University makes landmark purchase

By The Beacon | January 21, 2009 9:00pm

By Lacey Bitter

The University of Portland has finalized the purchase of a 35-acre piece of land, formerly the site of environmentally hazardous industry, with plans to use the property to free up valuable space on campus. Plans also include giving back environmentally by creating public recreational spaces and a salmon rejuvenation area.

"This is really an extension of the University's mission," the Rev. Tom Doyle, C.S.C., executive vice president, said.

The landmark purchase, the product of six years of detailed planning and many years of visioning, was finalized on Dec. 17, 2008, after being rejected two years ago.

The new addition to campus will allow the University to form the main campus as chiefly residential, academic and administrative and offer new opportunities for athletics and environmental studies in the new property. Facilities, such as the baseball field, may be moved to free up space for buildings like additional residence halls or a new library on the existing campus.

The piece of property was formerly owned by Triangle Park LLC and has been the location of a variety of industrial uses since the early 20th century. Although often referred to as Triangle Park, the University has begun calling the property "River Campus" to emphasize its connection to the existing campus.

"We don't want that property to be anything but a natural extension," Jim Kuffner, Assistant Vice President of Human Resources, said. Kuffner has been a part of the team planning to purchase the land.

Purchasing process

The buying process has been extensive and complicated due to the ecological damage and the need to rezone the property for university uses. The heavy industrial uses intensely damaged the land, causing the Environmental Protection Agency to declare the area as a superfund site in 2000.

According to the EPA, a superfund is the label given by the federal government to highlight the need to clean up the nation's uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. The Triangle Park area is listed on the National Priorities List as an especially important superfund site to clean up.

In the process of buying this piece of property, the University has collaborated not only with the previous owner but also the EPA to ensure that the necessary cleanup is done. As a part of the agreement between the three parties, Triangle Park LLC will pay $1.2 million to the Portland harbor to place in a trust fund to clean the area of its hazards. In addition, the University has pledged to place $3 million in this fund that the EPA will use to complete examination, investigation and cleanup of the area.

"Hopefully it's more than what we need," Kuffner said of the total of $4.2 million.

Environmental benefits

The University hopes to go beyond the cleanup mandated by the EPA and make the piece of land a benefit to the University, neighborhood and city.

"Even though we weren't responsible, we're going to step up and make something happen," Kuffner said.

In addition to the salmon resting area being discussed, the school also hopes to complete a 40-mile public access trail circling Portland's waterfront, making the River Campus a place that not only students and neighbors can enjoy, but the Portland citizens too.

"We can be the long-term stewards and healers," Doyle said.

Construction plans

The University developed a master plan in 1998 that portrays current buildings on the campus as well as potential future plans, but the addition of the River Campus mandates an update of the plan to incorporate the new land. The administration has many ideas of what the space could be used for, such as the salmon area or athletic fields, but nothing is certain at this point.

"There are a lot of possibilities," Kuffner said.

Within the next few years the University will concentrate on forming a new master plan that accommodates for the change in territory, and until this is accomplished, no major construction will take place on the River Campus.

Doyle stresses that this purchase is not intended to increase enrollment on campus. "This is not about increasing the number of students, it's about increasing their quality of experience," he said.

The administration is encouraging students to voice their own opinions in the construction process by expressing what they personally think will be the most beneficial or necessary uses of this new property.

"The students that are here now will get an opportunity to exercise their voice," Doyle said. "People will get to say that this was part of their idea."

Immediate plans

There are some important steps to take before any construction can happen, though. The property, which has been abandoned for several years and abused not only environmentally but also used in illegal ways, will need to be secured before any students will be allowed access or before construction can commence.

"We recognize that historically there have been undesirable activities down there," Doyle said. "We have to limit access even though it belongs to us."

In past years the Triangle Park property has been scattered with trash and unwanted appliances and furniture while being used as a drug dealing area, among other illegal uses. Students have been restricted access to avoid these dangers, and until the area is secured better, they will still have limited access.

The University has immediate plans to run electricity down to the property and install security lighting. There is also a major demolition starting immediately that will include construction of a locked gate to restrict vehicular access, yet allow pedestrians or bicyclists entrance.

"There will be a flurry of action over the next several months to make it more presentable and restrict and eliminate illegal actions," Kuffner said.

There may also be opportunities for students to visit the site in a class setting or on specific tours during this period.

After the master plan is updated and the site is prepared, construction may begin, but Kuffner said that this probably will not occur for two to three years.

Additional property

This purchase of the Triangle Park area is also tied in with another potential opportunity for the campus. A connecting piece of property just north of Triangle Park, formerly owned by wood-treating plant McCormick and Baxter, may also be available for the University to purchase.

"I've always thought of them as a pair," Kuffner said.

This 45-acre piece of land was also damaged environmentally, but the owner has already collaborated with the EPA to clean it up.

"I would not be surprised if we owned that property in less than a year, maybe sooner," Kuffner said. He mentioned that the administration has a sentiment that the city will be more accommodating with the purchase of this property after the precedent of Triangle Park.

Long-term influence

While the full fruition of this purchase may not be achieved for 40 to 50 years, the University wants to celebrate this acquisition that has been dreamed about for decades.

"This is a great cause for celebration," Doyle said, mentioning that some sort of party involving all those involved in the situation - students, faculty, staff, the EPA and the City of Portland - will be planned for the near future.

While the repercussions of this landmark purchase may not be felt within the four years of students currently attending the University of Portland, this event will allow for developments that they will be able to see throughout the years.

"You can't help but get excited," Kuffner said of the dreams and plans for this piece of land in the coming decades.