The emerging debate over the future of West Hayden Island may be a bellwether of the Portland area's values and approach to city building in the future and possibly even an argument for a regional port authority.
The approximately 1,200-acre Hayden Island, located on the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland, saw its east side developed decades ago. It is home to the Jantzen Beach shopping center, large hotels, residential communities and boating docks.
The western portion, however, has remained undeveloped.
"Its 826 acres of wetland, grassland, forest, beaches and shallow-water salmon habitat represent some of the last intact wildlife habitat on our otherwise developed and degraded urban river system," write Audubon Society conservation director Bob Sallinger and Willamette Riverkeeper executive director Travis Williams in a July 28 Oregonian editorial. "Its location at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers places it at a critical juncture for migrating fish and bird populations. It is also entirely in the flood plain - in 1996, the entire area was underwater."
"If we are serious about restoring ecological health to our urban landscape," the op-ed continues, "this is the last place we should be considering converting to industrial terminals and parking lots."
The Friends of West Hayden Island also note the island has "81 species of birds (including nesting pairs of bald eagles and heron), nine species of mammals (including deer and beaver), four species of amphibians (including a rare variety of painted turtle), nine species of butterflies, large forests of native cottonwoods, federally-protected wetlands, and shallows for juvenile salmon."
The island also "contains the natural regional flyways for migratory and year-round bird populations that use both east-west and north-south flight patterns, and is the centerpiece of the 150-square mile ecosystem," the Friends' website also notes. "This includes Vancouver Lake, the Smith-Bybee Lakes and wetlands, Sauvie and Government Islands, and the confluence of the Upper Willamette and Lower Columbia Rivers systems."
Industrial expansion is what the Port of Portland and the city's own long-range planning have in mind. West Hayden Island was added to the region’s urban growth boundary in 1983 for marine industrial purposes. No industrial development is in process for the island currently, nor is it currently even within City of Portland boundaries. But the City could annex the area and create zoning for industrial use as stipulated 27 years ago.
Last Thursday (August 5), before a council chambers so full it had to be partially cleared to comply with the fire code, Portland's City Council authorized staff to plan for building 300 acres of marine terminals on West Hayden Island. The council voted 4-0, with Commissioner Randy Leonard absent, to authorize further planning. The Bureau of Planning & Sustainability is charged with developing a proposal by December 2011 for annexing the island and identifying 300 acres for deep-water terminal development.
In an Oregonian report by Scott Learn, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish stressed that decision isn't final. "What we are agreeing to is a road map for the second phase of analysis," Fish said. "This does not call the question on whether we go forward on annexation."
The council also ordered further study of how to best use existing Port lands, options for restoring the undeveloped portions of the island, a possible new bridge from the island south to North Marine Drive, and opportunities for increased coordination with the Port of Vancouver.
In other words, the Council seems to be preparing to go forward with industrial development while covering its bases by showing that other options have been explored.
Expanding the industrial zone into West Hayden Island would cost taxpayers an estimated $100 to $150 million in new public infrastructure. But one can't discount the economic argument for expanding the port's industrial terminal area. The Port of Portland says expanding into West Hayden could bring an estimated 1,200 jobs, although that would be over a 10 to 20-year period.
But Sallinger of the Audubon Society questions those numbers, because they're from the Port itself, the agency arguing for the expansion. He told Learn that City of Portland should hire consultants independent of the Port to study whether the Port can redevelop its own lands instead of expanding and whether other Columbia River ports have room to meet projected demand.
On the Port of Portland's website, the following arguments are also made for expansion:
"Local waterfront industrial land is needed. There is an identified scarcity of waterfront industrial lands within the City of Portland per the city’s industrial atlas and inventory and the City’s Draft Economic Opportunity Analysis. Additionally, the city’s “Portland Plan,” a required land use planning process that is currently being conducted, identifies the need for 600 acres of industrial land within city limits."
"Regional industrial land is needed. Our regional government, Metro is considering urban growth boundary expansion. To comply with state law, more industrial land must be found within the urban growth boundary. Annexing and zoning WHI would help address the region’s industrial land shortage and establish environmental resource protection levels."
It gave me pause that the Port is advocating for expansion. The text I drew from on the agency's website also acknowledges the environmental concerns and resources in West Hayden Island, but I still question if it's right for a public agency to make the case for its industry.
On the other hand, there is some geographical perspective we must keep in mind: The proposed 300-acre development would take up less than half the island, leaving the rest for restoration. "This is not development running amok," Bruce Halperin of the Oregon Trucking Associations, told City Council (as quoted in Learn's article). "Of course, it would be nice not to develop the land at all, but our economic and social needs don't afford us that luxury."
Then you have the question of the Columbia Crossing and how this whole plan fits together. Are these planning and exploration efforts by various panels and government working groups talking to each other? Isn't there, or shouldn't there be, a comprehensive plan for this whole area? Unfortunately, that becomes difficult because this is such a jumbled set of jurisdictions, a place where city boundaries end, then the river separating two states, two cities and two counties. It's like a multi-headed beast.
