores carbon until it begins to decompose, meaning the more structures built out of wood, the more carbon is stored, which in turn reduces the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Engineered wood is becoming an increasingly viable sustainable alternative to typical steel or concrete structural systems needed to support dense, urban buildings. Imagine a future city where the forest is sustainably reproduced in an urban cityscape of timber skyscrapers; the concrete jungle is replaced with an ecological urbanism consisting of wooden structures woven together with landscaping and green infrastructure.

Numerous local and national grant programs have incentivized the advancement of CLT research and production. Oregon BEST, which funds and supports Oregon cleantech startups, and a newly established collaboration between Oregon State University and the University of Oregon called the Center for Advanced Wood Products Manufacturing and Design are working to support expansion of Oregon’s capacity to manufacture CLT. 

Framework, a twelve-story wood building scheduled to open in Portland’s Pearl District at Northwest Tenth Avenue and Northwest Glisan Street in early 2018, was one of two projects to win a $1.5 million prize at the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition, a contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Softwood Lumber Board, and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council. Framework’s design is intended to showcase the nature of an innovative mass timber structure at both the street level and on the city skyline. The building mass is split around a central vertical core and lifted at the north street corner to create a double height daylight community space that showcases the building structure and brings together the main entrances into the retail, housing, and office spaces.

The project architects, LEVER Architecture, articulates a vision of utilizing CLT as part of a symbiotic cycle between natural resources and the rural industries that rely on these resources. Principal architect Thomas Robinson says, “Oregon produces an incredible amount of wood, and most of it is exported overseas. CLT provides an opportunity to leverage the value produced from rural communities into a sustainable building model in urban areas. This relationship completes and perpetuates a sustainable lifecycle.”

Figure 3: Framework building rendering, Portland OR. Courtesy of LEVER Architecture.

LEVER Architecture also designed the Albina Yard building, which is a 16,000-square-foot office building in North Portland on North Albina Avenue. The building is the first to use American-produced CLT as a building wide structural system. The wood materials create a building that exudes a natural, vibrant aura. “People like to be in wood buildings,” says Robinson. “They have character, and create healthy environments since fewer chemicals such as paint go into these types of buildings.” 

Forest policy advocates based in Portland believe that CLT can provide a sustainable building material while reinvigorating rural forest production. Timm Locke of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute has long advocated for the sustainable environmental impacts of wood construction. He says that the net carbon emissions associated with producing a ton of softwood lumber is 33 kg carbon per metric ton. For comparison, a ton of recycled steel results in 220 kg carbon per metric ton and poured concrete is 265 kg carbon per metric ton. “Because of this huge discrepancy in embodied energy, the carbon savings from simply using wood instead of concrete as your primary building material can offset decades of emissions associated with the building’s operation,” says Locke.  

In addition to the carbon-sink function that wood buildings provide, the material can have a positive impact on proper utilization of forest resources. Modern, scientific forestry is sustainable and subject to regulatory rigor. Harvested trees in the Pacific Northwest are required to be replanted, which increases the vitality of the forest. 

Figure 4: Albina Yard, Portland OR. Courtesy of LEVER Architecture

CLT will play an important role in sustainable forest management because it can be manufactured using limitedvalue trees with diameters as small as four inches, including many dead trees. National forests on either side of the Cascades are filled with thin thickets of Western hemlock, Douglas fir and other trees that are conducive to wildfires and pest outbreaks. Harvesting thin trees is not normally economically feasible because they have so little value, and federal and state forest managers don’t have the budget to clear them. These lower-grade trees can be incorporated into CLT panels giving economic viability to at-risk forest materials. The composite nature of CLT panels provides an important outlet for these diseased or damaged lower-quality trees that otherwise present substantial forest fire risks.

D.R. Johnson Wood Innovations located in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first manufacturer in the United States to receive certification from the American Plywood Association (APA) to produce cross-laminated timber. Instead of Oregon lumber being exported, CLT constructed buildings can help keep materials in the local life cycle and decrease shipping costs.

Post-tensioned concrete is the most common structural system currently used for mid-rise commercial construction between approximately six and twelve stories tall. CLT construction is specialized and as a result requires primarily crane operators and carpenters, while post-tensioned concrete requires an array of workers to set the structural framework, lay the rebar and tensioning cables, and to pour the concrete. The CLT construction process is efficient due to the prefabricated timber panels, allowing a simpler, more efficient construction timeline. This will help alleviate a difficult labor issue commonly reported among developers in the Portland market: an increasingly limited supply of available construction workers to meet high construction demand in a booming development cycle. This highlights a labor mismatch in Oregon: while development firms in the Portland area struggle to fill construction jobs, rural Oregon continues to experience economic stagnation and high unemployment despite the overall thriving Oregon economy. CLT could potentially transfer the labor demand from the labor-constrained Portland market to desperately needed rural timber production jobs. Figure 5 shows that employment in logging and wood product manufacturing in Oregon is not keeping pace with the increase in timber harvests.

Figure 5: Employment and timber harvest levels, Oregon, 1990-2015

The carbon sequestration potential of CLT has led to unprecedented collaboration in the Pacific Northwest between architects, conservationists, forest managers, and rural communities. For example, the Washington environmental group Forterra has created a coalition that hosts leadership summits focused on advancing CLT and other similar heavy timber product usage in the Pacific Northwest. This coalition building will be important in promoting collaboration between sustainability advocates, the forest industry, and the development field. Forterra’s government affairs director Leda Chahim describes the impetus for this urban and rural coalition: “If rural timber communities are to flourish in the future, they need opportunities to rebuild robust economies resilient to economic and political change.

Promoting CLT can create a linkage that addresses the growth in urban cities in a sustainable manner while reinvigorating rural areas with needed timber production jobs.”

Cross-laminated timber presents a triple net solution to urban design, environmental, and housing affordability challenges. The planet benefits from the carbon sink of wood buildings while also promoting sustainable forest management. CLT also presents a social opportunity by promoting desperately needed rural timber production jobs. Finally, the pre-fabricated material addresses the needed profit margin in a capitalist real estate development industry by providing financial savings from reduced construction times. By merging the forest with the city, cross-laminated timber will play a key role in a sustainable, financially viable, and high-quality future built environment.

Figure 6: A logging truck near Brightenbush, Oregon. Courtesy of Wonderland/Flickr

Andrew Crampton is a practicing planner in the Portland metro area and a graduate student at Portland State University.

A New Vision for Timber City USA


Just past the wineries of Yamhill Valley lies the sleepy city of Willamina, population 2,045.((“City of Willamina Facts.” Official Website of the City of Willamina. Web. 18 February 2017.)) Not much has changed here during the past 20 to 25 years, according to city manager Robert Sivick. The tourist boom experienced by destinations like Dundee has passed by Willamina. Vacant buildings dot the downtown, and the only bank closed a few years ago. Almost 23 percent of residents live in poverty.((“Willamina City, Oregon.” United States Census Bureau. Web. 23 February 2017.)) Explains Angela Carnahan, the Willamette Valley Regional Representative for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, “It’s a distressed community; they have very low-income families. I want to say 50 percent of their residential housing is rented. That is very high for any city; usually, the community that’s doing well has a high percentage of home ownership.”

Previous efforts to encourage economic development in Willamina bore no fruit. Says Sivick, “The last one was in 2004. A Portland architectural firm did a study about downtown development in Willamina. It was a fantastic study with a fantastic economic development plan, but nothing was ever followed through on.”

But Sivick’s installation as city manager has brought new hope to Willamina. With Carnahan’s assistance, Sivick successfully applied for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant. Willamina was one of only 25 communities around the United States to be selected for this grant in 2016.

Sivick arrived in Oregon with an outsider’s perspective. “I had come here from Nebraska,” he explains, “so I was familiar with rural communities. I lived in a community about the size of Willamina named St. Paul, and I noted the difference between the commercial activity that was in St. Paul as opposed to Willamina. In St. Paul, they had a bank; in fact, they had three banks. They had retail, they had restaurants, they had a clothing store, all sorts of commercial activity that Willamina did not have.”

Willamina: Potential Tourist Destination

Tourism might end up being the very thing that pulls Willamina out of its economic slump. Remarks Sivick, “In the Willamette Valley, several communities have been moving forward in transitioning from the economies that existed in this area, namely timber and farming, to a more tourism-based economy.”

While Willamina may not be a wine destination, the fertile farmland surrounding the city has the potential to ignite a local culinary movement. Vinson describes the activities of a group of young organic farmers, as well as plans for a meadery and distillery. “There are a lot of wonderful things going on in the surrounding area around Willamina, a lot of very ambitious people doing things the old-fashioned way. There’s a group of farmers on Willamina Creek Road that would like to get a farm tour together. At Belle Mare farm, there’s a woman who grows ancient grains. There’s a lot of farmland here that’s been handed down through generations and not stripped of its nutrients like in commercial farming areas.” Vinson anticipates more Main Street awareness of these efforts, especially in the form of downtown eateries that serve fresh local produce.

Rising real estate prices in the Portland metro area might be another factor in the revitalization of Willamina. Remarks Sivick, “We do have a number of homes that are being constructed. We are taking advantage of the sky-high real estate prices in Portland, and even in McMinnville. This is just anecdotal evidence, but because we have a city-owned water utility, people have to come to City Hall to establish water service. And a lot of our new residents have told me that they bought or are building a house in Willamina because they simply can’t afford to do that in Portland, or even McMinnville, which is only 15 to 17 miles away.” Vinson echoes this assertion: “With the housing prices elsewhere, people that hadn’t considered our area in the past have taken a look at it. Most of them are pleasantly surprised; they like the small-town feeling and camaraderie.”

Some newer residents are seeking more land and space than can be found in urban areas. Kim Hamblin, an artist and farmer who lives close to Willamina, is enthusiastic about rural living. She talks about why she moved to the area from Portland: “I was looking for a farm within an hour or so of Portland in my price range. I looked north of Portland in the Clatskanie area and it didn’t really vibe with me, and then I looked around in this area and fell in love.” 

