The Kmart store at the corner of 122nd and Sandy Boulevard had been a community fixture for nearly 50 years.
When the store shuttered four years ago, the property quickly became an eyesore. Windows were boarded up with plywood. A group of homeless campers settled in across the street.
Residents of the outer east Portland neighborhood hoped the empty lot near Parkrose High School could be reborn as a much-needed grocery store, a career center or even a homeless shelter.
Instead, they recently learned the former Kmart building would be demolished. In its place, a San Francisco-based developer plans to build a massive concrete freight warehouse, with 37 truck loading bays, bringing more industrial development to a part of town that already adjoins the city’s industrial zone.
Clean-air advocates, school officials and some neighbors say the proposed warehouse, facing the high school’s athletic fields, will bring significantly more pollution to the low-income minority community – despite the city’s stated commitment to “social justice, racial justice (and) environmental justice.”
“It sends the message, once again, that they’re disposable, that their health and quality of life and neighborhood isn’t a priority for the city,” said Elizabeth Durant, who chairs the Parkrose district school board and has two young children in the district, including one who has asthma. “It’s about profits.”
Portland officials say they can do nothing to stop the warehouse from being built. They acknowledge the city has a history of racist land-use decisions that burdened minority residents with pollution and traffic but that its aspirations to reverse these past inequities have yet to catch up with the city’s zoning rules and economic objectives.
“We have some of the strongest policies in the state, in terms of geographic equity, social justice, racial justice, environmental justice,” said Eric Engstrom, deputy director of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “But by no means have we reached a decision or a solution on exactly how to implement those policies. We have a long way to go on that work.”
A building boom for warehouses and distribution centers is underway throughout the U.S., spurred in part by the dramatic increase in online commerce during the coronavirus pandemic. In recent years, multiple warehouses have been constructed in North and Northeast Portland, bringing a lot of heavy-duty trucks with them – major producers of diesel pollution.
But diesel is toxic to humans and Oregon has done little to regulate it. Diesel particulate matter, also known as black carbon or “soot,” can cause asthma attacks, respiratory disease and cancer. It’s especially harmful to children.
While diesel emissions are everywhere, they don’t affect everyone equally. The fumes congregate around highways and industrial corridors, exposing Portland residents in these areas – typically lower-income and people of color — to much higher concentrations than those in other neighborhoods.
The higher level of pollution in poor, minority neighborhoods has deep historical roots in Portland. For decades, land-use practices pushed Black and other minority communities into undesirable parts of the city and targeted them for industrial development but not tree-planting, sidewalks and other neighborhood amenities. Poor white residents and newly arrived immigrants also moved into these neighborhoods because they were affordable.
“Where we sited industry, highways and rail lines was directly related to who lived in those places, and the legacy of that continues,” Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive.
These neighborhoods have higher rates of asthma, pulmonary disease and other illnesses linked to pollution, researchers have shown.
Clustered around Parkrose High School and the fields of a historic urban farm, the Parkrose and Argay Terrace neighborhoods feature sprawling apartment complexes mushrooming along Sandy Boulevard, with small, single-family houses spreading south. Within the 3,000-student Parkrose School District, 70% of the students are not white. All students receive free lunches due to high poverty rates in the district, including prior to the pandemic.
Poor housing quality that lets more pollution seep indoors is one of many problems local residents face. Because the area mostly consists of tree-less asphalt and older, low-slung buildings, temperatures can climb up to 20 degrees higher than in leafy inner Portland, said Portland State University urban-studies professor Vivek Shandas.
And the Northeast Portland neighborhoods are encircled by industrial pollution. Hemmed in by Interstate 84 and Interstate 205 freeways, both massive sources of diesel fumes, they adjoin the city’s industrial zones just north of Sandy Boulevard. Nearby industries include two recycling centers and another warehouse, the 138 Logistics Center. More warehouses line nearby Airport Way.
The fumes add up. Modeling from a recent diesel study by Portland State University shows that the Parkrose-Argay area where the warehouse project is located already experiences diesel pollution that’s four to six times that of Oregon’s health benchmark for diesel particulates. And that’s a conservative calculation, Shandas said.
“My estimate is that the surrounding area is doused with diesel,” Shandas said.
The proposed warehouse – a structure of 244,000 square feet, above average for large warehouses – would be built by Prologis, one of the world’s largest owners of warehouse space.
Public records show the warehouse property is leased to Prologis by RFC Joint Venture, part of the New Jersey development company Garden Homes, which in turn is owned by the wealthy Wilf family. Mark Hoffman, Garden Homes’ director of development, said Prologis is in control of the building process and would take the lead on community concerns.
While this part of Portland has a lot of industrial buildings, the proposed warehouse is different. Unlike other industrial development to the north of the railroad tracks, it would be built on the residential side of Sandy Boulevard, abutting numerous apartment complexes and streets where children walk to school.
Prologis, which already has built several warehouses in the Portland area, declined to comment on how many trucks and of what size would serve the warehouse, who would lease it and whether it would run around the clock.
Jacob Klesalek, a father of three who lives a few feet from the wall separating Hidden Oaks Apartments from the former Kmart lot, said he was angry another warehouse would be built in outer east Portland. Klesalek’s 7-year-old son has respiratory problems, and additional diesel pollution could impair his breathing, he said. He also worries the trucks could make it unsafe for his children to walk to school.
