Joe Bike

Portland Parks defends the Esplanade, won’t sign-off on ODOT’s I-5 widening plan

Posted by on February 27th, 2020 at 10:12 am

(Graphic of shadow over Esplanade with wider I-5 by Cupola Media)

“We will no longer be considering signing a letter of concurrence.”
— Brett Horner, Portland Parks & Recreation

The Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau won’t play ball with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) when it comes to a key issue surrounding the I-5 Rose Quarter project.

Earlier this month the Willamette Week reported on how impacts from the freeway expansion on the Eastbank Esplanade gave the City of Portland’s Parks bureau powerful leverage. “For highway engineers to proceed,” Willamette Week reported, “the city of Portland has to agree in writing to proposed changes to the Eastbank Esplanade. Federal law says that can happen one of two ways: The city could agree that allowing the highway to hang over the esplanade is a minimal change to the waterfront. Or the city and state could reach a deal in which the state would agree to make improvements to the park to compensate the city for any changes.”

In their Environmental Assessment (EA) of the project, ODOT describes how their new lanes on I-5 would jut out over the existing Esplanade. As we reported in March 2019 the wider freeway would cast a larger shadow over the Esplanade path and could even require new support pillars. In order for the freeway project to have only a “de minimis” impact (and therefore not require more thorough study and analysis that would be required in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)), Portland Parks and ODOT would have to sign an agreement about mitigation measures for both construction detours and potential permanent impacts of the project (UPDATE: See ODOT’s May 2019 letter outlining these impacts and asking for Portland Parks’ sign-off of them below).

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ODOT graphic from Section 4(f) Technical Report (PDF).

Local activist and lawyer Alan Kessler recently filed a public records request to learn more about negotiations surrounding these impacts between ODOT and Portland Parks staff. This morning Kessler shared an email from Portland Parks & Recreation Planning Manager Brett Horner that states,

“We have let ODOT know that Parks wants a full, individual 4(f)* evaluation and will no longer be considering signing a letter of concurrence for a temporary use or a de minimis finding, as ODOT had proposed. We have also re-stated to them our earlier determination that the 4(f) write -up in the environmental assessment is inadequate and not acceptable to us. Thank you for catching ODOT’s omissions and lack of detail in the EA.”

This email echoes concerns Horner made one month ago to ODOT I-5 Rose Quarter Project Manager Megan Channell. In an email (also obtained by Kessler), he wrote “We don’t believe the 4(f) discussion in the EA was thorough enough. There were no visuals of the freeway overhang and whether there would be columns in the riverbank to support the overhang. I think we need to discuss further.”

This move from the City of Portland will likely increase pressure on the Oregon Transportation Commission to require ODOT to complete full EIS — something activists, community leaders, and local elected officials have been pushing for. The OTC is set to make a final decision on that at a meeting next month. Even if ODOT doesn’t do the full EIS, they’ll now have to do more to appease Portland on the Esplanade issue. That will mean more disclosure about impacts, more delay, and possible more openings for public comment.

I’ve asked Parks for a copy of their formal letter to ODOT and will share it here when I receive it.

(*The 4(f) Horner refers to is a section of the technical report of the project’s EA that can be found here (PDF).)

UPDATE, 12:24: Parks has shared the email they sent to ODOT on Friday February 21st, informing them that they won’t sign ODOT’s letter of concurrence. Parks also shared a letter drafted by ODOT in May 2019 that outlines the impacts to the Esplanade and asks for signatures from Parks Bureau leaders to sign off on them. The letter was never signed and now we know it never will be.

Here’s the email from Parks Planner Brett Horner to ODOT project staff:

Hi Della [Mosier] and Megan [Channell],

As you may know, with the passing of Commissioner Nick Fish, Portland Parks & Recreation has been assigned to the Mayor’s portfolio. In recent weeks, both PP&R and the Mayor’s office have received several public records requests and media inquiries about the City’s approach to the 4(f) process. This has prompted additional consideration, discussion, and analysis of the project.

As we have indicated in writing previously, we do not believe the 4(f) discussion in the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project was adequate. More detailed information is needed about the changes the project will bring to the Trail, the Eastbank Esplanade, and the larger Willamette Greenway. The best way to provide this is by completing a full individual project 4(f) evaluation. Accordingly, we are no longer able to consider signing a concurrence letter that would seek to establish only a temporary occupancy of, or find only a de minimis impact to, the Esplanade, as has been proposed and discussed previously.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or need any further clarification about this decision. We are happy to assist ODOT in the preparation of the 4(f) evaluation, and helping everyone get to a final design, incorporating the necessary mitigation features, as quickly as is reasonable to do so.