Willamenia History

Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities

From the moment Sivick arrived in Willamina, he has been consumed with finding ways to revitalize and communicate excitement about the city. Soon after he took office, Angela Carnahan presented him with information about the EPA’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities grant program. “I said (to Sivick), here’s a great opportunity, you should apply for it. It’s free technical assistance to help the community really look at how to become sustainable.” Sivick jumped at the chance to apply. 

The EPA initiative, which falls under the agency’s Smart Growth umbrella, was developed in 2011 to help communities that need assistance with economically and environmentally sustainable development.((“Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 23 February 2017.)) The EPA defines smart growth strategies as ones that “help communities grow in ways that expand economic opportunity while protecting human health and the environment.”((“Smart Growth.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 10 March 2017.))

Through this program, the EPA aims to “stimulate a discussion about growth and development and strengthen local capacity to implement sustainable approaches.”((“Smart Growth.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 10 March 2017.))

The program includes five strategies for helping selected communities: creating equitable development, planning for infill development, implementing sustainable strategies for small cities and rural areas, improving flood resilience for riverine and coastal communities, and establishing green and complete streets.((“Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Web. 23 February 2017.)) The Building Blocks grant comes in the form of technical, as opposed to monetary, assistance. Recipient communities host consultants contracted by the EPA who engage community stakeholders with one- to two-day workshops. After the conclusion of their visit, the consultants issue a detailed report with recommendations for revitalizing the community.

Willamina applied for the Planning for Infill Development, one of the five tools available through the grant. Carnahan says, “I advised them that this was probably the area that would fit with what the city was interested in doing, primarily resuscitating their downtown development. They have quite a few blocks of nice buildings, but not a lot of businesses in them. So, how do we get companies and small businesses to invest in the city?” 

The Municipal Research and Services Center defines infill development as “the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels within existing urban areas that are already largely developed.”((“Infill Development: Completing the Community Fabric.” Municipal Research and Services Center. Web. 24 February 2017.)) This type of development promotes environmentally and economically sustainable communities. A revitalized, built-up downtown encourages residents to patronize local businesses instead of driving many miles away. Greater density keeps sprawl to a minimum, letting people walk or bike to shops and services.

An EPA report found that infill development, as opposed to greenfield development, is especially beneficial for distressed communities. According to the report, some of the advantages of infill development are that

  • it costs less than greenfield development;
  • mixed-use infill development has the potential to yield more property tax revenue;
  • it encourages a diversity of income levels in previously impoverished communities; and
  • it fulfills consumer preferences that change as a result of demographic shifts.((“Attracting Infill Development in Distressed Communities: 30 Strategies.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, May 2015. Web. 24 February 2017.))

In 2015, Marysville, Washington, was one of four cities to receive the infill development grant. The community has already experienced significant positive momentum, including investment in the historic downtown, new sewer and water infrastructure, and landscape improvement.((“Working together to improve infrastructure, economic development.” North County Outlook, Vol. 10, No. 21. Web. 17 March 2017.))


Obstacles to Improvement

The EPA report outlined several obstacles to infill development, one of which is public perception: “If infill locations have been neglected or abandoned for a long time, it could be difficult to imagine new growth or activity in these areas or to envision why these areas would be attractive. These perception issues can affect the local government’s ability to secure financing and could further dampen interest from developers and retailers.”((“Attracting Infill Development in Distressed Communities: 30 Strategies.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, May 2015. Web. 24 February 2017.))

It can be difficult for communities to overcome these negative perceptions. Terre Haute, Indiana, another past recipient of the infill development grant, has experienced challenges in this area. In a memorandum composed after the workshop process, officials wrote: “The longstanding economic challenges in Terre Haute have created an attitude among many people that ambitious economic development goals just ‘can’t happen here.’ The target infill area is the heart of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city, where negative outside perceptions are the strongest and most likely to hold back potential private investment.”((Infill Development for Distressed Cities, Terre Haute, Indiana: Next Steps Memorandum.” Indiana State University. Web. 3 April 2017.))

Sivick maintains that one of Willamina’s biggest challenges is inertia. “We can’t sit around and wait for Superman to come and suddenly rescue the city. We have to do it ourselves.”

Winning the EPA grant is only the first step in a long process. According to Sivick, after the EPA finalizes its grant report, an official authority needs to be created in order to formulate and implement Willamina’s economic development plan. Carnahan cautions that rehabilitation of the downtown could take years.

Willamina: A Future McMinnville?

Sivick has big dreams for Willamina. “The type of city I would like to see Willamina become is a small-scale McMinnville. I know McMinnville is more than ten times the size of Willamina, but I am really impressed with its mix of commerce, fine dining and lodging, tourism, and the arts. You may be surprised to know that, for a city of this size, Willamina has a large arts community and a vibrant live music scene.”

If public participation in the EPA workshop is any indication, excitement is starting to build about the possibilities for Willamina. Carnahan says that the workshop had “really good participation and attendance.” Similarly, Sivick recounts his experience at a recent town hall meeting: “I had a meeting for the community as a whole to discuss economic development. It was snowing like there was no tomorrow. . . But there wasn’t an empty seat in that room.”

While, as of this writing, the EPA has not released its final report on Willamina, there are already signs of life downtown. Hotelier Vinson is particularly excited about the Willamina Art & Craft Collective, which opened its doors in November 2016. “It gives people an opportunity to see things that are created in our area,” she adds. “There’s lots of fine art, crafts, soaps, a huge variety of wood products, different gifts and things. That’s been neat to see the reaction of people seeing some things that are locally made.” 

Sivick is hopeful that modeling a can-do attitude will bring new energy to Willamina. He aims to counteract what he terms “a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure” with a whirlwind of energy and ideas. People outside the city are beginning to take note. Ric Stephens, an instructor at Portland State University’s College of Urban and Public Affairs, is leading an initiative called Willamina Visioning in connection with the Oregon chapter of the American Planning Association.(( Graduate students in PSU’s Sustainable Cities and Regions class recently paid a visit to Willamina to interview residents and city officials. 

Stephens, who is optimistic about Willamina’s potential for transformation, maintains that student reaction to the city was positive: “Students came away with the feeling that the community was well-positioned to reinvent itself from a timber town to a dynamic city with a new economic, social and environmental framework. It was clearly evident to the class that the community was energetic, resourceful and highly motivated.”

Sivick remains philosophical about the pace of development. He explains, “Even if none of the ideas work, the important thing is to bring about a cultural shift from pessimism and failure to one of optimism and success. That cultural shift in itself is good for the economy, as it creates the impression that Willamina is a forward-thinking and proactive community. This perception becomes reality as it attracts entrepreneurs and young, intelligent, energetic people.”

Sivick takes inspiration from the New Deal: “I look to Roosevelt, as both my parents were born in 1934 and he, his programs, and optimism saved my family and many others from ruin.” Still, Sivick remains realistic about the timetable for the city’s revitalization. “Even under ideal circumstances, solving Willamina’s economic, fiscal, and infrastructure problems will require at least a 20-year effort. Ultimately, it is up to the leaders and people of Willamina to decide if they will make that journey.”

Note: At the time of publication, city manager Bob Sivick had just announced his resignation. He has accepted an offer to serve as the county administrator in Waushara County, a rural community in central Wisconsin

Since 2012, Kerry Politzer has written about food and culture for Oregon Jewish Life. Her work has also been featured in WHERE Traveler, IN New York, Dessert Professional, and Oregon Music News, among other publications. Kerry is also a professional jazz pianist and an adjunct jazz piano instructor at PSU.

Is Housing Making People Sick?


An overview of seven studies that raise questions to consider as we incorporate health into planning and build new housing to address shortages and energy efficiency.

The current housing shortage, with calls to build new housing that often results in replacing older structures with new, more energy efficient housing, presents a booby trap and an opportunity. The choice: demolish houses made of older, less-toxic raw materials, and build anew with up-to-date components that may predispose their residents to asthma and cancer; or build new homes like the Breathe-Easy homes described in our first study, that don’t make people sick.

As our region incorporates health into its planning practices, the science, like the studies featured here, should increasingly inform our policies.

For years, before the Gebrezgi family moved to Seattle’s High Point housing development, their 12-year-old son’s severe asthma attacks found them often in the hospital or emergency room. The fear that he could stop breathing at any time kept his parents on edge.

Asthma is common in the developed world, especially in kids. In the U.S., one in twelve children, and one in fourteen adults, have this suffocating disease. And the patient is hardly the only one affected. Around every person who has asthma, there is a circle of people who miss work, miss school days, have trouble concentrating, and worry about medical bills. 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates the cost of asthma at $56 billion a year in the U.S. But no one can measure the drag of this illness on so many people’s chances in life, or on their quality of life.

Asthma is steadily growing. Rates have doubled in the U.S. since about the 1980s. It’s not clear why. All that’s certain in epidemiology is that many factors contribute.

The Gebrezgi family’s new home was not a typical rental. It was a Breathe-Easy Home — one of 60 in the 120-acre High Point development — designed to provide high-quality indoor air, without the indoor pollutants almost universally present in modern buildings. [Editor’s note: the High Point HOPE VI development in Seattle explicitly incorporated health into its planning; New Columbia, Portland’s HOPE VI project in Portland, which was developed around the same time, does not include “Breathe-easy” homes.] Before moving day in the summer of 2006, health researchers from the University of Washington met with the Gebrezgis to establish their son’s baseline asthma level, frequency of symptoms, and use of medications.

The Breathe-Easy Homes did not visibly differ from other High Point homes. The interiors used paint, glue, flooring, and cabinetry that released low volumes of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde. To reduce mold growth, the exterior envelope was moistureproof, and quiet exhaust fans were installed in kitchens and bathrooms. The most important difference was an energy-efficient mechanical heat-exchanger ventilation system that pulled in filtered fresh air from outside. These features cost an average of $6,000 per house.

