15 months after they walked away in opposition to the I-5 Rose Quarter project, the nonprofit Albina Vision Trust is now back at the table.
The shift comes after Oregon Governor Kate Brown brokered a compromise that will give a massive boost to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s project, while also forcing them to spend more money and take more time to develop more and taller buildings on future freeway caps.
While much of the attention on this project revolves around the width of the freeway and whether it should be expanded at all, Albina Vision Trust (AVT) has spent years with a laser-focus on the caps issue. As we reported in February 2019, ODOT’s initial plan was to cover I-5 with relatively anemic caps that would only support a park with minimal structures (at right). That wasn’t acceptable to AVT because their plan is to rebuild the neighborhood (which was destroyed by the construction of the freeway and other developments) with a dense grid of streets and dwellings.
Both ODOT and AVT have hired consultants to examine what type of caps are possible. ODOT had dragged their heels on the issue due to fears that the expense and construction of caps that would meet AVT’s standards would cause delays and jeopardize the project.
The caps issue was so critical to AVT that they pulled support for the project in June 2020. When ODOT lost AVT, they didn’t just lose a key nonprofit partner, they also lost support of many local and regional elected officials who had hitched their wagons to AVT. This big thorn in ODOT’s side was separate from the vast amount of opposition ginned-up by No More Freeways and their supporters.
(Slides shown at last night’s meeting.)
Expanding I-5 through the Rose Quarter is ODOT’s top priority project. Something had to give.
The first light at the end of the tunnel appeared for ODOT back in June when Oregon’s congressional delegation made it clear there would be federal funding for more robust caps.
Then last week ODOT announced that Governor Brown visited Portland in early July to tour the Rose Quarter and, “Gain a better understanding of the community concerns that have arisen over the course of the Independent Cover Assessment work and facilitate a path forward between the many interests from the community.”
“Now we can move forward with a project that will provide good jobs, create community wealth building opportunities and repair the urban fabric in the heart of the city.”
— Winta Yohannes, Albina Vision Trust
Brown then stopped by a joint meeting of the project’s three advisory committees Tuesday night to unveil a “win-win” compromise on the caps that both ODOT and AVT had agreed to.
“The Rose Quarter project is perhaps the largest Disadvantaged Business Enterprise contracting opportunity in the state,” Brown said, making it clear the economic impact of the project is paramount for her. “It’s incredibly important to me that we find a path forward that can preserve the contracting opportunities.” Brown said a cap option known as Hybrid 3 will be the chosen one moving forward. “Hybrid 3 represents a compromise we’ve all been looking for. It addresses safety, congestion and environmental concerns of project, providing a canvas for development opportunities, along with project timeline that can leave existing contract opportunities in place.”
Reached for comment this morning AVT Executive Director Winta Yohannes praised Governor Brown and called her compromise a “historic consensus”. “This clears the path for Oregon’s federal delegation to fight for the federal funds intended to reconnect communities and build safer urban transportation systems,” read a statement from the group.
AVT blamed “ODOT’s failure to build consensus” as the main threat to progress and said this new compromise would not have been possible without the Governor stepping in. “She literally snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat,” Yohannas said. “Now we can move forward with a project that will provide good jobs, create community wealth building opportunities and repair the urban fabric in the heart of the city.”
ODOT project staff at last night’s meeting said the more robust caps envisioned in the Governor’s deal could hold buildings 2-5 stories high and would add 10-12 months of delay to the $800 million project; but they won’t stop the project from moving forward. The cost of the caps is estimated to be around $300 million.
Also at last night’s meeting, Governor Brown said she supports moving Harriet Tubman School to a new location so it’s not adjacent to an even wider interstate freeway.
ODOT says a formal recommendation of the Hybrid 3 cap option from the Oregon Transportation Commission has been pushed back to this fall.
It’s unclear what all this means to No More Freeways and their lawsuits against the project. They’ve now lost a key opposition partner and the consensus around moving Harriet Tubman School removes one of their key points of contention with the project. We’ve reached out to them and will report back.
UPDATE:No More Freeways Co-founder Chris Smith says, “In general I think we believe this is better for the community than the EA [Environmental Assessment] design, but we still believe a full EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] is appropriate and are not intending to terminate any of our legal actions.”
UPDATE, 4:34 pm: More from No More Freeways Co-founder Chris Smith:
“No More Freeways believes Governor Brown’s endorsement of the Hybrid 3 cover design represents a significant improvement over the original ODOT design from the 2019 Environmental Assessment. We congratulate Albina Vision Trust on their successful efforts to demand that ODOT invest in reconnecting the Albina neighborhood and generate wealth and opportunity for Portland’s Black community, and we continue to be inspired by their leadership and moral clarity.
Of course, it is not necessary to widen I-5 through the heart of the historic Black neighborhood in order to cover the freeway. No More Freeways believes that the substantial air pollution, carbon emissions and induced traffic impacts of the additional lanes have yet to be honestly accounted for by ODOT. We will continue to push for a full Environmental Impact Statement in the courts and other venues to ensure ODOT is held accountable for the impacts this proposed expansion will have on our community’s lungs and our warming planet.”
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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