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August 1st, 2007 JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG | News Stories
 

A Bridge Too Far

Condo owners threaten to hold up proposed Sellwood Bridge fixes.

     
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Sellwood Bridge
IMAGE: biancabosker

From the west-facing windows of his 2,848-square-foot Sellwood condo, 66-year-old retiree Ed Murphy can see the forested slopes of the West Hills, the blue-green waters of the Willamette River, and the quaint arc of the Sellwood Bridge. It's an impressive tableau, and Murphy doesn't want to give it up.

He may have to, however, if Multnomah County chooses to proceed with some of its proposed plans to fix the ailing bridge. Some of the proposals under consideration would end up condemning Murphy's home, which has a market value of $665,000.

In 2004, an engineering firm contracted by the state discovered cracks in both ends of the 81-year-old bridge. The bridge is the only crossing over the Willamette between Oregon City and Portland and the state's busiest two-lane span, averaging 30,000 vehicles a day.

The county has taken measures to ensure the bridge's short-term stability—such as lowering the weight limit from 32 tons to 10 tons and conducting inspections every three months instead of every two years. But engineers say the long-term solution requires renovation or replacement of the crossing—at an estimated cost of between $237 million and $420 million.

Last June, the county began a two-year effort to come up with a permanent fix and has narrowed the solutions to a handful of alignments. But that handful is the source of much discontent among Sellwood's waterfront condo owners because it includes plans that would require them to move.

Although Murphy says he wants to reach an amicable agreement, he and the other owners of Sellwood Harbor Condominiums' 38 condos say they're going to put up a fight if needed. That could "absolutely" include a lawsuit "if they try to condemn our properties," said Murphy. "We will not accept condemnation as a friendly gesture. It will be hostile."

And certainly, when you're dealing with people able to afford condos that Murphy says sell for as much as $900,000, they have the legal wherewithal to drag the project out, adding to its costs.

"If I was a condo owner, I would be as flipped out as they are," says Barbara Barber, a member of the project's Community Task Force, a group made up of 20 county-recruited local representatives.

But Barber, who lives in Sellwood, says action must be taken on the bridge.

"The Sellwood Bridge is in abysmal condition,'' Barber says. "It's not like it's a vanity project."

At a July 9 public meeting, John Lattig, chairman of Sellwood Harbor's Sellwood Bridge Committee, pleaded for any proposal that would spare Sellwood Harbor homes as well as River Park, a 75-home condominium complex just north of the bridge.

"Many of us are the people who stand to lose their homes as a result of your decision," said Lattig, who's lived for two years in his 2,625-square-foot home assessed at $650,000.

Both Lattig and Murphy criticized the evaluation criteria to judge proposals, in which each criterion is assigned a percentage weight. "Minimize residential relocations" was given about one-sixth the weight as the combination of "maximize bike and pedestrian safety" and "maximize convenient and direct connections for bicyclists and pedestrians."

"I just can't fathom how the task force could justify giving roughly six times more weight to bikes and pedestrians than to losing your home," Murphy says.

County spokesman Mike Pullen defended the evaluation criteria selected by the task force.

"The people who chose the criteria, who chose the weights, were citizens," said Pullen, "so it was completely democratic."

Murphy says the county's preliminary cost calculation to condemn condos at Sellwood Harbor—$7.5 million—was too low because it neither assigned a fair market value to the 12 condos that would have to be condemned nor included the loss in property value that neighboring condos would suffer. Palmer, Growth & Pietka, a law firm already hired by the Sellwood Harbor homeowner's association, pegged the cost at between $16 and $20 million.

The county hopes to make a final decision by next spring.

"Every idea has its plusses and minuses," Pullen says.

Consideration of relocating the bridge is "very emotional...for people who live near where it would go."

 
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