After six months in a Breathe-Easy home, Mr. Gebrezgi’s son was doing much better. His medications were reduced, he had less trouble breathing — and he had not had a single asthma attack. The father said, “I don’t have to worry anymore that my son could stop breathing at any minute.”

This family’s results were typical.

The researchers studying the effects of BreatheEasy homes on children with asthma found an average sixfold drop in asthma attacks, and a decrease in days with asthma symptoms from 3 days a week to one day a week.

The average cost of an ER visit for a child with asthma in 2006 was $1,500. The charge for a hospital stay was $3,600. So $6,000 in home improvement, to prevent years of such medical costs, would pay off before the child outgrew a pair of shoes. 

Why is this? If improving indoor air quality makes some people so much healthier so quickly, what’s in normal indoor air that makes them sick?

For most of human history, structures did not strictly divide indoor air from outdoor air. People could warm their indoor air, but drafts whistling through chinks diluted both smoke and heat.

Building materials changed in the 20th century. A builder in 1901 used about 50 materials. By one estimate, modern construction has about 55,000 materials at hand, half of them synthetic. Celluloid was created in 1856, from natural cellulose. Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic, was invented in 1907, followed by acrylic, polyethylene, polyester, styrene, polystyrene, etc.

These shiny, shimmering new substances were first widely embraced in consumer products: combs, tableware, packaging, clothing, and assorted trinkets. After Pearl Harbor, they were enlisted by the military and refined.

After the war, plastics returned with force to the marketplace.

In 1967, it was funny, because true, to give Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock one word of career advice: “Plastics.” In real life in the same decade, seven students at the Harvard Business School did set out on careers in plastics.

The 150-page monograph of their class project for a course in manufacturing, “Plastics as Building Construction Materials,” conveys a sober enthusiasm and barely restrained impatience. “What is the delay? What are the restraining obstacles and attitudes? How do we go about overcoming them?” they cry in the introduction.

The authors encountered plastic goods in their daily lives – lightweight, inexpensive gadgets and utensils.

They wanted to reform plastic, so to speak, to “overcome the war-born image of being a cheap and less desirable substitute.”

The monograph emphasizes that plastic is mechanically strong. It summarizes the types of plastic and their structural properties, and catalogs manufactured plastic products, including reinforced, laminated and “sandwiched” structural components.

The authors go beyond data, though, to introduce organizations that advocate for plastic building materials: the Manufacturing Chemists’ Association, the Society of the Plastics Industry, the Society of Plastics Engineers, and the Building Research Institute.

Looking back on it from the present, this monograph is an unusual hybrid of engineering and advocacy. Its aim shows most clearly in the section discussing strategies for moving more plastics into buildings. The prefabricated home industry, they note, is “especially attractive for penetration by plastics.” For the modern reader, that comment foreshadows the “FEMA trailer” episode of 2006, in which refugees from Hurricane Katrina were housed in trailers that released high concentrations of formaldehyde.

The authors also suggest that manufacturers of plastic building components bypass “restraining obstacles and attitudes” by “integrating forward into the building industry itself.”

And so they did. Thousands of plastic materials now hold our homes together, some structural, like decking, piping, furniture, and windows, and many not, such as paint, caulk, glue, insulation, and light fixtures. Plastics in homes and workplaces have lost the stigma of “cheap substitute.” They have advantages: they are light in weight and low in resource intensity.

These advocates for new, and in many ways better, materials tested the stuff, and their assumptions about them, rigorously. Their best arguments were proven data on the strength and flexibility of plastics. One cannot fault them for their lack of foresight in not testing for health safety. No one imagined that humans would ever live in such close, airless proximity to plastics.

The oil embargo of 1974 and the ensuing energy crisis transformed construction. Suddenly energy was precious.

Letting warm air slip away through fissures in walls became the equivalent of throwing money away, and reducing energy consumption the equivalent of virtue. Buildings had to be insulated and air leaks plugged. The energy efficiency industry was born. President Jimmy Carter created the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1977 to conserve U.S. energy.

Homes made of synthetic materials became unfortunate natural experiments when sealed up. The 1978 urea-formaldehyde foam insulation disaster, motivated by tax credits for insulation, was the bestknown backfire.

Airtight, insulated buildings behaved differently. They did strange things to people and materials.

Max Sherman started grad school in physics in the early 1970s, at Berkeley, intending to go into cosmology, or highenergy physics. But when he started looking for a dissertation topic, Professor Art Rosenfeld intrigued him with an emerging new field: Building science. 

“He said energy efficiency was a whole new area of physics, nobody knew the science,” recalled Sherman in an interview. “Nobody knew the right numbers.” The young scientist got in, so to speak, on the ground floor.

This 1982 conference paper by Sherman and his colleague David Grimsrud was an effort to work out the basic principles of this strange new creature, the airtight house. The work was urgent because something about these new buildings made people sick. Not all people all the time — that would have been too easy — just some people. Sometimes.

Obviously, stopping air leaks reduced ventilation — the swapping of indoor air for outdoor air. And reducing ventilation plausibly allowed chemicals to accumulate indoors that were tolerable at low levels, but intolerable at high concentrations.

So they studied different ways to restore the missing fresh air. “The exact amount of fresh air, however, is not generally agreed upon.” Passive air movement, like open windows and air leaks, were relics of the energy-profligate past. Active ventilation, with fans and ducts, would be needed. But how?

There are three fundamental forms of active ventilation system: push bad air out; pull good air in; or both at once, in balance. Many houses that have exhaust fans in the kitchen and/or bathroom are practicing the first example. As fans push cooking fumes and shower steam out, the air pressure in the house drops, and air rushes in wherever it can.

Sherman and Grimsrud found that the best type of ventilation depended on the tightness of the house. For well-sealed houses, the balanced system gave the best mix of fresh air. For leaky houses, either exhaust fans or fans blowing in improved air quality.

They did not know where in the house pollutants emerged from. That was for chemists.

The 1980 General Accounting Office (GAO) report on indoor air pollution is a melancholy document. It confronts the recent discoveries of the health dangers of indoor air pollution.

Touting the success of reducing outdoor air pollution under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), empowered by the Clean Air Act of 1963, the report asked which agency could fix indoor air.

The answer? Too many, and none. The EPA recommended more air circulation to dilute pollutants. The Department of Energy (DOE) wanted less, to save energy. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) all oversaw part of the problem, but did not want all of it.

The report’s authors studied how European countries — Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark, and The Netherlands —were dealing with the problem. These nations all had active research programs on indoor air and health. They also had set air quality standards and/or product standards, for formaldehyde, and were moving ahead on regulations for other pollutants.

The report does not directly recommend any of these actions to Congress, but quotes the Europeans indirectly: “A Comparison of Alternative Ventilation Strategies,” M.H. Sherman, D.T. Grimsrud, of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, July 1982. To be presented at the Third Air Infiltration Centre (AIC) Conference, “Energy Efficient Domestic Ventilation Systems for Achieving Acceptable Indoor Air Quality,” London, UK, September 20-23, 1982. “Indoor Air Pollution: An Emerging Health Problem,” Report to the Congress of the United States by the Comptroller General, General Accounting Office, 1980. Active ventilation, with fans and ducts, would be needed. But how? The best type of ventilation depended on the tightness of the house. “Most foreign researchers and government officials agreed that product quality control is the most effective and easiest corrective measure to enforce.” In contrast to indoor air quality benchmarks, which would be unwieldy.

The GAO advised Congress to amend the Clean Air Act to give the EPA jurisdiction over indoor air but noted that the DOE disagreed with that very recommendation.

The only recommendation of this report that was ever adopted was the one for public education.

Asthma increased much more in the United Kingdom than in the U.S. in the post-energy crisis era. As asthma doubled among Americans, it quadrupled in the UK.

British housing stock is overall much older than in North America, and harder to tightly seal. High VOC levels are found in modern buildings, which are easier to seal, and made of VOC-releasing materials. Formaldehyde in late 20th-century buildings was three times as high as in pre-1919 dwellings.

However, the greatest contribution to asthma in the UK was likely from the dust mite because of the British predilection for carpet. Ninety-eight percent of British residences contained wall-to-wall (or “fitted”) carpet, vs. sixteen percent in France. Dust mites need humidity, which carpet and soft furnishings provide. The moisture retained indoors by tight construction and retrofits built a bonanza for dust mites.

Scottish researchers performed a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial — the gold standard of research experiment design — to see if improving indoor air would help asthma.

They divided sixty-eight asthmatic subjects, who lived in apartments and ranged in age from 15 to 50, into three groups. One group received steam cleaning of carpet to kill dust mites, new bedding, and compact mechanical ventilation units in bedroom and living room windows to control humidity, so the dust mites could not return. The second group received steam cleaning of carpet, new bedding and placebo ventilation units. The third group, the control group, received placebo steam cleaning and placebo ventilation units.

These changes improved asthma for eighty percent of the first group, which had the most indoor air improvement. Forty percent of the second group improved, and the control group not at all. Results were significant at the 0.0001 level.

The researchers answered their question, “Are our homes causing the asthma pandemic?” with a strong “yes.”

They urged, “Building standards and professional codes must now be revised to prioritize moisture control,” keeping humidity below sixty percent, the dust mite survival threshold.

That has not happened.

At the turn of the 20th century, the state of indoor air was paradoxical.

Unhealthy indoor air had been unwittingly concocted in the 1970s by sealing buildings tight to save energy. Indoor air often accumulated much higher concentrations of pollutants than outdoor air contained. As the consequent health problems came to light, research concluded that most of the new indoor pollutants fell into three groups.

