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May 28th, 2014 CAMBRIA ROTH | News Stories
 

Piling On

Pearl District residents get some sympathy—but no action—about the pounding next door.

news2_4030NOISES OFF: “We aren’t victims,” Sitka Apartments resident Maura Jess (left), with fellow resident Patrice Hanson, says of the pile driving in her Pearl District neighborhood. “We aren’t just sitting here doing nothing. We are taking action.” - IMAGE: Emma Browne
Patrice Hanson once had a quiet morning ritual: breathing exercises, reading inspirational books, meditation and then some tai chi.

But today if Hanson breathes in BANG! or tries to study a BANG! meaningful passage or practices her BANG! movements, she is certain to BANG! be jarred by the noise BANG! outside her window.

Across the street from her Sitka Apartments unit in the Pearl District, a pile driver drops 50,000 pounds of pressure to the steel it’s jamming into the earth. The driver is building the foundation for a new, 16-story apartment complex rising across Northwest Overton Street.

With every hammer blow, Hanson’s kitchen shakes, and in between crashes she tenses, her heart racing and hands shaking. Her doctor has put her on Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug.

“I’m feeling really out of sorts,” Hanson says. “I feel like I have to flee from my home.”

Construction noises are part of city life, but the torture Hanson and her neighbors say they have endured from the pile driving is not just unbearable, it should be illegal.

City tests have put the noise from the pile driver working on the project, referred to as the Block 17 Apartments, at well above what Portland code allows—but pile drivers are exempt from compliance with the code.

“It’s a logical fallacy,” says Maura Jess, a fifth-floor resident of the Sitka. “Pile drivers are too noisy to regulate? It’s so loud that you can’t regulate it?”

Some Sitka residents say they have been forced to flee their apartments during the day, but many work at home.

“There are two freelance writers and a musician just on my floor,” says Sitka resident Jen Elliott, a second-floor resident who is writing a book on numerology. “We aren’t the same people we were six weeks ago. I’m usually very laid back, and I’m on edge.”


Video by Cambria Roth

Jess is a graphic artist who says the noise sometimes brings her to tears; she often can’t work in her home studio for more than 15 minutes during the pounding.

“You are looking at people who have been under extreme adrenal depletion,” she says. “I’m not sleeping, I’m irritable, my temper is shorter, I can’t focus.”

A spokesman for DeWitt Construction, the contractor responsible for the pile driving, says the company is sympathetic to the neighbors, but the work requires old technology with no cost-effective way to mitigate the noise.

“It’s not possible to comply with noise codes, and that is why, in most every city I know of, pile driving is exempt,” says Joel Burt, risk manager for DeWitt.

It turns out Seattle has noise ordinances that variously limit pile-driving noise to 90 to 99 decibels when measured from 50 feet away. When asked about the Seattle ordinance, Burt replied, “We do a lot of work in Seattle, and we don’t do anything different.”

Paul van Orden, Portland’s noise control officer, found that pile driving at Block 17 has reached 110 decibels. (Noise above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss in children, and the construction site is right next to a public park, the Fields.)

Jess, Hanson and other Sitka residents have led a battle for more stringent noise codes.

Jess and Hanson have researched and found quieter alternatives to pile driving. They say even a simple noise barrier, noise curtain or silencer could make a difference, even if it is a slight 10 decibels. 

They have gathered the names of about 60 neighbors on an email list, set up meetings, conducted research and written to city officials. On May 14, they took their complaint to the city Noise Review Board. They say they’ve been pointed this way and that by city officials unable or unwilling to address the problem.

Hanson and Jess say they complained directly to Mayor Charlie Hales this month after a local event. They say he referred them to Ed McNamara, a policy director for the mayor, who would help the neighbors set up a meeting with Hales. McNamara, it turns out, owns Turtle Island Development, the Sitka’s developer. Hanson and Jess say McNamara never called them back.

Hales spokesman Dana Haynes says Hanson and Jess are probably mistaken that the mayor suggested McNamara would set up a meeting. “Usually they don’t call a policy director to get into the mayor’s calendar,” Haynes says.

Jess says she knows what she heard. “How else would I know Ed’s name?” she asks.

Hanson wrote City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services. Fritz suggested they call their state legislator. Hanson emailed the state Construction Contractors Board. State officials told them the city regulates noise. They went back to Fritz, who referred them to the mayor’s office. (Noise regulation is handled by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which Hales oversees.)

The pounding is nearly done at Block 17. Construction managers have told businesses in the area to expect more noise when work on a new, 28-story project one block from the Sitka begins in July. 

Neighbors fear two more nearby projects will stretch out the pounding for months.

“I’m so unhappy with how my brain is functioning,” Jess says. “I try to be rational and polite, but I get so frustrated. I don’t remember what life was even like six weeks ago.”

 
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