• Allan Classen

Puzzle lurks behind Forest Park entry

A PCB-contaminated wetland along Northwest St. Helens Road at Kittridge Avenue is to be covered by a parking lot for the proposed entrance to Forest Park. Some park activists suspect that remediating the pollution may be the parking lot’s main purpose. Photo by Wesley Mahan

By Allan Classen

Extravagant plans for a Forest Park entrance along Highway 30 were mysteriously shelved last year. Instead of a visitor center and recreation facilities such as zip lines and a tramway, among the Disneylandish ideas floated in 2017, Portland Parks & Recreation is now content with paving a parking lot, installing a trailhead and handling stormwater runoff.

The original $18 million-$20 million project was promoted with an elaborate $2.3 million public engagement process. But PP&R is now advancing a stripped down approach built for speed as the big picture ideas have been put off in a vague Phase II that may be 10 years away.

Work on Phase I will begin this summer or fall. Why the urgency to do something, even if just a parking lot for an entrance to nowhere?

Although the trailhead will connect to Firelane 1, that road has a 30 percent grade, making it too steep for most cyclists and hikers, not to mention such a route has little appeal to visitors seeking foot paths through the forest.

The Portland Parks & Recreation land rises abruptly at a 30-percent grade at the edge of the proposed Forest Park entrance.

The project may have little to do with enhancing the park experience. The planned parking lot just happens to be on the site of a toxic chemical spill that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is demanding the city clean up by the end of the year. In February, DEQ announced a $458,000 fine for failing to prevent toxic waste from leaching into the Willamette River.

The specified remediation involves an asphalt covering of the toxic PCBs left from years of old transformers and electrical equipment stored there by Brazil Electric Co., which sold the land to the city in 2005.

The wetland next to the former electric equipment supplier is contaminated. Photo by Wesley Mahan

The proposed parking lot just happens to be planned over the area where PCBs have accumulated. So the entrance project might better be called a DEQ remediation measure with parking stalls striped on top.

That’s how it looks to two Forest Park advocates who have been following this saga for years.

“The whole idea of the nature center was to put a plug on these toxic wastes,” said Northwest Portland resident and attorney Tom Cunningham. “I didn’t quite grasp that at first.”

Although Cunningham filed an appeal with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals last year to block the full-blown original entrance project—in part due to excessive traffic noise and inaccessibility to the rest of the park—it all made sense to him when he read about the DEQ fine.

Catherine Thompson, who has saved virtually every available document related to the entrance project, has come to the same conclusion.

“We discovered the proposed parking lot will consume all that remains of the $4.8 million allocated for the visitor center doing the DEQ remediation,” Thompson said. “This is the entire rationale for the repair of the short uphill segment of Firelane 1—replacing drains and paving the parking lot to cap the site.”

Shaded areas denote location of soil contamination.

Portland Parks & Recreation provided a response to these assertions through spokesperson Mark Ross, who wrote, “PP&R shared the fact that the site was a former industrial site with a very low level of residual contamination that was signed off on by DEQ, along with other site constraints pertaining to stormwater control that would need to be addressed. … The consent order is a public document and is readily available as such.”

All true, but the bureau did not share the fact that the 2014 order was well in arrears or that the parking lot apparently gained high priority because it was doing double duty as required remediation.

Ross also said the fine was reduced to $20,000 “as long as the bureau completes the project elements the agency requires by Dec. 31, 2021.”

DEQ calculated the $458,000 fine based on the city’s estimate of remediation costs and was willing to forgo payment as long as the city was making progress.

DEQ Public Affairs Specialist Lauren Wirtis, noting that the city recently submitted all permit applications for the required work, told the NW Examiner, “As long as we’re seeing that kind of progress, we’ll be OK.”

Fire danger

Meanwhile, another park threat looms on the back burner. It is related to the entrance project in that it is not part of the entrance project—but in some minds should have been.

Cunningham and Thompson opposed the entrance project on several grounds, mostly because the elaborate new infrastructure would not fulfill the primary mission of preserving the park. Why attract more visitors when usage already strains the park’s ecosystems and staffing available for maintenance and enforcement of park rules?

Runoff has rutted a steep trail just above the contaminated wetland site. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality found that such runoff has leached PCBs into the Willamette River. Photo by Wesley Mahan

John Thompson, Catherine’s husband, spelled out the fire danger last year in an email to state Rep. Mitch Greenlick:

“After the Eagle Creek fire, we know that no forest is safe and that firelanes play a critical role. Firelane 1 is the only firelane in Forest Park that runs across the base of the forest. All others run from top to bottom of the ridge and are considered less useful in the event of a forest fire.

“Firelane 1 is in terrible condition. In some spots it is only about three feet wide due to small landslides. A parking lot adjacent to the base will lead to accelerated degradation because of increased foot and bike traffic.

“Although City Council acknowledged that Firelane 1 needs repair in 2018, there is no budget to make repairs [nor is it] part of this project.”

Thompson also noted a growing number of homeless camps below the firelane.

“A fireman from Station 1 told us that they respond to smoldering ground fires resulting from abandoned campfires in Forest Park with some regularity and must carry firefighting equipment on their backs,” he added.

Portland Fire & Rescue responded to 157 homeless camp fires in the first three weeks of April, a pace far above past experience.

Thompson asked Greenlick to suggest that Parks Director Adena Long make repairs to Firelane 1 a prerequisite to building a parking lot, which might attract more camping in the vicinity.

“Given your prior support and the state funding you secured,” Thompson concluded in his query to Greenlick, “I was hoping your letter would have influence in their decision-making.”

Greenlick wrote to Long as requested.

Aerial depiction of the footprint of the proposed parking area.

“While I have generally remained in support of this project, his message raises significant concerns,” he wrote. “Would you help me understand the impact the currently designed project has on the safety of Forest Park? We should be very careful about degrading the safety of the park. Has there been an environmental impact study on the effects of Phase 1? Are we really ready to go?”

Greenlick died about three weeks later without receiving an answer. A year later, Long did not respond to the Examiner’s request to state her position.


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