  1. Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, released as gases from synthetic building and furnishing materials, including the very caulks used to make buildings energy-efficient. The best known was formaldehyde which is a carcinogen and causes respiratory distress.
  2. Biologics, particularly dust mites and mold. Sealing air in also sealed in moisture. Mold and dust mites are important allergens. They are “asthmagens,” a new term coined in the tight-building era. Many, perhaps most, of the new indoor pollutants are asthmagens.
  3. Combustion products, such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and soot, which are carcinogens and asthmagens.

But as the danger of indoor air became clearer, no good options for reducing harm came to light. Keep the windows open? Not if it’s cold out, or too hot for comfort, or if you care about your energy bill, or if the air quality outdoors is not good. Exhaust fans to suck moisture out of the bathroom, and combustion products out of the kitchen? Okay, but if there’s radon in the ground the low air pressure inside will bring it in. Build a house with non-synthetic materials? Even if you can afford it, good luck finding any.

Allison Shore, a graduate student in Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, stood back and looked at this odd picture. The EPA’s own research showed the greatest risks of cancer and other diseases arose from indoor air pollutants and chemicals in consumer products. But the EPA did very little to regulate these proven hazards.

Shore asked: Why the mismatch, between harm and regulation? And, where does the discrepancy leave people affected by it?

The why is an old story. Congress tried. Legislation attacking indoor air pollution was attempted several times between 1991 and 1995. Early bills were altered “to ease industry concerns and win Republican votes.” The 1993 version required the EPA to set action levels for particular indoor pollutants, and allowed citizen suits. All failed.

Industry mobilized against indoor air pollution control throughout this period. The president of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) testified, “This issue will not be solved by regulation… While we welcome practical guidance based on sound research, we oppose giving the EPA unilateral authority to regulate.”

The president of the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association (CSMA) testified, “The setting of pollutant-specific action levels…is completely inconsistent with a non-regulatory, public awareness approach and can only be regarded as a table-setter for a pollutant-specific command-and-control program.”

No indoor air pollution legislation survived this onslaught. Shore concluded, “… industry has largely shaped EPA’s current approach.” The only modus operandi left standing was “public awareness,” which is what the EPA does now concerning indoor air.

But this is a contradictory public awareness. As indoor air contaminants and consequent health problems increase, the actions that can be recommended to breathers are mostly purchasing different products. Buy low-VOC paint. Don’t install carpet, or if you do, steam-clean it often. Choose a HEPA-filter vacuum. Don’t steam up your bathroom, install a bathroom exhaust fan. Most of these options are unavailable to renters.

In a special issue of EPA Journal in 1993, EPA officials rationalize the limits placed on them. One writes that there is “public antipathy towards this form of intervention inside the home.”

And, in another article, “By definition, indoor air is within a building that someone owns. As long as someone owns the air, he or she obtains both the benefits and the costs from deciding how clean it should be…”

Who among us can decide how clean our air should be? Very few have the knowledge, let alone the power. Despite “public awareness” programs about indoor air pollution, few know how polluted their indoor air is, much less that anything can be done about it.

The Healthy Building Network (HBN) was founded in 2000 to identify safe, nontoxic building materials for the green building industry, with or without manufacturer cooperation. They do this by testing the chemical contents of actual products, and curating chemical content databases produced by other organizations, into a cross-referenced encyclopedia of structural ingredients called Pharos, meaning lighthouse.

Far from being just chemistry nerds, HBN also pursues strategic goals with cheerful ruthlessness — like pressuring manufacturers into making better goods — by exposing the asthmagens, carcinogens, and endocrine disrupters normally included in these products.

For example, in 2015, the world’s largest flooring companies, Mohawk and Tarkett, along with retailers Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menard’s, agreed to stop using phthalate plasticizers in vinyl flooring. This was the result of a long, collaborative effort of HBN, Consumers Union, and a couple of generations of public health researchers. 

Such leverage over manufacturers to change their ways works best at the high price point of the green building industry. But once producers find it’s possible to make safer goods, the learning trickles down to the rest of the market. As with phthalates in flooring.

In this report, HBN researchers Sarah Lott and Jim Vallette mark new territory in the effect of asthmagens on people. They distinguish between the reactive model of reducing asthmagens in the homes and workplaces of asthma patients to improve their symptoms — like the Breathe-Easy Home that helped Tesfai Gebrezgi’s son in Seattle — and a preventive paradigm of eliminating asthmagens in the environment to avoid triggering the disease in the first place. Release fewer asthmagen chemicals, make fewer asthmatics.

HBN would like building material manufacturers to simply abandon secrecy and reveal ingredients on the label. Creating secondhand transparency for a reluctant industry is laborious and expensive. But until manufacturers see the light, essential.

Portland’s recently approved 2035 Comprehensive Plan includes human health as a guiding principle, specifically: “Avoid or minimize negative health impacts and improve opportunities for Portlanders to lead healthy, active lives.” As Portland and the region confront the housing crisis — particularly the need to build more affordable and energy efficient homes — and as we incorporate health into our urban planning efforts, studies that examine the costs and benefits of new materials are critical to informed decision-making. 

Merilee D. Karr is a science journalist and family physician who blogs at

Boom Town: Prioritizing Preservation under Pressure


At the corner of SW 2nd and Taylor in downtown Portland stands a 124-year-old artifact. It’s imposing, a six-story-tall stone-and-brick cube done up with columns and arches and with a name to suit: the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple. A long vacant outpost of one of the largest fraternal orders in the country at the turn of the 20th century, the building looks like the child of a brick factory and a Roman ruin, which is somewhat appropriate: it’s one of only a handful of Richardsonian Romanesque structures remaining in the region. But it’s no ruin; externally, it’s in solid condition. And with a design by Portland architect Justus F. Krumbein— who co-designed the second Oregon State Capitol Building, which burned down in 1935—it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t be saved.

Yet it was slated for demolition in November.

Diagonally across the same block sits another icon. Known by the name of a long-gone tenant, the Hotel Albion, the building at the northeast corner of SW 3rd and Salmon has, since 1924, housed the venerable Lotus Cardroom and Café, one of the last remaining institutions of Portland’s extensive prohibition-era underworld. It got in trouble for bootlegging in the ’20s and for hosting illegal gambling in the ’70s, and the upstairs might or might not have housed a brothel accessible via secret staircase. Its magnificent 30-foot cherry-wood bar came around Cape Horn in the late-1800s, according to a blurb on the menu, and is featured in one of Gus Van Sant’s earliest (and most highly acclaimed) films, 1991’s My Own Private Idaho.

And yet, as part of the same proposed development, the Hotel Albion was destined for the wrecking ball as well.

The buildings are the latest and possibly greatest symbols of what the region—especially the highly desirable central city— has seen for a while: a boom in real estate and unprecedented pressure on housing prices, historic densities, and vintage architecture.

In the case of the temple and the hotel, the story isn’t over. In November, preservation advocacy group Restore Oregon petitioned the City of Portland and the state Land Use Board of Appeals to close a zoning loophole and force a longer demolition delay for both buildings. And it appears developers have agreed to voluntarily drag their feet anyhow. On December 20th, a Facebook page advocating for the buildings’ preservation posted a message saying: “the developers have agreed to not demolish the buildings until further study is completed.”

But many other properties haven’t received such privileged treatment.

Everyone knows Portland’s real estate market is sizzling hot. The city’s rental housing vacancy rate continues to hover around 3 percent, among the lowest in the country. And last year, a report in Governing magazine named Portland the most widely gentrifying city in America. Since 2000, the magazine said, over 58 percent of lower-income Census tracts in the city experienced increases in home values and influxes of highly educated residents that qualified them as “gentrified” according to the magazine’s metrics.

And our architectural history is far from the only thing feeling the heat. 

Affordable housing is the city’s hottest issue (and rightly so). Since 1990, the historically African American neighborhoods of inner-North/Northeast Portland have seen around 50 percent drops in black residents, who have scattered to cheaper areas in East Portland and elsewhere. And last year, the Community Alliance of Tenants started a campaign— later picked up by the mayor—to declare a renter state of emergency.

Changes in the character of historically residential close-in neighborhoods have inflamed tensions as well, with several groups declaring a “demolition epidemic” in the city.

Indeed, there’s plenty of hand-wringing to go around. When the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) hosted a film festival last April themed “Portland is Growing,” seven of the 11 publicly submitted videos shown at the event were laments for some kind of urban loss: trees lost, buildings lost, buildings in danger of being lost, wholecommunities lost. One got the sense that “Portland is Growing” was taken not so much to mean “like roses in springtime” but more “like mold in November.”

And while many have positively gained from recent growth, there is a sizable— and vocal—contingent who are downright despondent. They see a workingclass port city attracting outside cash like never before. They see close-knit communities being split by rapid gentrification and old houses and big trees falling to real estate pressure—and, as they see it, incompatibly large, modern, or densely packed homes being built in their place.

But those concerned about housing affordability and changes in neighborhood character have strong and increasingly powerful advocates.

In 2014, the Portland African American Leadership Forum led a successful effort to kill a Trader Joe’s development in inner Northeast and redirect $20 million of urban development money to affordable housing. And last year, an umbrella group called Anti-Displacement PDX was highly successful in prodding the City to insert anti-displacement language throughout its new Comprehensive Plan Update.

Many official neighborhood associations—as well as independent groups like Stop Demolishing Portland, United Neighborhoods for Reform, and Fix Portland Zoning—have placed continual pressure on the City to slow neighborhood change. A demolition tax proposed by the mayor this fall was an attempt to appease them, and the City’s new Residential Infill Project tries to “address the scale and design of new houses and home additions,” which are among these groups’ key concerns. Meanwhile, a website called “The Portland Chronicle” (portlandchronicle. com) publishes prolific updates on demolition applications, with before-and-after photos.

