By Allan Classen
Construction noise and disruption have been a fact of life in the Pearl District longer than most of its residents have lived there. But the work going on at Northwest 13th and Glisan streets last year was noisome in novel ways.
The project was a penthouse office and elevator shaft atop the five-story, 1907 KEEN Footwear company headquarters at 1313 NW Glisan St.
Claire (last name withheld), homeowners’ association president of the adjacent Modern Confectionery Lofts condominiums, began tracking the irregularities last August.
That’s when R&H Construction Co. crews began to regularly disrupt sleeping patterns at about 4:45 a.m. by setting up a crane on Northwest 13th Avenue. They also closed the block to vehicles.
“R&H Construction consistently violates the conditions even of this falsified document by starting well before 5 a.m., by setting up the crane far more frequently than they had originally indicated and by consistently using back-up beepers at these times, which the noise variance explicitly forbids … and creating excessive noise by throwing around materials like stacks of wooden boards, dragging fences,” Claire said.
Beyond the annoyance, the commotion came without warning.
“No street closure notices or noise variances were posted or mailed to neighbors,” she added, “despite calls to PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation) and the Noise Control Office. And despite looking at PDX Maps, we cannot find evidence that any such permits exist.”
Could a major company at a highly visible site really skirt such basic requirements?
After the dust settled and the crane moved on, R&H President John Ward finally admitted this was the case.
Last month, the company was denied a noise variance for another job in North Portland due to a pattern of misconduct at previous locations, chiefly the KEEN building. The city Noise Review Board did not fine R&H but put it on a short leash, requiring company officials to appear before the board at one of its monthly meetings to seek future noise variances. Members of the public will be permitted to speak in opposition to such requests, and special conditions can be written to address particular concerns.
Judging from his reticence in responding to questions from the NW Examiner for this story, there are probably ways Ward would rather be spending his time.
The first tip-off of funny business on 13th Avenue was the posting of a city document with an extreme alignment problem.
“After one resident of our building confronted the construction company in September about the 4:45 a.m. starting times, [a company employee] produced a noise variance, which they posted to our front door on Sept. 12. This document showed several spaces where text appeared to have been whited out and typed over in a new font,” Claire wrote in an email to the Examiner.
“After providing a copy of this document to the Noise Control Office, Paul van Orden confirmed that the document had been altered substantially … in order to give greater allowances to the construction company.”
It was not the only violation. The street was closed repeatedly without proper permits, although PBOT took no remedial action. A records request verified that R&H applied for 16 street closure dates between August and December but nine were withdrawn or not granted for other reasons. Claire is certain the street was closed on at least 14 other dates without a permit.
She was awoken one morning to find the huge crane operating 2 feet away from her car, which was parked on 13th Avenue as usual because no notices of an impending street closure had been posted.
“When we confronted them, they shrugged and claimed they were not required to block off parking spaces,” she said. “We needed their assistance to remove the car from the parking spot.”
She wishes she had taken a photograph to document that situation.
She kept the doctored noise variance for that reason. The allowable dates were changed from “once every two weeks” to “intermittent,” essentially placing no limit on the number of days the crane could be operated between August and November.
When asked to explain the unauthorized editing, R&H Superintendent Josh Merrell told the Examiner that the changes were made to provide more information to the public.
Ward also explained that the revisions “were not really doctoring the form” and in any case “seem like a benefit” to neighbors by giving more specific information.
The claim of providing more specific information is puzzling, for although the added language mentions two dates, in another place it allows excess noise on any date within the four-month range.
“We’re trying to be a good neighbor,” said Ward, though conceding that “in hindsight, it would have been better to post a separate notice. I apologize for that, but I think his intent was good.”
Later, Ward sent an email further explaining the incident.
“We investigated the complaints and have confirmed that an employee did mark up and distribute a permit document in an effort to communicate with neighbors about a particular street closure and noise variance. While the action was done in an honest attempt to provide clear communication to neighbors, we acknowledge that this was not the right way to communicate this information and are sorry for any confusion this may have caused.
“We will strive to be better neighbors moving forward.”
But according to a June 1 decision signed by Noise Control Officer van Orden, R&H soon fell into a familiar pattern.
While working on The Canyons, under construction at 3450 N. Williams St., R&H had “a full crew of workers” on the job on Memorial Day, a noise code holiday on which noise variances are not allowed, van Orden wrote. On other occasions, employees worked “loudly well past 6 p.m. and sometimes to midnight.”
It all fit a pattern that van Orden had seen once too often.
“R&H Construction, has a past history of construction projects violating the city’s normal construction hours,” read his letter of denial. “They have received warning letter notices in the past educating their company about the permitted construction hours from the city.
“On a recent project for KEEN Shoes in the Pearl District, a representative of the applicant was found to have produced their own noise variance that was shared with the community. It can logically be argued this was presented as a representation of a formal city document.”
The variance for The Canyons was denied June 1. Ward said the decision was not appealed. “We revised our plans and did not need the variance any longer.” He did not explain what modifications were undertaken, but limiting construction to within the 7 a.m.-6 p.m. period would have sufficed.
Van Orden said the city does not often deny noise variances, and even then the move is not onerous. R&H ppplications will not be processed between monthly board meetings, and the applicant must come prepared with details to answer questions from board members and immediate neighbors of the job site. The whole process empowers neighbors and leads to better compliance by the applicants, he said.