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


(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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