Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland

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The Oregonian continues to advocate paving over scarce urban greenspace for new port facilities rather than re-using Portland’s brownfields, such as the former site of the Atofina Chemicals plant near Linnton. Photo: Alexander B. Craghead, 2012.

The Oregonian continues to demonstrate its tone-deafness regarding the Port of Portland. Last week, the newspaper revealed its “editorial agenda” for 2014, one plank of which is titled “Portland’s industrial lands scavenger hunt.” The title is misleading. The editorial’s real thrust is to complain bitterly about the city’s policy towards economic development, relying on the cancellation of the Port of Portland’s West Hayden Island development as exhibit number one.

Maritime transportation facilities are of vital importance to the city and the region. Yet the paper seems to believe that the only way that the region’s maritime trade can grow is to pave over natural resources:

City planners hope to lean heavily on brownfield restoration to replenish the supply of industrial lands. In concept, it’s a good plan. Take land that currently is an environmental nuisance and has little value. With a mix of public and private money, clean it up and put businesses on the sites. But making those projects pencil out, particularly for industrial uses, might well prove as difficult as finding a way to balance the Port’s needs and environmentalists’ concerns on West Hayden Island.

Allow me to translate: The Oregonian thinks cleaning up brownfields is too costly and difficult, and therefore would have us pave over greenspaces like West Hayden Island instead.

Leaving aside whether or not the Port of Portland’s development of West Hayden Island would really have been the job creator that the paper claims, this is simply bad land use and transportation policy.

Worse, a bigger question remains: is the Port of Portland’s wish for more marine terminals being driven by regional needs, or by unnecessary and destructive inter-port competition? Does the Lower Columbia really need to be served by six different commercial portsEven Seattle and Tacoma, once hated rivals, are beginning to cooperate. Even if the region does need more marine terminals, the only reason to build on West Hayden Island, versus some other location, was because West Hayden Island belonged to the Port of Portland, versus some other port authority. Put another way, if Hayden Island were on the Washington side of the state line, nobody would have been talking about turning it into a port facility, given the ease on constructing westward along the river’s north shore, as the Port of Vancouver, USA is in fact doing. West Hayden Island, simply put, was needless inter-governmental competition at its worst.

Marine transportation has as vast and direct land use impact, perhaps as much as automobile transportation, perhaps more so. It’s time that the port authorities along the Lower Columbia began to cooperate, act together more efficiently, and make fewer wasteful land use decisions. Maybe the cancellation of the West Hayden Island port plans will open the door to a broader public debate on the matter. If so, then its cancellation will have proven to be not only a good thing for the environment, but also a good thing for the future of rational maritime transportation in the region. But somehow, I doubt it. It seems far more likely that we will continue to get “chicken little” op-eds out of the Big O, rather than meaningful debates.

5 Comments

5 Responses to Oregonian still tone-deaf on Port of Portland

  1. Dwaine Dibbly
    January 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm Link

    More like the “Big Oh-No”. Every time they publish an editorial it seems to be on the wrong side of what we need livability, the environment, and the public good.

  2. Erik H.
    January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am Link

    Simple. As long as Portland keeps pushing more residential development into formerly “protected” industrial areas, the industrial areas will get pushed further and further out.

    We already lost a significant amount of working waterfront downtown, in South Waterfront, in what’s now John’s Landing, and then the former Terminal 1. And yet there are people claiming we need “more” access to the river?

    If you want to protect Hayden Island…protect the existing working waterfront, and stop residential expansion onto industrial lands. There are plenty of existing land, within existing residential zoned areas, that can be built up. Thus – no need to expand industrial lands.

    • joebobpdx
      January 21, 2014 at 8:51 pm Link

      I’m sure others can explain this better, but here’s a start. My understanding is that the working waterfront has moved downriver over the last 100+ years in response to major changes in technology. From the sail & steam vessels that loaded/unloaded downtown, the action moved to break-bulk cargo at T. 1 and T.2 and the grain terminals. These terminals have very little depth and little room for the logistics of modern shipping. With the need for vast storage areas for bulk cargo, autos, or containers, trackage for unit trains and truck access, the action moved downriver again to T.4 and Rivergate.

      Given the vast acreages and the rail/hiway access required by modern distribution industry, it’s hard to imagine that the very modest incursion of residential onto former industrial land makes a whit of difference – port and river-related industries have no use for sites downtown or even further up river.

  3. Michael, BikePortland
    January 22, 2014 at 11:14 pm Link

    Useful post, Alex. Thanks.

  4. Lenny Anderson
    January 25, 2014 at 2:01 pm Link

    I have been after BP/S to do an inventory of parking lots (employee auto storage) in industrial areas to no avail. On Swan Island UPS expanded onto their employee parking lot and started a generous transit subsidy program. US Fab, a joint venture between Vigor Industrial and Oregon Iron Works, builds barges in the Portland Shipyards on what was once a parking lot. Transit passes there cost $50/mo.
    On Swan Island along the River between the Swan Island pump station and the Shipyards, aside from the Daimler HQ campus, there are a vacant lot, a trailer storage lot, a sand & gravel operation and an employee parking lot. As a former VP at then Cascade General once noted to me “there is little demand for riverside property.” No doubt, the uncertainty of the Portland Harbor Superfund has a lot to do with that…that is the biggest obstacle to investment in the area. The Port should be focused on getting this issue resolved and clean up underway before they start converting greenfields like Hayden Island.
    re jobs, I would be very surprised if a auto dock and bulk dock on Hayden Island produced 900 jobs after construction; maybe 90. Of the approximately 10K jobs on Swan Island, about 10% have anything to do directly with the River.

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