University of Portland photo
Jim Kuffner of UP and Daniel Schall of AMEC survey work along the Willamette River.
University of Portland photo
Jim Kuffner of UP and Daniel Schall of AMEC survey work along the Willamette River.
The University of Portland is intent on Catholic social teaching as it prepares ground for an expansion of its campus on the city’s north side.

Cleanup of a 35-acre polluted parcel on the east bank of the Willamette River is making way for an environmental science building, a baseball stadium, a public trail and improved habitat for fish. The scenic acreage will probably include a boathouse for the new crew team, a grass soccer field, parking and storage.

The restoration has been guided by the church’s principles of caring for the land as God’s creation and seeing to it that ownership does good for the community.

“That kind of drove us,” says Jim Kuffner, the longtime university official overseeing the project. “The idea was to take a property and restore it to beneficial use and clean it up along the way.”

The riverside land has been home to industry for more than a century. It housed a tugboat and barge outfit, a concrete company, a lumber mill and a small power plant. Those ventures spilled fuels and heavy metals. The land had been vacant since the 1990s when UP paid $4.8 million for it in 2008 and began a battery of soil tests.  

Inspired partly by biblical teaching on stewardship, the university took on cleanup duties, even though it could have  sought assistance from federal regulators to pursue others to help pay the considerable bill. The decision prevented the kind of drawn-out fights that usually come with contaminated sites. UP did insist on a wall of legal protection from possible lawsuits over past contamination. Cleanup costs are on track to come in on budget at $4.2 million.

Workers hired by the university have removed sullied soil along the 2,250 feet of shoreline. They are turning a steep drop-off into the water into a gentle slope with native plants; that restored shoreline will create more resting sites for migrating salmon. Excavation is on track to be complete by mid-November so the work won’t impact fish migrations.

Along the way, crews have found massive old chunks of concrete and buried car-sized cement cylinders once used to anchor vessels. Dan Schall, field engineer for the firm AMEC, speaks ironically when he calls the finds “hidden treasures.” Schall presumes much of the buried debris was deposited on shore when the river was dredged in past decades.   

Crews are reusing much of the material. After running soils through a house-sized shaker and screener, they’re crushing found cement into gravel that serves as a base for future roadways and buildings on the site. The same goes for the few old cement buildings demolished on the property. Any old metal found gets sent just a few miles downriver to Schnitzer Steel recycling.

The work has uncovered pristine prehistoric sands that predate the massive Missoula floods of 15,000 to 18,000 years ago.

Crews cut down sections of old docks, one of the most grueling tasks. There are still pilings driven deep into the river bed and UP is searching for a partner to help with that demanding removal.  

To decide what to plant along the shoreline, the university consulted not only scientists, but the area’s native tribes. About 15,000 new plants are taking root.
Schall says workers have enjoyed the wildlife along the river — including geese, herons, osprey and hawks.

A railway runs through the property and a biking and walking trail will parallel the tracks. The public path will be part of a greenway trail eventually linking Kelly Point Park with downtown Portland.  

There is no timeline yet for any construction. That will need to wait for approval of a campus-wide master plan and certification of environmental work.    

The four-month cleanup was helped along by fine weather in September and early October. Recent rain was a mixed blessing, slowing excavation, but soaking ground so crews could put in plantings.

It’s the largest campus expansion in the 112-year history of the university, which sits on a bluff above the river. The new parcel, just a few miles from the confluence with the Columbia River, increases campus lands by 30 percent.

“We have been in a residential neighborhood we love for 112 years,” says Kuffner, who lives just blocks away himself. “There is not a lot of room for expansion.”

Kuffner, a member of nearby Holy Cross Parish who keeps multiple photos of grandchildren around his office, calls the river campus a chance to establish room for the university for the next century.

Kuffner was a top aide to longtime city commissioner and Portland Mayor Frank Ivancie. After Ivancie lost a re-election bid to Bud Clark in 1984, Kuffner landed a job at the university and has stayed for almost 30 years.  

“It feels great to work on something significant for UP at the end of my career,” Kuffner says.

UP’s enrollment keeps growing. It now exceeds 3,000 and with measures in place in the new master plan to mitigate impacts of traffic and parking, the number could top 5,000 in the next 20 years, officials say.

The 35-acre river project has a lot of partners, including the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and the environmental engineering firm AMEC. The contractor is Envirocon, which is also working on a major cleanup of a DDT and rocket fuel site just across the river. The UP project, which has dozens of workers on site at any one time, has expanded the school’s prodigious job creation.

Just northwest is another 45 acres, a federal Superfund site that formerly housed a creosote plant. It took $55 million in public funds for that cleanup. The university has long been interested in acquiring that acreage, too. Kuffner can envision a running track and more recreational fields.

Because both sites have been polluted in the past, residence halls or other housing can’t be built there. But regulations do allow for other uses. Upland sites are being raised with soil to keep them out of the flood plain.  

The school has worked with the city and its North Portland neighbors on the project, which has met with little opposition. The University Park Neighborhood Association offered unanimous support for the university’s pending master plan.

“As with any discussion that impacts people’s lives, there were moments of contention during the process, but the University demonstrated an ongoing desire to address our concerns prior to submitting the final draft,” says a letter of support from the neighborhood association board.

Kuffner calls that partnership with the neighborhood one of the university’s “proudest accomplishments.”

The school held public meetings and accepted online comments. EPA officials have lauded UP for its cooperation.  

A public hearing before the Bureau of Development Services is set for Wednesday, Nov. 14.