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Is Baseball Bad for the Environment?

Newly announced baseball stadium at the Port of Portland's Terminal 2 raises questions about industrial land in Portland.

Is Baseball Bad for the Environment?

Terminal 1 and Terminal 2

In November it was announced that a group of investors had reached an agreement with the Port of Portland to develop a major league baseball stadium as well as commercial and residential development on the Port’s Terminal 2, a 45-acre vacant industrial site with more than 2,000 feet of linear waterfront along the west side of the Willamette River, north of the Fremont Bridge. For those long awaiting the arrival of a major league baseball team in Portland, this was exciting news. For those who have long worked to protect and restore the Willamette and Columbia rivers, it immediately raised the specter of new round of environmental battles over our river. 

Over the past two decades some of Portland’s most intense environmental battles have been fought over the issue of industrial land. The Port of Portland has led industrial development interests in asserting that Portland has a serious deficit of industrial land, especially large, shovel-ready parcels along the river, parcels like Terminal 2. The assertion matters because under Statewide Land Use Planning Goal 9, municipalities must maintain a 20-year supply of industrial land. Portland must periodically review whether it is meeting this requirement through a largely opaque process driven by industrial interests. 

The implications for the environment are serious. The alleged industrial land deficit has driven efforts by the Port and others to upzone greenfields such as West Hayden Island, Broadmoor Golf Course, and Colwood Golf Course for industrial development. It was used by industrial interests to prevent the implementation of new protections for fish and wildlife habitat in Portland Harbor through the North Reach River Plan Process as well as application of Portland tree protection codes on industrial lands. It was used to convince federal agencies to allow industrial polluters to conduct as much as 50 percent of the habitat mitigation required as part of the Portland Harbor Superfund process outside of Portland Harbor (where the actual damage occurred) in order to limit impacts on industrial land supply. Industrial interests have even argued that existing environmental protections on industrial land need to be rolled back in order to maximize use of the industrial land base. 

One of the great ironies is that much of the industrial land conversion that has occurred in recent years has come at the request of industrial interests. These interests request to have their land upzoned to commercial or residential use in order maximize their profits and then turn around and complain that the City has done an insufficient job of protecting industrial land and that greenfields must now be converted and environmental regulations removed to address the deficit they themselves created. The Port of Portland has been among the worst offenders. It converted its land at Terminal 1 for high-priced condos, and large swaths of industrial land by the airport to make way for Cascade Station shopping mall. Now it is doing it again at Terminal 2. 

In 2016, it appeared that the City might have finally resolved its industrial land issues through its Comprehensive Plan Update Process. The Comprehensive Plan is the City’s longterm land-use plan, and the update process forced the City to address the industrial land deficit. In that process, Portland Audubon and other community groups successfully argued that the City could meet its industrial land needs through prioritizing cleanup of Portland’s 900 acres of contaminated brownfields, intensifying use of the existing industrial land base and preventing conversions of existing industrial lands. In a major win for environmental interests, the City explicitly recognized that there was no need to convert important natural areas such as West Hayden Island for industrial use and also that there was adequate capacity to add new environmental regulations to protect important natural resources on industrial lands along the Willamette and Columbia rivers. 

The City also recognized that it needed to curtail its habit of irresponsibly upzoning industrial land for other uses. To that end, the City created a new “prime industrial land” overlay zone to protect the highest value and most difficult-to-replace industrial lands for long-term retention. The prime industrial land overlay requires that the City explicitly delineate how it will replace the lost industrial development capacity anytime a prime industrial parcel is converted to a different use. Terminal 2 is covered by the prime industrial land overlay. 

The proposal to convert Terminal 2 for a baseball stadium potentially blows the fragile détente reached through the 2016 Comprehensive Plan Update out of the water. It will immediate put the City back into an industrial land deficit situation that will give industrial development interests the upper hand in demanding conversion of natural areas like West Hayden Island for industrial development and opposing new environmental regulations to protect our urban waterways. At the same time it lays bare the fallacy that has long been asserted by the Port and others that we have a true deficit of marine industrial land—the fact is that Terminal 2 is being converted for baseball in large part because no industrial development interests have shown any interest in this parcel for years. The deficit has been a self-serving hoax. 

Portland Audubon has not taken a position on a new baseball stadium. However, we will fight hard to ensure that any discussions around a stadium fully address implications for natural resources and our environment. It is not acceptable to continue the practices of the past in which industrial interests converted their own land for other purposes and then used the deficit they created to push back on environmental protections. The baseball stadium may well be the catalyst the City needs to look at the entire industrial land paradigm and whether the assumptions the City has been operating under, especially related to marine industrial land, make sense anymore. Regardless, what is not acceptable is to move forward with a baseball stadium at the expense of our already heavily degraded river environment. We will need your help to ensure that baseball is in fact not bad for our environment!

Port of Portland Terminal 1 & 2
Photo by Bob Sallinger
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