| GROUNDED: Mayor Sam Adams called The Oregonian’s 11 acres “the best site, the cleanest site” for an emergency staging area. Plans for that area have stalled. |
IMAGE: Darryl James
The City of Portland’s plan to buy 11 acres of land from Oregonian Publishing Properties is at a standstill.
As recently as May 19, buying the Northwest Industrial district land was a top priority for Mayor Sam Adams, who wanted to store emergency equipment and vehicles at the site to serve Portland’s west side in the event of a natural catastrophe.
“We desperately need a westside staging area,” Adams told his City Council colleagues nearly two months ago. “Before we adopt a budget, I intend to work with the Council to make sure we have a westside staging area secure. This issue is too important. The lack of a westside staging area in the event of an earthquake or other disaster is entirely unacceptable.”
Right now, most of the city’s emergency equipment resides at multiple locations on Portland’s east side. And if bridges collapsed during an earthquake, it would be difficult to serve residents on the west side.
City Council adopted a 2010-2011 budget on June 17, one month after Adams declared the staging area a priority. But Adams has not come through on his pledge; between May and June, a tentative deal to buy the 11-acre property from The Oregonian fell apart and the city has not identified an alternative.
“Negotiations have ceased,” says Carmen Merlo, director of Portland’s Office of Emergency Management, one of the city agencies leading the charge for a new staging area. “Nothing’s moving forward on it right now.”
Emails WW obtained through a public records request reveal the city had trouble developing a concrete plan for paying for the property, which could have required up to $900,000 a year in interest.
The land in question sits on the corner of Northwest Nicolai Street and Yeon Avenue, near U.S. Highway 30 and Interstate 405. The Oregonian bought the now-empty parcel in January 2000 for $6.2 million—or about $13 a square foot—and planned to move its Southwest Portland printing plant to the site.
After that move fell through, The O put the land back on the market at a high price—more than $20 a square foot.
“Seller will not consider an offer less than $10 million,” reads a November 2009 email from a City of Portland property manager. (A broker representing the newspaper did not return phone calls.)
Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services was the first city agency to approach The Oregonian about the parcel. Originally the idea had been to use part of the land for a staging area for a nearby construction project. “We offered to buy the whole thing, lease some of it or stand on our head and whistle Dixie,” Dean Marriott, the bureau’s director, wrote in October 2009. “They just never seemed interested in anything we offered.... Time never seems to count for anything when dealing with the Oregonian folks.”
Then the Portland Office of Emergency Management took up where BES left off. But it could identify only about $150,000 a year to help pay for the property.
“Otherwise, there are no other identified funds available to assist with debt service costs,” Merlo, director of the emergency management office, wrote in an Oct. 27, 2009, memo.
Adams was undeterred. “Let’s make this happen,” he wrote in a Nov. 8 email to Merlo and city budget officials.
Three months later, on Jan. 28, The Oregonian accepted the city’s offer of $9.3 million for the property, according to an email from the Portland Office of Emergency Management. That was almost $1 million more than what a later appraisal showed the land was worth.
On May 19, Commissioner Randy Leonard revealed publicly that the Water Bureau had decided it would buy the 11 acres using ratepayers’ money. But that same day, in a last-minute bow to criticism of rising water rates, Leonard stripped the project from the Water Bureau’s to-do list.
That decision left The Oregonian and the city’s emergency response planners in limbo. As of July 5, The Oregonian was looking for a new buyer, and city officials were scheduled to have a work session on the topic in August. “It is still a priority for the mayor,” Merlo says.
FACT: The address for the Oregonian property is 2829 NW Yeon Ave.