Sellwood Lofts Wrote Roadmap for Brownfield Projects

Condominium project leads to the creation of a major federal brownfields policy

Premium content from Portland Business Journal by Andy Giegerich, Business Journal staff writer

Date: Sunday, September 6, 2009, 9:00pm PDT – Last Modified: Thursday, September 3, 2009, 11:19am PDT

The Sellwood Lofts, a mixed-use building in Southeast Portland, is partly responsible for the creation of the federal government’s massive brownfields program.Nine years ago, the Sellwood project was selected for a federal government pilot project known as the Brownfield Showcase Program.

As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency helped oversee cleanup and development of the property, which is the site 7800 block of Southeast 13th Avenue.

The federal agency targeted the site because the manufacturer had for decades dumped plating materials into a floor drain that couldn’t handle chemical waste. It also took a special interest in the site because it’s located in a heavily residential neighborhood.

The pilot program helped clean contaminated properties in anticipation of encouraging public and private partnerships to develop land. Portland received one of 16 grants, for $320,000, to work on the Rose City site and other potential brownfields.

The agency also chose the site because the state’s Department of Environmental Quality had already poured more than $300,000 into cleaning the land. It also had a developer, Loren Waxman, who had committed to building a mixed-use project on the site.

Today, a three-story structure with condominiums and a popular branch of the Multnomah County Library occupies the site.

The success of the project helped the federal government convert the pilot program into a full-fledged federal brownfields program.

Since 2002, the agency has spent more than $6.5 billion, creating 25,000 jobs nationally. The agency will fund at least 341 brownfield projects this year.

Waxman bought the Sellwood site for $405,000 in a Multnomah County auction, but didn’t initially take possession of the property. He feared the contamination was worse than Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality suggested. The department had already spent $336,000 to remove from the abandoned building stockpiles of contamination, including 24,000 gallons of waste, 37 tons of cyanide-contaminated sludge and 58 cubic yards of polluted debris.

In 2000, with the help of the federal money, crews knocked down the old Rose City Plating building, shoveled out several cubic tons of material from the site and drove it to a hazardous materials landfill in eastern Oregon.

Construction on the lofts went quickly, with library officials moving their Sellwood branch from its former Milwaukie Avenue location to 13th Avenue on Feb. 12.

“The clean-up had been managed largely before the library became involved,” said June Mikkelsen, the Multnomah County Library system’s renovation manager. “We wouldn’t have considered putting a library in a place that wasn’t cleaned up. You couldn’t tell it was a former brownfield site when we moved in.”

The federal money also helped the environmental agency provide a staffer who oversaw work on the project.

The Environmental Protection Agency considers the building a success.

“It’s great that a developer was able to make something out of it,” said Mike Slater, the agency’s Portland-based brownfields project officer.

The Sellwood Lofts now host roughly a dozen condominiums that sit above the library.

With the stability offered by the library and the condos, the project’s small Southeast 13th Avenue business district, four blocks west of downtown Sellwood, has added a handful of new businesses since 2000. A new retail building will soon fill what’s an empty pit directly across from the Lofts.

“Thirteenth Avenue is doing well,” said Tom Brown, president of the Sellwood Westmoreland Business Alliance.

Debbie Hamada has owned the women’s accessories store Tilde, located just south of the library, for the last three years. She chose the site because of the foot traffic generated by the library.

“We keep slowly growing because the neighborhood business keeps picking up,” she said. “The library has definitely helped.” | 503-219-3419

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