And yes, there’s plenty of crossover between the fights for neighborhood character and for preservation on the issue of demolitions. According to BPS, between 1996 and 2011, 1,836 properties were demolished in the city, of which over 59 percent were built before 1940. What’s more, whereas demolitions in the 1990s and early-2000s were concentrated in outlying areas with generally newer buildings—primarily in East Portland—demos since 2011 have been concentrated in older neighborhoods in inner-Southeast, Sellwood, and inner-North/Northeast. With demolitions rising rapidly since 2011 (in the last two years surpassing prerecession levels) it stands to reason that this increasing pressure on historic neighborhoods is disproportionately affecting historic structures.

But demolition alone is not strictly an historic preservation cause—indeed the massing, height, style, and density of buildings seems a more impassioned local concern—and preservation as a specific special interest has fewer advocates than one might expect. (Restore Oregon and the Architectural Heritage Center are the most active.) It also suffers from, as one advocate put it, its reputation as “a fringe thing,” as “a niche or hobby for the elite,” or as “snobbish.” Which is a shame, because architecture is among the most ubiquitous and populist forms of cultural heritage and art. We live and work amidst it every day, and we need not pay entrance fees to a museum to enjoy it.

Beyond its inherent value, there are environmental reasons to stick up for preservation as well, most notably the fact that construction and demolition account for around 30 percent of all waste nationally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And there are housing affordability rationales as well: For example, a 2001 US Department of Housing and Urban Development report suggested that even older buildings with “severe physical problems” (such as leaky roofs or no heating) could be rehabilitated for far less than the cost of new affordable units. The report estimated rehab costs for severely damaged apartments at about $75,000/unit (about $100,000/unit in 2015 dollars), while most new affordable housing costs well over $200,000/unit.

Yet isn’t it the intrinsic value of history and culture—like the intrinsic value of nature—that ought to propel preservation most of all?

Perhaps to understand why we don’t value preservation more—in fact, why our city and state policies seem to value it less than others in the United States—we ought to start at the beginning. At least the beginning of historic preservation politics in Portland.

Like most US cities, we started to care about built history in the mid- to late sixties, after New York’s majestic Penn Station was famously razed and as cities everywhere were flattening huge swaths of themselves in the name of slum clearance, urban renewal, and automobile efficiency. We weren’t particularly special in many ways; Portland, like most large-ish cities, instituted a local historic landmark status and a 120-day delay preceding demolitions.

But at a state level, Oregon was indeed special. As part of the state’s sweeping land use laws in the early ’70s, we got a statewide historic preservation directive (Planning Goal 5), which put us on the leading edge of state-mandated preservation. In 1975, then-State Representative Earl Blumenauer sponsored a bill that became the country’s first statewide incentive program for historic preservation, a property tax break that encouraged owners of historic buildings to put them on the National Register of Historic Places. Using its local landmark designation and the National Register, Portland put together a suite of regulations aimed at preventing demolitions or major changes to historic properties.

Fast forward to 1995 and a property rights revolt in the Oregon legislature that brought forth a squeeze on cities’ preservation powers. Prior to ’95, owners could place themselves on landmark lists, but cities could also proactively find properties and (based on objective criteria for historic significance) landmark these properties themselves, even against the will of the owners.

After 1995, that was no longer the case; unless a property was already on the National Register, owners had the power to refuse or remove a landmark designation and then more or less demolish at will. It was a major coup for those opposed to the state’s planning regime, and, according to Brandon Spencer-Hartle of Restore Oregon, it makes Oregon the only state in the country where owner consent is required for all landmark listings. After 1995, Portland stopped even tracking down historic properties. In fact, the last time the City updated its Historic Resource Inventory (the preliminary list from which properties could be recommended for local landmark status) was in 1985. It is unclear to what degree this indifference was due to the seeming futility of creating a resource list that couldn’t be translated into any kind of mandated preservation, but it would be easy to see why the City might throw up its hands and use that money for other things. (Spencer-Hartle, for his part, argues such an effort should still be done, as more information about what historic resources exist can only aid conservation efforts.)

So what’s the situation today? Thanks to Blumenauer’s 1975 incentive program, there are a relatively large number of properties on the National Register, which can’t be removed and which the city fervently protects. Very few Register properties apply for demolition, and even fewer are approved—the only ones in recent years being the Washington Park reservoirs approved for demolition last May on landslide instability and public safety grounds. And some cities and counties in the region do offer local preservation incentives. In Clark County, there’s a tax incentive; in Lake Oswego, there’s a restoration grant; and in Portland, there are floor-area ratio (FAR) transfers (discussed later).

But other unique challenges exist as well―in Portland, for example, there is the hyperlocal issue of underlying lot lines. This is the peculiar situation wherein an additional set of boundaries between parcels, platted long-ago and seemingly usurped by modern lot lines, can be resurrected and used as additional dividers of property. Thanks to a loophole in City code, owners of land sitting on these old borders can use them to subdivide that land into separate lots (with separate single-family houses on each)–―lots which can be far smaller in size than what the zoning code would normally allow. Therefore, houses sitting astride these historic lines are more likely to be goners than their peers, and the resulting subdivided parcels are likely to be far narrower than their neighbors.

At a regional level, Metro has for some time taken a long-term approach to historic and neighborhood-character preservation. The theory, initiated in the 1970s, is this: consciously concentrating development in high-density centers and corridors—or in major redevelopment hot spots like the Pearl District, South Waterfront, or Lloyd District—will relieve development pressure on lower-density areas. Centers and corridors (or, in previous decades, “nodes and noodles”) have been Metro’s (and Portland’s) driving land use vision since its creation. But has the Pearl really relieved pressure on the inner–East Side housing market? Would rents be even more ridiculous and teardowns even more common without it? Or, conversely, has it perhaps even driven up housing demand in the central city that has fanned out to close-in neighborhoods? Experts agree: that conjecture is anyone’s guess.

And on the subject of preservation specifically, other big questions remain—perhaps most notably: What exactly should be valued as historic? In the late 20th century, movements in history and art sought to recognize non-elite contributions—the lives of peasants along with the lives of kings, say, or folk art along with Monet— and there are some calls for architectural preservation to do the same. Yet, so far, we largely haven’t; we preserve cathedrals and mansions but pay far less attention to lowly farmhouses, for example, and— as several recent cases in inner-North/ Northeast Portland make clear—African American churches.

But since every old building cannot reasonably be preserved, what then? First, perhaps, comes education. Architectural historian Tom Hubka, in a 2014-15 series for The Oregonian, makes the case that categorization is important. If we can’t talk about that “lowly” farmhouse like we’d talk about an ornate Queen Anne or even a blocky Brutalist, then we won’t appreciate it as well, and there’ll be less chance we’ll consider preserving it. But Hubka doesn’t argue that every house should be protected, though it presumably follows that greater knowledge could lead to more piecemeal neighborhood- and homeowner-led preservation efforts to preserve at least scattered selections of everyday history in neighborhoods around the city.

The spate of demolitions (many of which are historic), and other recent threats to old structures, have shone a brighter light on the objective weakness of the City’s regulatory preservation regime in the face of acute development pressures. But what more could we reasonably consider?

Let’s start with that 1995 law. Preservation advocates dream of repealing it in order, they say, to bring policies in Oregon back closer to those in the other 49 states, and to revive mandatory local landmark designations based on objective historic criteria, not just owner altruism.

The Hotel Albion. Photograph courtesy of Restore Oregon

Meanwhile, a state historic redevelopment tax credit would be a “game changer,” according to Jessica Engeman, historic property developer and Vice Chair of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission. Federal historic preservation tax credits exist but are so complex that they’re often unusable for small projects or for developers unfamiliar with how to make them profitable. And they don’t pay out till a project is completed. In other states, state-level credits provide simpler and shorter-term pay-outs to fill those gaps.

At the city level, fees charged when owners of historic dwellings wish to make minor improvements could be reduced to make the National Register designation more palatable to sympathetic property owners—since the Register is the only historic designation in Oregon that counts (i.e., that property owners can’t unilaterally revoke). Having to pay the city a fee to review every door replacement or roof repair is a great way to disincentivize owners from putting their buildings on the Register in the first place. Portland has reduced its fees recently, but other cities are farther ahead. Lake Oswego, as mentioned previously, even offers grants to historic homeowners for some improvements.

Speaking of government grants, Restore Oregon’s Spencer-Hartle notes that seismic retrofits—which many historic Portland buildings desperately need—will require substantial subsidies. If subsidies aren’t attached to new requirements, he says, the city could see many more demolitions of old, unstable buildings that are prohibitively expensive to rehabilitate.

If those are the carrots Portland could consider, the City has floated sticks as well. Last fall, Mayor Charlie Hales proposed a tax on any new demolitions: $25,000 to be levied on any demo in the city, excepting those that would make way for affordable housing. Though it was never likely to make a serious dent in demolitions (even the mayor’s office admitted as much) some still saw it as a useful small step. But after running into opposition from at least three of his fellow city commissioners and both developers and community groups alike, the mayor officially withdrew the proposal in early January. The complaints ran the gamut: it was unfair; it was regressive; it could increase the cost of homes built after demolitions; it should have exemptions for increases in density (or it shouldn’t). Back in December, when the tax’s passage first looked doubtful, Hales suggested that a temporary moratorium on demos might be justified until politically viable longterm solutions could be found, but as of press time, no movement on that proposal has been made.

Meanwhile, a less controversial move might be to improve preservation-related staffing levels at the City’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). Many cities have a separate historic preservation office that shepherds willing developers through the process and toward useful incentive programs. While Portland has a team of urban design planners in the Bureau of Development Services to review proposed development projects, BPS currently lacks even one full-time dedicated historic preservation staff person to plan for the city’s stock of historic resources.

And then there are the aforementioned FAR transfers, possibly the most mutually beneficial strategy for both growth and preservation together. FAR, which stands for floor-area ratio, is essentially a measurement of the size of a building in comparison to the lot on which it sits. An FAR of 1:1, for instance, could be a one story building taking up the entire lot, or a two story building taking up half the lot. Developers of historic properties who don’t utilize their full allowable FAR can sell the remaining development rights (in other words, the air above or next to the historic structure that a new, bigger building would be allowed to take up) to another developer constructing a new building elsewhere who’d like to build a little bigger.