And here’s the May 2019 ODOT letter:

unsigned draft ODOT 4(f) letter for I5RQ

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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25 Comments
  • Avatar
    ADD February 27, 2020 at 10:35 am

    Oh hell yes, PPR. Way to take a stand.

    Recommended Thumb up 34

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    maxD February 27, 2020 at 11:12 am

    good for PP&R! They should be proactive about this, they will inherit the results and be expected to keep it looking good. I hope PP&R is also being proactive and circumspect about the new “parks” that are being proposed to be installed over the freeway lids. These will require heavy irrigation for 405 months of each year in perpetuity to keep plants alive. Since the soil is disconnected from the earth, it can dry out much faster and more completely and plants cannot root as deeply meaning even drought-tolerant plants need irrigation in that condition. PP&R struggles to pay for the maintenance on the existing parks, and if it inherits these, they will likely be very expensive to maintain. Adding insult to the injury of the high maintenance bill is that the lids are too small to block the freeway noise and pollution, and they are not being designed to support buildings. That means these “parks” will be load, smelly, mostly paved, surrounded by busy roads (that the project is re0designing to support higher speeds), and disconnected from any businesses that could activate it: in short, an expensive urban wasteland in a prominent location. Tons of people will drive by it, so people will want it to look good, but it will not be nice to be and there is no draw.

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    Jason February 27, 2020 at 12:05 pm

    Thank you PPRB.

    Recommended Thumb up 7

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    John Lascurettes February 27, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    Best news all week.

    Recommended Thumb up 14

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    Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 27, 2020 at 12:36 pm

    UPDATE, 12:24: Parks has shared the email they sent to ODOT on Friday February 21st, informing them that they won’t sign ODOT’s letter of concurrence. Parks also shared a letter drafted by ODOT in May 2019 that outlines the impacts to the Esplanade and asks for signatures from Parks Bureau leaders to sign off on them. The letter was never signed and now we know it never will be.

    Here’s the email from Parks Planner Brett Horner to ODOT project staff:

    Hi Della [Mosier] and Megan [Channell],

    As you may know, with the passing of Commissioner Nick Fish, Portland Parks & Recreation has been assigned to the Mayor’s portfolio. In recent weeks, both PP&R and the Mayor’s office have received several public records requests and media inquiries about the City’s approach to the 4(f) process. This has prompted additional consideration, discussion, and analysis of the project.

    As we have indicated in writing previously, we do not believe the 4(f) discussion in the Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the project was adequate. More detailed information is needed about the changes the project will bring to the Trail, the Eastbank Esplanade, and the larger Willamette Greenway. The best way to provide this is by completing a full individual project 4(f) evaluation. Accordingly, we are no longer able to consider signing a concurrence letter that would seek to establish only a temporary occupancy of, or find only a de minimis impact to, the Esplanade, as has been proposed and discussed previously.

    Please let me know if you have any questions, or need any further clarification about this decision. We are happy to assist ODOT in the preparation of the 4(f) evaluation, and helping everyone get to a final design, incorporating the necessary mitigation features, as quickly as is reasonable to do so.

    And here’s the May 2019 ODOT letter:

    https://bikeportland.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/unsigned-draft-ODOT-4f-letter-for-I5RQ.pdf

    Recommended Thumb up 10

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      maccoinnich February 27, 2020 at 3:30 pm

      It is absolutely wild that ODOT tried to get Parks to sign a letter saying that *building a freeway over a park* represents no change to the park.

      Recommended Thumb up 26

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        B. Carfree February 28, 2020 at 1:54 pm

        That attempt at pretending car infra is nothing at all is probably the best example of car culture sickness that I have seen in months.

        I guess we’re dealing with a deep state version of #carownervirus and its deadly implications for everyone.

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    drs February 27, 2020 at 6:25 pm

    This is great. I wish council and the city bureaus had unified in opposition to the Rose Quarter project from the start. But better late than never, I suppose.

    It’s too bad that the Trump administration is in the process of completely gutting the EIS process. If Andrew Wheeler has his way, ODOT will be able to file an EIS on a post card and get it approved by the Feds a day after it hits their mailbox.

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    Matt D. February 27, 2020 at 8:08 pm

    I need this to turn into Banfield 2.0. Funnel those funds to transit!

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    Racer X February 28, 2020 at 1:30 am

    ‘Hew wee’…been awhile. This discussion has woke me, …up.

    ODOT you just need a little ‘one on one’ time with PPrB…sure you missed Valentine’s day and Arbor day…but double down and show PPrB some ‘sugar’…remind them that DOTs help put the ‘Park’ in so many parking lots…no one really does anything but drive to City parks y’all know…plus there really is a good old fashioned mitigation for this: add more artificial illumination (LED grow lights – they are ‘green’ you know) under the expanded decks…or add silk / plastic plant shrubs (saves on maintenance) …or just super elevate those lanes for Hot Wheels TM track effects…those north bound commuters will thank you! And a potential sponsorship deal!