“It’s scary — I don’t want that kind of industry here,” Klesalek said. “It’s really close to the schools, to kids crossing the street, to all the apartments.”
Durant, the Parkrose school board chair, worries about additional diesel pollution impacting her 5-year-old kindergartener, who has asthma. She said she’s concerned about the safety of all students in the district, 500 of whom qualify for transportation services – not because they live too far from school, but because it’s unsafe for them to walk to school.
“They’re our babies,” Durant said. “They deserve to be able to play outside and not be breathing bad air.”
Parkrose School District Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said local students and families have been completely left out of the decision-making process for the warehouse development.
“I’m hoping there is a loophole, a way to slow things down,” he said. “I know someone owns the property and they have a right to make money on it. But it sure seems more prevalent in Parkrose that these kinds of things happen. Our families are just victims of the growth.”
Despite the concerns of neighborhood residents, the warehouse is moving through to approval.
The city will issue a building permit once the plans meet all applicable building code requirements and the final permit fees are paid, said Ken Ray, a spokesman for the Bureau of Development Services. Because the warehouse proposal already meets all development standards and doesn’t need adjustments, it didn’t trigger a land-use review or neighbor-notification requirements.
“We’re implementing the zoning code as it is written by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and approved by the City Council,” Ray said.
But that code currently conflicts with the environmental-justice goals prominently featured in the city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan. The ambitious plan, adopted five years ago, outlines how the city should “specifically recognize, address and prevent repetition of the injustices suffered by communities of color throughout Portland’s history.”
This focus on equity is also baked into the city’s Climate Emergency Workplan, released this summer. The plan prioritizes asking, “who benefits, who is burdened, and who is at the table?”
“Our actions must respond to the reality that Black, Indigenous and communities of color are being hit first and hardest by these [climate] events,” the plan reads.
But right now, these are just words on paper. City officials acknowledge their equity objectives haven’t yet led to any changes in zoning or other requirements for developers in low-income and minority communities. The idealistic goals don’t override existing city codes.
“It’s not an instantaneous thing where we can turn the switch and make those policies (immediately) implemented in a specific way,” said Engstrom, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability deputy director.
Engstrom said the bureau is in the early stages of researching how other cities are pursuing environmental-equity goals. Approaches could include so-called environmental-justice zones, green zones or the low-emission zones that are increasingly used by cities in Europe.
The city council also will vote next month on an ordinance to phase out petroleum-based diesel sold in the city and replace it with a blend of renewable diesel and biodiesel.
The solutions won’t always be clear-cut, Engstrom added. While protecting vulnerable communities is one priority, the need for economic growth is a competing goal.
In the case of the former Kmart property, Engstrom said, it was rezoned in 2018 from commercial to light industrial as part of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan because it’s a large lot sandwiched between industrial and residential areas that could serve a job-creating purpose.
Local residents say they weren’t made aware of the rezoning. City officials pointed out public hearings were held about the citywide plan.
To Shandas, the PSU professor, the lack of specific rules to go along with Portland’s high-flown environmental-equity statements is no surprise. Like most other municipalities, the City of Roses has yet to come up with a new way of planning and zoning that actively accounts for the environmental impact on communities already overburdened by pollution.
“It’s a systemic problem in the planning of our cities,” Shandas said.
GOOD NEIGHBOR PACT
For now, the only recourse for Parkrose-Argay residents worried about the proposed warehouse may be a good-neighbor agreement. Such voluntary agreements are typically reached between a business and a neighborhood group to offset potential environmental harms or other concerns.
Most good-neighbor agreements are the product of old-fashioned grassroots organizing, said Mary Peveto, executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air. Her organization has negotiated three agreements in the Portland area related to air quality – with the ESCO steel-parts manufacturing plant, Intel and shipyard operator Vigor Industrial.
In the case of Prologis, an agreement could limit truck idling, require the warehouse developer to install solar plug-ins for diesel trucks while they’re loading and unloading, add more trees or reduce operation hours to limit traffic and emissions, Peveto said.
And while the city can’t deny a building permit to a development that meets the established requirements, government officials can play a role in bringing about a good-neighbor agreement, she added.
Peveto said the city has the power to require Prologis to negotiate in good faith with the neighborhood on an agreement as a condition of its permit approval.
Engstrom said an approach along those lines is a possibility.
“We can call the development and say, ‘Look, you’re generating a decent amount of concern from neighbors, how about you voluntarily try to reach an agreement,’” Engstrom said. “We can acknowledge that we don’t have the power to force it, but we can mediate, we can put some energy into just trying to encourage the parties to meet and see what they can do.”
Neighborhood leaders in Argay and Parkrose said they haven’t yet pursued a good-neighbor agreement because first they wanted to explore all avenues for stopping the warehouse development. But they also admit they don’t know how to approach and negotiate with a multimillion-dollar company like Prologis. It’s also unclear whether enough neighbors in the area are ready to oppose the warehouse – most appear unaware of the building proposal.
Prologis wouldn’t comment on whether it would be willing to enter an agreement.
The company said its warehouse would include conduits for future electric vehicle charging, a heat-reducing roof and will be LEED Silver Certified (a global standard for environmental and energy efficient design).
“The community can expect Prologis to… build a modern and sustainable logistics facility,” Prologis spokeswoman Mattie Sorrentino said via email. “This project will create new local jobs and support the community by helping people receive the goods they want and need.”
– Gosia Wozniacka; firstname.lastname@example.org; @gosiawozniacka
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