It can be a great way for a historic project to recoup some of the opportunity costs of not developing to a site’s full allowable potential, but only if the transaction between buyers and sellers is easy. Right now, Portland developers have to find buyers or sellers largely through word of mouth, but in some cities, municipal governments manage marketplaces where FAR is bought and sold. And in other places, says Portland State Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning Matthew Gebhardt, the government buys FAR, banks it, and then sells if off to developers who want it.

These represent only a selection of possible policies that could better preserve historic places, and behind all these ideas is a broader question of political and social will.

“I honestly wonder how far we’ll get with changing policy and creating new tools,” says Engeman, “until we get a bigger cultural shift saying, ‘these are our values; we care about this.’”

And perhaps that’s the rub: policy changes only come as fast as we will them to. Just possibly, we may be finally finding the will to prioritize affordable housing and sensitive neighborhood development. But until we place the same value and concerted effort on our architectural heritage, it’s hard to see how it will receive more than simply accidental protection.

Linn Davis is a journalist and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree candidate at Portland State University.

Rock, Water & Gravity: Alchemy Along the Willamette


Even those who know it well are challenged to find a single word that conveys the enduring power and magnetism of Willamette Falls. Centuries before European or American settlers had set foot in the region, it was an important site for fishing, trading, and community gatherings for Native American tribes and bands. Later, the falls were a magnet to early industrialists and city builders of the 1800s, who harnessed its energy to power mills that processed lumber, wool, grain, and paper.

With the possibility of up-close public access now surfacing for the first time in more than a century, Willamette Falls is the inspiration for a new partnership involving state, regional, and local public agencies and a private developer to redevelop the former 22-acre Blue Heron Paper Company mill site just southwest of downtown Oregon City—a project called the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.

Proponents claim that the Willamette Falls Legacy Project will transform this part of the metropolitan region by combining access to an unparalleled natural resource and an historic site with new economic activity. Ultimately, the project will include public access to the falls, a restored urban fabric that extends historic downtown Oregon City, and a new mixed-use development for dwellers, doers, diners, drinkers, artists, makers, strollers, cyclists, nature-lovers, and, potentially, boaters.

This vision is rooted in four core values, derived from and vetted through a robust public planning process: public access, economic development, healthy habitat, and historic and cultural interpretation.

“It will attract people not just from around the region, but it will attract people from around the country,” says Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette (Metro Council District 2). “If we do it right, it might attract people from around the world.”

Joseph Drayton, U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1841

The Magnetism of the Falls

To understand the excitement about the project, you have to experience Willamette Falls. The river roars and sends up plumes of mist as it plunges down a 40-foot drop. The sheer quantity of water cascading over the basalt ledges makes Willamette Falls second only in volume to Niagara Falls among North American waterfalls. Its Chinuk Wawa name, tfNwata, refers to “the thundering heartbeat of the falls,” according to Michael Karnosh, Ceded Lands Program Manager of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Karnosh says that the falls and the area around it is one of the region’s most culturally significant places to the 27 tribes and bands that are members of the Grand Ronde. According to a Santiam Kalapuya legend, in ancient times, Coyote and Meadowlark created the falls by dropping a rope across the river. The rope formed the falls as a place where the people could catch salmon and other fish that would otherwise be beyond reach, deep in the river.

“Because of the abundance of resources, it became a gathering and trading place,” explains Karnosh. The band built scaffolding for fishing and either traded salmon for other goods with their neighbors or allowed them to fish from their platforms in exchange for a quarter of their catch.

Today, the falls still play an important role in community life. Karnosh says that “Tribal people are closely connected to the falls. The Grand Ronde still go up to the falls in boats, still swim behind the waterfalls, and catch lamprey. The Grande Ronde does the first spring ceremony for the Chinook at Willamette Falls.”

To white settlers, the falls meant two things: a source of energy for powering industry and an obstacle to river traffic. In 1827, John McLoughlin, a fur trader with Hudson’s Bay Company and the alleged “Father of Oregon,” decided to move his headquarters from Astoria to Fort Vancouver. He blasted a mill race through the basalt near the falls for a saw mill to serve the fort. Later, he built a gristmill. By 1829, the settlement that would become incorporated as Oregon City in 1844 (earning it the epithet of “first incorporated city west of the Rockies”) began to take shape around the falls.

The falls were also a site for early experimentation in harnessing hydropower for electricity. In 1889, the nation’s first longdistance transmission of electricity occurred there. Power generated at the falls was sent from Oregon City to Portland‘s Goose Hollow, a distance of approximately 12 miles. Today, Portland General Electric operates one of the nation’s oldest currently running hydroelectric facilities at the site.

Although the falls were a boon to industry, they were an obstacle to river traffic. To solve this problem, People’s Transportation Company built Willamette Falls Locks in 1873, amid ill omens and corporate intrigue. Tribal members refused to work on its construction for fear of awakening the monster whose tongue, legend held, was buried on the west side of the  Joseph falls. A rail company attempted to sabotage the opening of the locks by monopolizing all the riverboats that might use it. After several changes in private ownership, the federal government purchased the locks in 1915. Until it was put in “Caretaker Status” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006, it had been the oldest continuously operating multiple-lift lock system in the country.

In the latter half of the 20th century, paper production became the pre-eminent industrial use on the Oregon City side of the falls. Mills operated under a succession of corporate owners, including Hawley Pulp and Paper, Publishers Paper Company, and Smurfit Stone Container Corporation, the nation’s largest producer of cardboard box materials. In 2000, Smurfit sold the mill to the employees and a New York private equity fund through the formation of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The resulting Blue Heron Paper Company recycled used paper and produced newsprint, bag papers, and specialty paper products.

Sidebar: Who’s Who

Alchemy: From Liability to Asset

Faced with a declining market and increased costs, Blue Heron Paper Mill announced its closure on February 24, 2011. The initial impact on Oregon City was dark and dramatic. The loss of 175 jobs and the closure of the city’s largest for-profit business was a significant blow, says Mayor Doug Neeley. The closure came on top of the temporary construction-related closure of the nearby Arch Bridge, a vital path to downtown Oregon City. In December 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the Willamette Falls Locks permanently due to safety concerns.

In the short term, state and local agencies partnered to create a one-stop location for information and up to two years of job training assistance available under the Federal Trade Act for the displaced workers. The Oregon City Main Street Program responded with a robust calendar of special events to draw more customers downtown and also worked with the city to secure $2.5 million for street enhancements from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

But what about the long term? According to multiple sources, several community leaders had the same thought around the same time: a 22-acre site along the Willamette River near one of the region’s hidden natural gems could be huge turnaround opportunity for the whole region. Phones began ringing, e-mail messages were exchanged, and people began meeting. Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro, and the State of Oregon rallied, and an informal public partnership was created.

The partners set about getting a handle on the unknown factors that needed to be understood before a plan could be created: hazardous waste, the soundness of the buildings, preservation of historic resources, river flooding concerns, and the impact on natural resources, to name a few. In response, Metro funded environmental assessments, a survey and appraisal, title research, structural investigations, and, with the State of Oregon, historical analyses and documentation.

The partners needed to consider the community’s needs, concerns, and ideas and foster community spirit. Oregon City, with financial participation from other public partners, led a robust public visioning process that spanned a year, involved thousands of participants, and captured more than a thousand distinct ideas and comments about site redevelopment.

“We heard all kinds of ideas, from bulldozing everything and putting in a park to preserving everything,” says Neeley.

Together, these two sources of information—technical analyses and public vision—led to the creation of the four core values of the site’s rebirth: public access, economic development, healthy habitat, and historic and cultural interpretation. These values were translated into a master plan and land-use zoning changes, which were adopted by Oregon City in November 2014.

Meanwhile, the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee Peter McKittrick focused on liquidating the mill’s assets to pay creditors, including employees who had deferred wages to try to keep the mill open. He attempted to sell the industrial machinery; when buyers could not be found, it was sold for scrap. With carrying costs for the property mounting with each passing month, time was money, and McKittrick sought an expeditious sale. After 18 months of little interest while the nation recovered from the recession, a succession of offers ensued.

The first offer, $4.1 million, came in August 2013 from Eclipse Development Group from Irvine, California. They proposed a mixed-use development featuring big box stores. That deal was predicated upon the sale of another property. When that fell through, Portland’s Langley Investment Property stepped forward with a bid of $4.9 million in December 2013. That bid also deteriorated in February 2014; the firm said it needed more time to evaluate the property.

The third offer, for $2.8 million, came later that month from Shopoff Group in Irvine, California, a real estate investment and development firm with a history of buying distressed or underperforming properties, especially in Texas and California. After that deal flopped, the fourth and final offer came from a little-known developer from Tacoma, Washington— George Heidgerken and Jon Potter of Megarock, LLC, who offered $2.2 million and a quick sale.

When Oregon City officials were unable to quickly reach the developer, the city, county, and Metro briefly considered a counter-offer, but ultimately did not proceed. Falls Legacy, LLC, (the legal entity that Heidgerken formed to purchase the site) closed the deal, and thus began the mutual courtship between developer and public partners.

The Plan and the Developer

When Heidgerken took over the property in May 2014, the public planning process was nearly complete; all that remained was the final review and adoption of a Framework Master Plan and the implementation of zoning ordinance changes. Instead of rushing forward with public hearings and adoption, the city pushed the pause button to give the new owner’s team a chance to get to know the site and become familiar with the analyses and proposed plan. Here’s what Oregon City proposed:

The Framework Master Plan distinguished between areas for development and areas to be reserved for open space because they fell within the 1996 flood inundation area. It called for re-establishing the historic Main Street grid plan, thus creating continuity with adjacent downtown Oregon City. A key element of the plan was a riverwalk that would enable the public to view and experience the falls through a walkway and series of viewing platforms. The riverwalk would include interpretive information to help visitors experience the historic, cultural, and ecological importance of the site and the falls.