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    Travis February 28, 2020 at 7:30 am

    Seriously portland??? Are you going to let another 100,000 more people here before you widen roads, this is getting ridiculous, while I like riding bikes, im not going to be riding my bike everywhere, maybe uou should build another walking briisge across instead of a lane. This is why you will never get big events in you’re city because you’re traffic problems

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      John Lascurettes February 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm

      Who wants “big events” in our very livable city? That is, bigger than the world’s largest WNBR, or Bridge Pedal, or Portland Marathon, Rose Festival, and on and on. What “events” do you have in mind? Olympics? No thanks.

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    J_R February 28, 2020 at 8:44 am

    The Esplanade is hardly a pristine park space. It is also a transportation and recreation corridor. In many parts, especially the area where the ramp would overhang, it’s noisy and generally unpleasant. By declining to provide any capacity or safety modifications on I-5, we’re just going to force more commuter traffic onto local surface streets. Every year, I’m seeing more cut-through traffic in my neighborhood. They’re not people from Vancouver; they’re people from the next neighborhood over cutting through my neighborhood on local streets because arterials are clogged with traffic from a bit further away. The Rose Quarter project can be improved, but I think the total opposition is not in our best interests.

    On the other hand, maybe with coronavirus everyone will stay at home and we won’t need any transportation facilities of any kind.

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      cmh89 February 28, 2020 at 9:28 am

      Cut through traffic is incredibly easy to solve. Simple traffic diverters stop all cut through traffic wherever they are installed.

      Easy peasy

      Recommended Thumb up 3

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      Fred February 28, 2020 at 9:34 am

      That’s the spirit – a good pandemic will fix everything.

      But seriously, I keep hearing this argument about how nothing can stop the expansion of freeways b/c cut-through traffic will get worse. IT’S ALREADY WORSE! During yesterday’s morning rush-hour, a tractor-trailer overturned on I-5 N at the Terwilliger curves, and all of SW Portland was gridlocked. Portland is already saturated with automobile and truck traffic – we cannot build our way out of it; we need to *think* our way out of it, and that means every man, woman, person, and child doing something different to get where we need to go. We need to completely re-think the paradigm of “I’ll just jump in my car to get where I’m going.” And now I’m going to jump on my bike and run some errands.

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      maccoinnich February 28, 2020 at 10:38 am

      The Eastbank Esplanade is a park, that, yes, is absolutely is compromised by the fact that it’s adjacent to a freeway. But I don’t see how it can be argued that widening the freeway to the extent that it will *over the park* has zero impact, which is what ODOT was trying to force PP&R to agree to.

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      Chris I February 29, 2020 at 10:11 pm

      This project won’t make I5 measurably safer. It’s also a really bad way to spend a billion dollars.

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    maxD February 28, 2020 at 11:11 am

    How serious is this for the project? Will not signing the letter require ODOT to get an EIS? Was the letter PP&R a “nice-to-have” or is required to move the project forward?

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      maccoinnich February 28, 2020 at 11:17 am

      I’m not entirely sure what the consequences are, but it’s not “nice-to-have”. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) if ODOT are going to claim a de minimis impact they need concurrence on that from the affected party, which is this case is PP&R.

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    ImUrDaddy February 28, 2020 at 5:13 pm

    No, this is actually a federal highway for which ODOT gets some partial funding. The FHA owns all easement rights on those highways, and if some group wants to push this too far.l; they’ll be dealing with the Feds, not just ODOT. Meanwhile, traffic is building every month on back roads for commuters who want to avoid the I-5 / I-84 Interchange. The resulting back-road build-up in severe traffic has caused an alarming increase in accidents l, injuries, and deaths to pedestrians, cyclists and vehicular drivers. It won’t be long before lawsuits build against ODOT, PDX, and PP&R or any group that tries to block making roads safer again; ~~~ which includes improving alleviating traffic jams on I-5, I-84 and back roads which are ALL UN-SAFELY CONGESTED. Watching emergency rescue vehicles being delayed in jammed roads and highways every day, means that someone will be sued over that terrible situation as well.

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      Chris I February 29, 2020 at 10:12 pm

      This is all nonsense.

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    Ron Swaren March 1, 2020 at 1:32 pm

    Some people can’t wait for Portland to turn into a big city. Looks like they’re gonna get their wish.

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    Ron Swaren March 1, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    Also the artists depiction of the enlarged I-5 over the Esplanade is NOT in the Rose Quarter project. What is there now is the Hwy 99/Morrison Bridge off ramp, and I don’t know that there is any discussion of increasing that. Has someone heard differently? The offramp to I-84 does CROSS the Esplanade twice, but it does not run paralell above it.

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