Volunteers operated full-service collection service 7 years without government help
The city of Portland begins emptying sidewalk trash containers in the Pearl District this month, finally including arguably the most vibrant part of the central city in a basic urban service.
The wonder is that it took so long. Pearl residents recognized the need at least a decade ago as the former warehouse district completed its transformation into an intensely urban extension of downtown. When Jan Valentine helped form the Livability Committee of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association in 2009, complaints about “the increasing trash on all of our streets and sidewalks” topped the list.
“We were amazed to discover that the city didn’t provide trash cans or service in the Pearl,” she said.
Valentine discovered it was not an oversight. City officials told her there was no budget for Pearl District trash removal and no plans to get one.
When she asked the city to at least provide receptacles, she struck out. Not only would the city’s Bureau of Planning & Sustainability provide no help, citizens wanting to establish a voluntary collection program would have to acquire the containers, take out city permits and hire a hauler to empty the cans.
“I was totally shocked when I got that word,” she said.
But the retired vice president of Hollywood’s The Burbank Studios is not known to back away from a challenge, so she methodically tackled each barrier to create a citizen-funded and managed system of regular trash removal. Neighbor and architect John Baymiller painstakingly created a schematic map of the area noting where receptacles were needed, complete with all the details needed for city permits.
Josh Ryan, then executive director of the Pearl District Business Association, extracted a promise from then Mayor Sam Adams to donate 24 surplus concrete garbage can containers earmarked for disposal. They were placed at busy corners between West Burnside and Northwest Irving streets.
The search for a cooperative garbage hauler ended with CleanScapes, a Seattle-based company committed to community livability solutions. CleanScapes (later renamed Recology Cleanscapes) charged $20 a month to empty each can once a week and $33 for twice a week.
Valentine and her committee recruited companies and individuals to sponsor one or more trash can, and then handled the billing and day to day oversight of operations.
Signs recognizing the sponsor of each can were made and attached to the receptacles. They were signs of recognition that also bore constant accountability. Anyone seeing an overflowing or damaged can knew whom to blame.
As the Pearl grew, the 24 cans south of Irving weren’t enough. Through CleanScapes, Valentine learned that the Seattle Seahawks had 36 extra steel trash receptacles. PDNA could have them for the cost of shipping and installed them on streets between Irving and Lovejoy. The association had to pay more than $4,000 to expand the program, and its board of directors wrote the checks.
All told, PDNA spent more than $9,000 to acquire, install, maintain and replace trash receptacles for public use. Private sponsors, meanwhile, contributed about $25,000 a year for trash hauling from 2011-17.
“It was a full-time job,” Valentine said, noting that management duties engaged her seven days a week.
“This wouldn’t have happened without her,” said Bill Dolan, who took over her management role in 2013.
“I can’t imagine anybody else getting this off the ground,” he said. “She made this program.”
While admitting that his role in maintaining the program was easier than hers, Dolan said he still spent several lunch hours a week responding to calls and emails, tending to overflowing or damaged trash cans and working with Recology on the billing of a constantly shifting list of sponsors.
“It’s been overwhelming at times,” he said.
The city takeover couldn’t have come soon enough for Dolan, a loan officer with Guild Mortgage.
“I can’t tell you how relieved I am,” he said.
The intent was never for the Adopt-a-Trashcan program to carry on indefinitely.
“It was always with the thought of going back to city again,” Valentine said.
However, approaches to BPS Director Susan Anderson gained no footing until Stan Penkin joined the Livability Committee. Penkin knew Anderson, and when he put together reasons and data in support of the city extending its downtown trash pickup service to the Pearl and several other neighborhood business districts, she was more receptive. It took two years, but a budget and logistics were approved last year.
The Livability Committee was careful not to frame it as a special request for the Pearl District, which is seen as an upscale neighborhood getting more than its share of city attention.
Valentine and Penkin are also part of Friendly Streets, an independent nonprofit working to address litter, graffiti, and livability issues citywide. The funding package approved extends trash service to five other local business districts, most of them on the east side.
Would the other districts have gotten service had the Pearl not led the way?
He can’t be sure of the answer to that question, but Penkin said, “This is a good example [of the Pearl neighborhood acting] for the betterment of the entire city.”
Kevin Veaudry Casaus, manager of the city’s Public Trashcan Program, appreciates what Pearl volunteers accomplished.
“It’s great that they took it on on their own and ran a well-managed, successful program,” Casaus said. “This is not an easy service to provide and we certainly acknowledge that.”
No one is more pleased than Valentine that her idea has been taken over by the city.
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “It’s been seven years of a lot of hard work to keep care of the neighborhood.
“There is no other program like what was done in the Pearl. What we developed in was truly a public-private utility system.”
While she knew the program inside out, one thing Valentine didn’t know was how much it would cost the city to take over Pearl trash collection.
When she learned BPS will by paying $20,280 a year, according to the bureau’s communication manager Christine Llobregat, another thought crossed her mind: That’s all?
The city claimed poverty for the years over an amount representing 1/10th of 1 percent of its $21 million annual budget.
“All the blood, sweat and tears for comparatively nothing,” she said.