The plan identified five industrial buildings that had both historic significance and economic potential and required their preservation through adaptive reuse or rehabilitation. Included among the elements to preserve were the 1865 woolen mill foundation and industrial buildings that date back to the early 20th century, some with impressive oldgrowth wooden beams. Five additional buildings were identified for full or partial retention.

In amending the zoning code, planners proposed creating a special Willamette Falls Downtown District that provided both flexibility in permitted uses and explicit policies and design guidelines to ensure that the resulting development honored the four core values identified during the visioning process. Design guidelines required the developer to honor the area’s natural setting and history, integrate the experience of the falls, take advantage of views, and utilize building materials that are durable, high-quality, and reflect the industrial character of the site.

The Conditions of Approval required that a city-assigned design evaluation board with urban design expertise review the developer’s detailed development plan for consistency with the Framework Master Plan, district policies, and design guidelines.

Planners chose to give the developer a lot of latitude and flexibility in terms of uses on the site. Permitted uses included retail trade, light industrial manufacture (including artisanal food and beverage production), offices, parks, museums, multifamily residences (including livework spaces), outdoor markets, and a host of commercial uses, including restaurants (excluding drive-through restaurants), hotels, conference facilities, studios, and galleries.

This was the public’s vision and the community’s plan; what would the new owner think?

According to Collette, Heidgerken was pleased with the work that the community had undertaken and that a vision for the site had emerged. He concurred that the site was spectacular and needed to be honored.

Ultimately, Heidgerken asked for one change to the Framework Master Plan. He requested that a parcel of land that was previously designated as unsuitable for development (because it was in the flood plain) be considered for inclusion in the plan; it was the parcel closest to the falls and offered the greatest viewing potential. The city agreed to designate the parcel for special development review/ open space, essentially setting the stage to have further conversations down the road, when the developer was prepared to discuss potential structures and uses.

The consensus among the public partners is that Heidgerken is an engaged and committed private partner who shares the community’s vision for the property. “He sees the specialness of this site,” says Collette. “We were hoping we would get a partner like George who sees in this industrial site at the base of a waterfall what we see—a magical place that’s a game-changer for our region.”

With unanimous approval by the Oregon City Planning Commission and City Council, the plan was approved in November 2014.

Next steps

The public and private partners made public access to the falls their first priority. They agree that it is not only a statement about community stewardship, but also a smart business move. Getting people to the site will spur interest and begin to reveal its economic potential to future investors and businesses.

That priority took a giant leap forward in December 2014, when Metro secured agreements with Heidgerken and PGE for public access to create the riverwalk. Falls Legacy, LLC, Heidgerken’s company, provided a 120-foot-wide waterfront easement for the riverwalk. PGE provided an easement that will enable the riverwalk to continue across a portion of the dam to a platform that provides optimal close-up viewing of the falls.

Heidgerken’s commitment also included paying 20 percent of the design and preliminary engineering expenses—approximately $900,000—and at least 20 percent of the future maintenance and operation expenses of the riverwalk.

Neeley says, “George made a big commitment—an in-perpetuity commitment—toward maintaining that area. I’m guessing that there will be a lot of developers looking at that area now.”

“The riverwalk is key for the general public to get a real feel for what goes on down there,” Heidgerken explains. “This is going to be the first chance for the general public to be on site, and it’ll be a great introduction to what Willamette Falls is all about. It’s a win-win for both of us, and it’s a good deal.”

“More important than all of that…it’s the right thing to do.”

The public partners are working on securing funds for design and phased construction and have $10 million in hand thus far. The state, Metro, county, and city recently signed a Willamette Falls Riverwalk Memorandum of Understanding that lays out their roles and responsibilities in the project. Neeley says, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see public access within three years.”

When it comes to his company’s plans, Heidgerken is reluctant to discuss specifics about the project until his team has done their work and created a detailed development plan. Instead, he talks about a range of potential uses, from hotels, restaurants, and housing for the disabled and elderly to places for kayakers to enjoy.

“It would be great if the elderly could enjoy the sounds, site, and fish. At this point, I don’t want to downplay any of the ideas,” he declares. “It will be a cool master plan that makes mixed-use work. It will involve people, history, and cashflow.”

“We aren’t going to just grab any tenant.”

He says he plans to hire historians to help the history of the site—tribal, pioneer, and industrial—come to life again. “It’s a hell of a nice site,” he concludes.

The city has its work cut out for it, as well. Neeley discloses that he expects city council to look at sources of funds for needed public improvements, such as utilities and transportation, as well as financial incentives for private development. Currently, most of the site is outside the city’s existing urban renewal district. In addition to urban renewal, other possibilities include a local improvement district and vertical tax credits.

And then there are the locks, the key to restored use of the river for recreational boating and other activities. Through the advocacy of the One Willamette River Coalition, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other parties, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that its decision to close the locks for safety reasons in 2011 had an adverse effect on an historically significant structure and tribal use of the river. In conformance with the National Historic Preservation Act, the Corps is now consulting with the community on methods to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” the adverse effects, including potentially repairing the locks and transferring or leasing them to a third party that would maintain and operate them full- or part-time.

All of the parties continue their work to find support and funding for the entire project through federal agencies. They have succeeded in igniting the imagination of staff within the Environmental Planning Agency, where a copy of the inspiring and beautifully illustrated 76-page Vision for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project is said to have an honored place on the coffee table of a key EPA official in Washington, D.C.

Collette asserts that this is one plan that is not going to sit on a shelf. She ticks off the reasons: an improving economy, a developer who sees this as a legacy project, the public access and involvement, and, most importantly, the magic of the falls themselves.

Karnosh agrees, saying, “I think that the public will have a good experience of the falls and even hear that heartbeat. When you can get close to a place like that and really experience it, then you are going to care about it and protect it.”

Andrée Tremoulet, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor and research associate with the Center for Urban Studies at Portland State. Through her firm, Commonworks Consulting, she works with public agencies and nonprofits to address fair and affordable housing challenges.

Growing Deeper Roots


Almost everyone has a favorite tree. Whether it is the largest, the most beautiful, or just a tree that holds a special memory for you, these arboreal embodiments of history and geography make up a large part of our environment. For many who grew up as city dwellers, a street tree might be their first experience of nature. Neighborhoods and even cities can be defined by their urban forest (or lack of one). The urban forest includes trees along the street, in parks and natural areas, in commercial and industrial areas, and in our own backyards. The urban forest is more than just trees though. It is a complex system that affects and is affected by other plants, wildlife, soils, and the air around our city.((Portland Parks and Recreation, “Portland Urban Forestry Management Plan 2014,” March 2014, i, In the Portland Metro area, the way we manage our trees varies widely depending on the size, capacity, and needs of the city. Growing a healthy urban forest takes a village, and as our population grows, local urban forestry programs are looking to the community to help them protect and preserve the trees in our cities. Understanding how our urban tree canopy is managed and the challenges that it faces helps us to ensure Portland’s urban forest infrastructure for current and future generations.

Sidebar: What is Urban Forestry?

Why Do Trees Matter?

The value of trees to a city can hardly be overstated. They provide shade and mitigate urban heat island effect. They promote carbon dioxide exchange, reduce energy use, reduce air pollution, improve water quality, and mitigate stormwater runoff.((University of Washington, Human Dimensions of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, “What is Urban and Community Forestry,” We also know that interactions of humans with trees in urban settings have positive psycho-social benefits.((Andrea Faber Taylor, Angela Wiley, Frances E. Kuo, and William C. Sullivan, “Growing up in the Inner City: Green Spaces as Places to Grow,” Environment and Behavior 30, no. 1 (1998): 3–27.)) The presence of nature and greenspace in cities has been shown to help reduce stress and anxiety, improve medical recovery, contribute to greater productivity and satisfaction with work, and generally enhance quality of life.((University of Washington, Human Dimensions of Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, “What is Urban and Community Forestry,” As Jill Jonnes, author of Urban Forests puts it, walking down a tree-lined street can make one feel as though they are walking below “the most perfect roof in nature, [it is] enough to make one feel civil, even neighbourly.”((Jonnes, Jill. Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape. New York. Penguin Random House, 2017.))

In the Portland Metro region, urban forestry programs vary from city to city. Major cities like Portland and Vancouver have comprehensive programs. Both cities have a designated city forester, an urban forestry plan, and outreach and education programs that host events and trainings for the community. The City of Portland additionally has a staff of arborists dedicated to maintenance, and staff who handle permitting. Cities like Gresham and Lake Oswego do not have the capacity to run a dedicated urban forestry program, but instead they depend on a variety of partners to help manage their trees. These partners can range from volunteer-driven groups like forestry councils and nonprofit organizations, to state or county run programs designed to support conservation efforts. Gresham’s small-capacity forestry program is led by a natural resources planner in the Urban Design and Planning Department. The program has a lean budget and limited resources, so it relies on coordination with other city departments to keep the urban forest healthy and abundant. The city’s Transportation and Park Operation Divisions handle some basic tree removal and replacement in streets and parks, and the Environmental Services Department handles tree installation, riparian restoration, and pest management. Until recently, the City of Gresham had little budget to plant new trees or provide the community with tree education. However, in 2017, Multnomah County, the City of Gresham, and Friends of Trees jointly received a $143,000 three-year Partners in Conservation grant from the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (funded by Oregon’s Department of Natural Resources) for tree planting and forestry education. The grant will help Gresham grow their community forestry program to include education, outreach, and tree plantings. The city and its grant partners plan to hold a Trees and Health Symposium next year, a culmination of the work done with the grant money, showing the planting numbers and demonstrating how trees benefit air quality, public health, and walkability.