Meanwhile, the Port of Portland has already been spending decades dumping on West Hayden Island contaminated toxic dredge material on the island, they were outraged.
The port maintains the contaminants - lead, zinc and DDT - were found at very low levels. "Throughout the process it has been deemed as safe for human and natural resources," said Josh Thomas of the Port of Portland in a KGW story. But Department of Environmental Quality officials said that the low level contaminants could cause long-term harm to wildlife, especially birds.
"It’s a relatively low level of toxicity but it is absolutely contaminated," Sallinger told KGW. He sees a potential conspiracy involving the Port. "Our concern is that the Port of Portland has intentionally contaminated West Hayden island with contaminated sediments from the Portland harbor super fund site under the pretense the site was going to be developed."
I also found compelling an online Oregonian op-ed by Hayden Island resident Ellen Seminara, who addresses numerous practical concerns:
There's only one way on and one way off the island, and it's used by all who live, work and shop here. Imagine your own neighborhood and what life would be like for you if several thousand people had only one way in or out every day. It's already difficult for me to get home after 3 PM every day. Is there any plan to improve access on and off the island to accommodate the additional cars and trucks that this project purports to create?
The current bridge is already overburdened. Traffic is often backed up from the bridge past the Rose Quarter for large blocks of time during rush hour or when the drawbridge is up. This brings interstate commerce and travel to a halt, leaving all those cars and semi-trucks idling. It's a huge waste of time and fuel. What effect will dumping 1,200 new cars and an unknown number of large semi-trucks have on this problem?
Every time we have a big rain there are giant lakes of water that accumulate in the streets. By the end of winter we have enormous potholes all over the island that need filling. Does the city have a plan to remediate the roadways to accommodate all this extra heavy traffic?
She also has had a first-hand view of the wildlife there, and of the community eroding:
We watch the moonlight reflect on the water and delight at seeing blue herons and osprey hunt for food. This is a quiet and beautiful place to live, but our quality of life seems to be diminishing. We recently lost two family restaurants. One has been divided into two bars, and the other is likely to become a strip club. The only park and playground on the island has been shut down all summer, forcing me to go all the way to Peninsula Park to find toddler swings.
"It's been wonderful to watch the revitalization of the Kenton neighborhood just two exits south on I-5," she concludes, with a nod to Mayor Adams' area of residence. "I'd like to see Hayden Island benefit from this level of attention."
Several years ago I interviewed the head of the Central Eastside Industrial Council for a Daily Journal of Commerce article, and I remember the overriding feeling he had that ordinary citizens in the general public don't appreciate how important industrial land is to the economy. Our society used to devote much of our waterfronts to shipyards, ports, warehouses and train tracks in order to move goods throughout a region. To a large extent that's of course still true today, and as a left-leaning environmentalist I feel a responsibility to try and fairly recognize those industrial needs.
At the same time, this is part of a multi-generational transition. Societies have rediscovered the public and environmental value in allowing waterfront spaces to be preserved naturally, to let important natural parcels serve act as wildlife habitat, wetlands, flood plains and other kinds of mostly concrete-free settings. It's not just an empty touchy-feely emotional response born from daydreams about Bambi and Thumper frolicking amongst our Subarus and Starbucks, but a valid recognition of how necessary natural systems are for a region's overall health and prosperity. After all, Portland's economy has been enhanced by the city's popularity and reputation for progressiveness in sustainable thinking. If we start to let that erode, does that put us a step closer to being some overgrown eyesore?
I say let West Hayden Island stay a natural area, and instead merge the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver into one regional body. After all, it's silly to expand Portland's industrial acreage into a natural deemed important to wildlife and the environment when the city across the river in Washington has that amount of land and more.
As enumerated in Scott Learn's Oregonian article, the Vancouver port has about 350 acres available for new terminals in its Columbia Gateway project. The Port of Portland says West Hayden Island, which it owns, is the only place it can develop large new terminals, and the 300-acre footprint is the smallest it can go. Aren't these guys and gals talking to each other at all? You have one river separating the two cities, and then you have one calling for cutting trees and laying concrete when the exact thing that's needed is available with people eager to develop it just across the water?
I've tried to be empathetic to the economic value in having proper industrial space, but when I try to look at the whole picture, I see an prominent piece of mostly untouched natural land at the confluence of the state's two biggest rivers, all in an otherwise urban setting, making all the more inherently valuable. Then I see one city looking to claim that land as if it's their only alternative when another entity is all but jumping up and down and waving its hands with a solution. If we're going to spend the $100-150 million that West Hayden Island's industrial infrastructure would require from the city, I'd rather devote it to a new bridge connecting the Island with Marine Drive. Like Ellen Seminara the Hayden Island resident says, having just one way in and out of there for all the residents, truckers and shoppers makes it more of an island than the Columbia ever has.