A major investment in East Portland road safety will deprive a heat island of 570 trees

By | June 7, 2023

People who live near Southeast Powell Boulevard have been asking for sidewalks and more lanes for traffic for nearly 20 years. Soon, state transportation officials will give them just that: wider asphalt and new sidewalks along 67 blocks of thoroughfare that runs east from Interstate 205 in Gresham.

But the widening right-of-way will also thin the surrounding tree canopy along Powell, an increasingly valuable resource in East Portland’s heat islands. The scope of the project includes the felling of at least 570 trees, WW He learned.

When Stephen Karmol first saw workers in bright orange jackets felling trees at the end of his street in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood, he couldn’t help but be shocked.

I was heartbroken, honestly, Karmol says. The trees were huge and old and beautiful.

The huge Douglas fir trees are one of the reasons Karmol moved to the neighborhood 10 years ago. The trees help protect Portlanders from potentially deadly heatwaves, like the one that killed 69 Portlanders in 2021, about 18 of whom lived east of I-205.

Such heat waves are becoming more common in Portland, and research shows that East Portland neighborhoods, especially those east of I-205, can be 25 degrees hotter than parts of the Northwest’s Wooded Hills during major heat events. This is because East Portland’s canopy of trees is less than half the size of the canopy west of the Willamette River.

This puts pedestrian and traffic safety at odds with tree preservation, two key goals for the city’s eastern edge, both intended to remedy decades of neglect by East Portland City Hall.

We have a heat island effect going on out there that makes it especially brutal when temperatures get really, really hot around here, says Ethan Seltzer, professor emeritus of urban studies at Portland State University. The question boils down to, given the goals of the project, is the only solution to clear all those trees?

Jim Chasse lives in Powellhurst-Gilbert less than a block from Southeast Powell Boulevard. On a sunny Thursday, Chase points to a sidewalk across the street from his house. It’s the only sidewalk in the neighborhood, he says, even though hundreds of children walk to West Powellhurst Elementary School a few blocks down the street every day.

There are no safe routes to school because there are no sidewalks, Chasse says. One third of the children live south of Powell. They have to cross the road and there is nowhere to cross.

The state’s Outer Powell Transportation Safety Project grew out of two decades of neighborhood concerns about road hazards.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Powell tracts included in the current project were annexed by the City of Portland. (Before the piecemeal annexation, what is now East Portland was managed by Multnomah County.) Even now, 40 years after the annexation, this part of the city lacks the transportation infrastructure found in other parts of Portland.

The Outer Powell project, which the state estimates will cost more than $105 million by its completion in 2027, will widen the right of way from 56 to 76 feet. It will add a third lane in the center of the street for turns, as well as safe crossings, sidewalks and concrete walls in some residential areas to protect residents from traffic noise.

The City of Portland has contributed some of the construction already completed along a 14-block stretch of Powell, but upcoming construction further east is fully state-funded. Most of that money comes from a bill passed by the Oregon legislature in 2017 that sought to invest $5.3 billion in transportation infrastructure statewide over 10 years.

Seltzer says such plans to make Powell safer are critical. After all, along Powell between I-205 and 174th Avenue last year, two drivers died in car crashes, seven were seriously injured and hundreds more sustained minor injuries, according to Portland transportation officials. The intersection of 122nd Avenue and Powell, which is already being upgraded with a third lane and sidewalks on both sides, had the 15th highest rate of cars hitting pedestrians in the city last year.

Despite the fact that Division Street is a destroyed street with all kinds of lanes, especially east of 92nd Avenue, people have continued to use Powell’s as an important east-west route, Seltzer says. There are safety issues on the street, which is narrow and has had limited improvements for pedestrians.

The Oregon Department of Transportation has already begun preparations to break ground. Among the obstacles to be removed: 572 trees offering shade to homeowners and renters in the already overheated area.

Shelli Romero, an ODOT manager for the metro area, says the tree removal was primarily to create space for sidewalks, create more visibility at safe intersections, and root networks that interfered with underground utilities, such as water pipes. .

However, the loss of more than 570 trees worries Dr Vivek Shandas, who studies and maps the impacts of climate change at the PSU.

From 2014 to 2020, we observed a sharp decline in tree canopy in East Portland, Shandas says. It is an area that has lost more trees than any other part of the city.

Trees are a form of infrastructure to fight climate change, Shandas argues. They provide shade that keeps cars, roads and buildings cool, and carry moisture.

Concrete, asphalt and metal hold heat and then radiate it during the night, preventing the area from cooling down. Every morning, the heat rises from the sidewalk because the street hasn’t cooled completely.

Shandas says the loss of hundreds of trees around Powell and the laying of more pavement to widen the streets will make the surrounding area 10 degrees warmer.

The state will need to replant the trees as part of the project or pour funds into the city’s tree planting and conservation efforts to plant trees around Portland. But there’s no way of knowing the trees will return to the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood; officials could only point WW to a list of neighborhoods where the city prioritizes tree planting.

Many of them are being replanted, says Jennifer Bachman, ODOT project manager. For those that specifically cannot be replanted along this corridor, the ODOT pays general tree canopy funds for the city to replant trees around the city as it sees fit.

Even if those trees are planted early, Shandas says, it’s hard to tell how long it will take for a newly planted tree to fill in the hole left by older trees that have been cut down.

Chasse, for his part, says the city and state are doing the right thing by expanding the street, even if it means cutting down vegetation that helps protect his neighborhood from the sun.

The trees, he says, will grow back.


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