Streetcar garage reaches end of line

Reed College decides the building must go to clean up contamination on the property

By Wade Nkrumah

A landmark 92-year-old former streetcar garage in the Sellwood neighborhood will be demolished, despite strong neighborhood opposition.

Demolition will allow soil at the site to be cleaned of contaminants. It will also pave way for the development of up to 81 town house on the property, which Reed College sold last week for $2.5 million to developers Jim Morton and Drew Prell.

Wendy Shattuck, public affairs director for the college, said the high level of contamination at the site leaves no choice but to level the building.

“The advice that we’re getting–and our understanding–is that the only way to really clean it is to get in there and under there and move that soil,” she said.

She said site cleaning would take about a year and cost the college about $800,000, which will come from sale proceeds.

“So, that’s where we are,” Shattuck said, “and it’s quite disappointing from nay perspectives because we had really hoped that there would be no harm to that building.”

Another bid

The college upset Sellwood leadership and some residents by negotiating with Morton and Prell, who planned to build new town houses at the expense of the approximately 90,000-square-foot garage. Neighborhood leaders earlier this spring pressed the college to sell the 2.5-acre site to Venerable Properties. That company also offered $2.5 million and pledged to save the former garage as part of a larger redevelopment.

The property, at the southern edge of Sellwood, bordering the Waverley Country Club, is several miles from the college’s Southeast Portland campus on the northern edge of the Eastmoreland neighborhood. It was part of a gift to the college three years ago.

Robert Schmidt, president of Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association, said Reed could have been more sincere in its dealings with the neighborhood and Venerable.

“I would like to get an explanation directly from Reed about why the decision was made,” Schmidt said. “The way that was done is really unprofessional, and… I think it’s very discourteous to their neighbors. We’ve tried so hard to save this building.”

Soil contamination was discovered in a study conducted for Reed by Hahn and Associates, an environmental consulting firm that specialized in cleanup of hazardous materials.

Oil 12 feet down

Roger Brown, a principal with Hahn, said the firm recommended a “complete” cleanup of the site, which he said requires demolishing the building. He said hydraulic oil found as deep as 12 feet beneath the building’s floor had contaminated up to 13,000 tons of soil.

Brown said the oil contains carcinogenic compounds. He said other contaminants found were metal lead and toluene.

Brown discounted capping, a process that involves building a concrete cap on the site that would protect people and the environmental from the contaminated soil. He said capping would not be a viable option for residential development because of a “perception of contamination below the floor, as well as there’s some uncertainty as to how this would be view by DEQ.”

Still, Art DeMuro, Venerable president, said he thought capping could have been used to save the building.

Alan Kiphut, manager of environmental cleanup and tanks program at the Department of Environmental Quality, said capping is a potentially viable option for the Reed site. But, he said, he did not endorse capping in conversation with DeMuro about cleanup.

“We talked about it in the contest of general approach” to clean up, Kiphut said. “We talked about whether or not buildings can serve as caps that have contamination problems. And the answer is ‘yes’ in many cased, if not most.”

More study called for

However, he said, the department had not collected much information on the site when DeMuro approached the agency. He said more ground-water and soil samples would be need to determine whether capping the site would be sufficient.

“There need to be more investigation done at the site to really determine what the contamination levels are…and whether or not it’s moving say, from underneath the building into the ground water,” Kiphut said.

“And assuming that it’s note then there’s no reason to tear down at building to clean up some contamination under it if it’s not posing a threat to public health or the environment.”

The argument to preserve the former streetcar garage building centers on history for many in Sellwood, where a mix of antique stores and old Portland wood frame houses creates a bucolic, small-town setting.

The streetcar garage stands among the few connections to Sellwood’s grittier past. Just west of the garage is a building that has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been converted into offices. It shares a block with 10 town houses that have been built in the past several years.

Now Sellwood’s southern section south of Tacoma Street and west of 17th Avenue is poised for development of as many as 132 town houses under three proposals being reviewed by the city.

Still many residents think loss of the streetcar garage building and development of town houses there would be a jarring change in the feel of that area.

“It’s just kind of a shabby way to treat people,” Schmidt said.

Wade Nkrumah: 503-294-7627; wadenkrumah@news.oregonian.com