Sidebar: The Dollar Value of Trees

Challenges to Building a Healthy Urban Forest

Caring for urban trees comes with its own set of challenges, from combating destructive pathogens and pests to addressing concerns about environmental equity. A healthy urban forest should be diverse in both age and species, abundant, and resilient, but urban trees take a lot of abuse. Many are not planted in an ideal location, while others suffer damage from cars or vandalism. Keeping our city trees healthy is a big job.


One of the greatest threats to an urban forest is pests and pathogens. Portland has felt the effects of Dutch elm disease for many years, and the city is taking steps to manage and mitigate tree loss. In Europe, the American Midwest, and East Coast, Dutch elm disease and emerald ash borer have decimated urban forests, causing tree loss often in the millions and leaving formerly tree-lined roads without greenery or shade.((City of Portland Parks and Recreation, “Elm Protection Program and Dutch Elm Disease (DED),” article/424029)) Not only do these pests cause huge tree casualties, but as a result they cost cities millions of dollars to clean up the diseased and dying trees. Cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are still paying for the damage these destructive pests have caused. Research by the US Forest service predicts that the cumulative effects of emerald ash borer will cost an estimated $10.7 billion nationally by 2019. This includes the cost of ash tree treatment, removal, and replacement (re-planting of new trees) for an estimated loss of 17 million ash trees.((US Forest Service, “Emerald Ash Borer,” https:// effects_impacts/cost_of_infestation/))

We are lucky that the Portland region has not yet seen the large-scale devastation that other US cities have because many of these pests have not yet reached us, but one case of contamination can quickly spread across an entire city with devastating and costly results.


Maintenance is another important component of most urban forestry programs, though it is often overlooked and underfunded. Angie DiSalvo, Outreach and Science Supervisor for Portland’s Urban Forestry Department says, “Tree planting is a very visible, feel-good activity that captures the public’s attention, but it’s just one small part of the big picture. Maintenance doesn’t have that same appeal. Not only will trees that are not maintained have shorter lifespans, but they will cost more in the long run. Like with anything else, a little preventative maintenance goes a long way.” While trees have huge monetary benefits for cities, they can also be costly to maintain and remove if they are not cared for correctly early in their lives. Currently, most cities in the Portland Metro area have a similar approach to street tree maintenance, where the city regulates the trees in public rights-of-way, but the person who owns the property adjacent to a tree is responsible for maintaining the tree.

Required maintenance includes pruning, planting, tree removal, leaf disposal, and sidewalk repair from tree root damage. This means people may find themselves having to pay to prune or remove a tree from the planting strip in front of their house, even though it is in the right-of-way that is owned by the city. In addition, property owners can be held liable for damages caused by the trees.((Davey Resource Group, “City of Portland, Oregon, Initial Assessment of the Costs of Managing Street Trees as a Public Asset,” June 2009, 3, These requirements have caused some confusion and frustration for residents, and can put a burden on low-income residents.

Since they rely on residents to plant and maintain the trees in the rights-of-way adjacent to their property, it is important to urban forestry programs to educate citizens on what types of trees to plant and how to care for them. In cities like Portland, Vancouver, and Gresham, urban forestry programs emphasize the idea of “right tree, right place.” They want to ensure that residents know how to select a tree that is going to fit well in its planting space, will provide them with the maximum environmental benefits, and won’t become a hazard. Many cities have a recommended list of trees to plant, and require that the species chosen is approved by the city through a permitting process. Cities also often have a list of trees that cannot be planted because they are overabundant or considered invasive. In the Portland Metro area, these lists often include trees like black locust, Norway maple, and tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima).

Though there are restrictions, if a resident wants to plant a tree that the city doesn’t necessarily want or that isn’t on the approved planting list, foresters are often willing to work with residents. Most importantly, urban foresters want people to be happy with their tree so they will continue to care for it as it matures.

Sidebar: Dutch Elm Disease


It has been well established that trees bring many benefits to urban neighborhoods. Besides the environmental, health, and aesthetic benefits, they also have been shown to raise overall property values.((Kaid Benfied, “The Case for More Urban Trees,” CityLab (blog), July 31,2012, However, the way trees and their benefits are distributed across neighborhoods is not always equitable. Recent research has found significant disparity in urban canopy cover, with primarily low income and minority neighborhoods commonly being underserved.((Rachel S. Danford, Chingwen Cheng, Michael W. Strohbach, Robert Ryan, Craig Nicolson, and Paige S. Warren, “What Does It Take to Achieve Equitable Urban Tree Canopy Distribution? A Boston Case Study.,” Cities and the Environment (CATE) 7, issue 1, article 2 (2014).)) This begs the question central to environmental justice: who gets what, when, and why? This question becomes even more important as cities like Portland seek to increase urban canopy cover as part of urban forestry management plans or larger climate change mitigation strategies.

Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services and their Urban Forestry Department both have projects focusing on equity and increasing tree canopy in underserved neighborhoods.((City of Portland Environmental Services, “Portland’s Tree Planting: Actions for Equity,” May 25, 2016, According to Angie DiSalvo, “one of Portland’s biggest challenges is that our canopy is not equitably distributed. Simply put, higher income areas have more trees and greater capacity to pay for street tree maintenance. This isn’t unique to Portland and there are a lot of reasons why… Portland Parks and Recreation is currently partnering with Portland State University’s Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab to develop a citywide tree planting strategy so that we can improve access to tree canopy for all Portlanders.” DiSalvo says that equitable access to trees has become a big focus recently, especially given that trees provide so many benefits for communities beyond clean air and water. Jessica George of the City of Vancouver’s Urban Forestry Program echoed this sentiment, saying that Vancouver is also seeing a correlation between income level and tree canopy. The city has been trying to focus more tree planting efforts in low-income neighborhoods. In these neighborhoods, they work with residents who can’t afford trees, by partnering with local nonprofit Friends of Trees to provide trees for low or no cost to residents, and, if possible, to help residents with watering when the trees are still young. The City of Gresham suspects inequities in their urban forest as well, and is now mobilizing to address this issue. Tina Osterink, who leads urban forestry planning efforts in Gresham, says that the city is in the early stages of planning a tree inventory in the Rockwood/West Gresham region, a neighborhood that has a high rate of childhood asthma and experiences higher summer temperatures than the rest of the city due to urban heat island effect. Heat Island research raises concerns about public health, especially in this area where many residents commute on foot or by public transit. The city plans to inventory the region’s public trees in an effort to identify areas of limited canopy and high potential for planting. Increasing the tree canopy in this vulnerable area will provide residents with more shade, cleaner air, and a more walkable neighborhood.

Sidebar: Tree Inventories

The Role of Nonprofits in Urban Tree Management

Urban and community forestry has, from the outset, been driven by people who love trees. Having an engaged citizen base of tree stewards builds the capacity of city forestry programs that are often strapped for resources. Partnerships with nonprofit organizations (NPOs) and citizen groups are central to community forestry efforts around the country and in the Portland metro area. These groups can be anything from a formal tree group to a neighborhood association with a team of tree lovers who want to take care of trees in their neighborhood. A nonprofit organization may take on short-term projects that reflect emerging community needs (e.g., youth environmental education, or watershed restoration), or act as a liaison between government agencies that may have similar goals but do not have the administrative structure in place for community programs. Some contract with local government to provide specific services, such as green infrastructure maintenance or neighborhood tree planting, making use of their volunteer recruitment and training capability. These NPOs often are funded by grants from private firms, federal, state, or regional government.((K. L. Wolf, “Introduction to Urban and Community Forestry Programs in the United States,” Landscape Planning and Horticulture 4, no. 3, (Japan 2003) 19–28.)) An example of an NPO start-up in the Portland area that has grown to be a regional partner in urban forestry is Friends of Trees. Friends of Trees was founded in 1989 by a resident tree lover who started doing tree plantings in Portland neighborhoods. They have grown into a large organization that has planted more than 600,000 trees and native plants in more than 120 neighborhoods in six counties across Oregon and Washington.((Friends of Trees, “What We Do,”

Urban forestry committees are also important community leaders in tree management. A committee is generally made up of a small group of residents who advise the mayor and city council on local and regional tree-related issues. These volunteer committee members help guide the city in tree policy to develop good management practices to conserve the city’s trees and forests. Members are often experts or practitioners, but can also be amateur tree lovers. Gresham’s Urban Forestry Subcommittee is made up of citizen tree advocates who provide recommendations for city staff on things like tree preservation and tree plans, as well as helping to coordinate Tree City USA activities like Arbor Day. Several of these dedicated volunteer members have served on the subcommittee since the mid-1990s. Portland’s Urban Forestry Commission is composed of eleven volunteers, appointed by the mayor, who “have demonstrated an interest in the preservation of trees and the beautification of Portland.”((City of Portland Parks and Recreation, “Urban Forestry Commission,”
)) The Forestry Commission reviews development plans for their potential impacts on trees, acts as an appeals board for tree permits, and sponsors Portland’s Heritage Tree Program.

Sidebar: Tree Diversity

The Future Forest

Urban forest managers are constantly seeking to improve our trees’ resilience to threats from climate change, exotic pests and pathogens, and pressures from development and increasing density. They are also increasingly looking to improve equitable access to trees and their many benefits for all metro residents. Growing a healthy urban forest can’t be accomplished by a single city bureau. In the Portland region, there are many organizations and city bureaus who work together to plant, maintain, regulate, and promote trees. Partnerships with nonprofits, schools, and state and county organizations help to build the capacity of our region’s community forestry efforts. Portland Metro residents play an incredibly important role in these efforts, as they care for the trees not just in their yards, but also in the public right-of-way. Whether a city has a large- or small-scale urban forestry program, they rely on residents to help grow and care for a diverse and bountiful urban forest. Everyday people can become champions for trees in their own neighborhoods, spreading the word to friends and neighbors. Our future forest depends on the commitment of the entire community in order to thrive.

Sachi Arakawa is a graduate student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program. The focus of her studies is environmental planning and community development. Sachi uses her background in Geographic Information Science to understand relationships between humans and their