The Kerby Garage Is Where 140 City Workers Repair the City’s 4,000 Vehicles—but the Bureau That Owns It Says It’s Unsafe

“I think we’re there. I think the situation is dire enough that we’re actively pursuing this.”

The city of Portland repairs and maintains its automotive fleet—more than 4,000 vehicles ranging from small sedans to utility trucks—in a beige building under the Interstate 5 and 405 interchange in North Portland.

But city officials are warning the Portland City Council that the building, called the Kerby Garage, is so hazardous to its workers that it should be vacated swiftly. That takes money, either to purchase or lease another suitable building or to build a new one. In budget documents, city officials identify the Kerby Garage as the most dangerously deteriorating property in the city’s possession.

“We’ve not been able to secure a location and certainly haven’t yet come up with a funding strategy,” says Carmen Merlo, deputy chief administrative officer for the city. “We’ve been actively looking at options for at least two or three years.”

The current garage has an off-kilter floor, is in a landslide zone, and doesn’t have a modern fire suppression system. The Office of Management and Finance, which owns the building, recently described the risk in a city budget document: “A catastrophic event could immediately render the Kerby Garage unusable.”

The city estimates it will cost $120 million to buy a parcel of land and build a new garage, or more than $100 million to lease a new space.

Merlo says the situation is now bad enough to justify spending such an enormous sum: “I think we’re there. I think the situation is dire enough that we’re actively pursuing this.”

OMF is asking for more than $9 million in annual ongoing funds for the project from city bureaus whose vehicles are repaired at the garage, including the transportation, police, water and parks bureaus.

But the City Budget Office did not recommend that the proposal be funded, saying it “has not been sufficiently vetted for bureaus and council.”

“The project as requested requires CityFleet’s customer bureaus make large budget cuts to fund the project which would have significant service level tradeoffs,” the document reads.

While the Kerby Garage is the building in most dire condition in the city’s real estate portfolio, it’s not the only one that’s causing city officials worry. As in many U.S. cities, decades of deferred maintenance have left city buildings in Portland to decay. OMF issued a warning to city commissioners in a recent budget document: Invest now or risk the consequences in the not-so-distant future.

“Over the past few years our facilities leadership elevated this issue to a present service impact concern, not just a distant risk for future consideration,” the budget document reads. “Absent a coherent real estate strategy and capital investment plan, there will be a substantial spike in quickly needed, unplanned capital investment in the coming years and decades.”

One option: a capital project bond measure. But Merlo says the likelihood of getting voter support for a deferred maintenance bond pales in comparison to the appeal of, say, a parks bond. “I don’t know how well supported going out for a bond to upgrade police facilities would go over.”

Other city-owned buildings in need of major repairs and, in some cases, total renovations or retrofits include:

1. Portland Fire and Rescue’s training center at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard has no running water or restrooms and does not meet seismic codes. Estimated cost of replacement: $33 million.

2. The fire bureau’s logistics facility on Southeast Powell Boulevard is structurally unsound and does not meet seismic standards, and the roof leaks. Estimated cost of replacement: $44 million.

3. Police precincts at the Penumbra Kelly Building and the Multnomah County Justice Center. The Kelly Building has structural deficiencies, and the Justice Center needs an overhaul of its electrical wiring (at a cost of $12 million from the city and even more from the county, its co-owner). Deferred maintenance at the Justice Center is estimated at $100 million.

4. Veterans Memorial Coliseum needs updated plumbing, electrical and air conditioning systems. Estimated cost: At least $80 million.

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”