Reed’s attitude is more appalling than its decision

By S. Renee Mitchell

Reed College had the opportunity to endear itself to its Southeast Portland neighbors. But the wealthy institution, which prides itself on spitting out intellectually creative types, is acting like a scaredy-pants.

Despite months of reassurances otherwise, Reed recently decided to let the state’s last remaining streetcar garage be demolished. The 92-year-old landmark, on the southern edge of the Sellwood neighborhood, is a rare legacy of the original streetcar system that was critical to Portland’s early development.

“There are no other ones left that are intact as this one,” says David Skilton, a specialist at the state Office of Historic Preservation. “This is absolutely the best example in the state.”

He says the trolley barn, which borders Waverley Country Club, meets the criteria to make it eligible for the national Register of Historic Places.

And although the building is sitting on a smorgasbord of contaminated soil, even the contaminated soil experts–the folks at the state Department of Environmental Quality–say there are ways to deal with that.

If you’re creative. If you care about preserving the precious few relics of the city’s past. If you’re not a scaredy-pants.

“They knew how much this meant to the neighborhood and they didn’t even call,” says Eileen Fitzsimons, a 23-year Sellwood resident. “They just signed the papers and then called us three days later.”

Sellwood folks think Reed weaseled out of the chance to save the building by blaming a consultant’s recommendation that Reed clean up the site before a developer builds townhouses. “We don’t want in the future for some contaminant charge to come back,” Reed spokeswoman Wendy Shattuck says.

Art DeMuro, president of Venerable Properties, says he had tried to work that out. He was one of two developers willing to pay $2.5 million for property that has been given to Reed as a gift. But only his company was interested in saving the building.

Venerable was willing to negotiate with the state to limit Reed’s liability. And it wanted to buy the as is–and save Reed about $800,000 in cleanup costs–even before required testing to see whether the contamination might spread.

Given those assurances, DeMuro says, he thought negotiations were moving along until his attorney got a faxed letter.

“I’m broken-hearted and broken-walleted over this,” DeMuro says. “It just hurts ’cause Reed didn’t have to go this route.”

The school acknowledges that it could have done a better job pacifying its critics. But they were so darned emotional about this issues that Reed eventually felt justified in ignoring them and doing what it wanted to do.

“We could have, and yes, we probably should have, contacted the neighbors to let them know of the final sale decision prior to making it public, and for this we are sorry,” Shattuck says. “They had been so very heated with us for so many months… that frankly, they would probably be just as inflamed had we made that gesture.”

Skilton’s office, meanwhile, is trying to figure out whether there’s a chance that federal soil-clean rules could be used to delay the demolitions.

“We can slow it down, but that’s about all we can do,” Skilton says. The intent, he says, is “to say: ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ “

For an honest answer to that question, though, Reed would have to see beyond its own privileged reflection.

S. Renee Mitchell: 503-221-8142; rmitch@news.oregonian.com