Brian Libby is jumping into the Superfund muck—to save an abandoned gas plant.
The Portland architecture critic has a history of fighting for neglected landmarks, leading the campaign in 2009 to preserve Memorial Coliseum from being razed for a baseball stadium.
This week, he took up a new cause: the Gas and Coke building, an eerie, 100-year-old NW Natural Gas oil-distillation plant that sits atop one of the most polluted sites along the Portland Harbor.
Libby says NW Natural is planning to tear down its vacant, signature plant as early as next year. He says that's a waste.
"Portland is turning its back on one of its most compelling works of historic architecture," Libby writes.
The Gas and Coke building stands just east of the St. Johns Bridge, on the Gasco site, one of two NW Natural properties along the Willamette River where it buried tar left over from the gas plants that stopped operating in 1956. The company’s most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows its liability for the Superfund cleanup is at least $43 million.
NW Natural has already spent $27 million studying and cleaning up pollution leaked into the river from ponds where it once buried tar—including $6 million to remove a 15,000-cubic-yard tar ball from the riverbed.
Libby hasn't started a formal campaign. But he is urging NW Natural to make preserving the building part of that cleanup.
Why can't NW Natural summon some sense of community responsibility here? Certainly it's not the responsibility of a utility company to act as stewards of a city or region's most historic architecture. Yet the fact remains that a rich local company, one with a partial monopoly, is set to willfully demolish one of the most historic and beautiful works of architecture in the city. Maybe demolishing this building seems like the only plausible scenario given the contaminated nature of the site, yet I can't help but suspect that NW Natural hasn't really tried very hard to come up with a solution that would save the building. And if that's the case, it means the company is not a very good corporate citizen. What they're planning to destroy may be a contaminated building that's sat empty for a half-century, but behind the dust is an irreplaceable part of Portland's history and culture. In others' hands, it might have become a renovated destination.
What does Libby have in mind? A McMenamins.