Neighbors hold their ears to demonstrate effect of constant pile driving across the street. Photo by Vadim Makoyed

Neighbors hold their ears to demonstrate effect of constant pile driving across the street. Photo by Vadim Makoyed

Noisy construction projects in Pearl spur neighbors to organize, but being heard in City Hall is an uphill climb.
ac Allan Classen
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Pile driving isn’t new to the Pearl District, where in recent years the construction of tall buildings on soft ground has usually involved jarring intervals of steel-on-steel pounding.

But the latest round of pile driving has somehow struck a chord.

Residents near a 16-story building going up on Block 17 (surrounded by Northwest Overton, Pettygrove, 11th and 12th streets) are fed up and not taking it quietly. And they’re organized.

Most live in the Sitka Apartments, a subsidized housing building directly south of the construction site. Weeks after pile driving began in early April, the ad hoc group led by Patrice Hanson and Maura Jess elevated the issue to one echoing throughout City Hall.

“You’ve made an amazing effort,” Portland Noise Control Officer Paul van Orden told more than a dozen Block 17 neighbors who attended last month’s meeting of the Noise Review Board. “You’re ahead of the ball in already thinking of going to City Council.”

For the band of hearing-impacted citizens, the commendation from a city official was slim solace. Few have been involved in city politics or in their neighborhood association, and they see pile driving as an unconscionable assault demanding prompt action. Dissatisfied with mere encouragement, they’re already looking to the governor’s office for real help.

Pearl district construction sites

Pearl district construction sites

“When they are driving, I cannot be in my home, even with ear plugs,” said Jess. “My apartment is jolted with such force that it rattles the glasses in the hutch. I have on occasion been literally shaken out of bed in the morning.”

“My cat cannot nap during it,” said Jen Elliott, “and the dog next door howls all day long through it. And last Saturday, I reached the tipping point when I started to feel headachy, dizzy and nauseous. … This was definitely from the constant pounding. I’m appalled that the city is allowing this much construction all at once without serious mitigation to noise, pollution, etc.”

Another Sitka resident, Jamie Rich finds it hard to work.

“As a freelance writer, I spend most of my days at home,” he said. “Many of my work hours are spent finding ways to drown out the noise and many times finding somewhere else to get my work done when the constant pounding and shaking become too much.

“Now that the weather is warm, I can’t open my windows to get air lest the hammering fill the whole room. The construction has affected my sleep patterns, waking me up every morning in a most unpleasant manner, making it hard to transition out of sleep and into my day. These people have taken over life for blocks upon blocks.

“I go between feeling trapped in their bubble and being run out of my own apartment,” said Rich.

“It is astounding that the city is allowing citizens to be treated like this and not be taking emergency action to remedy it,” said Hanson. “With three more buildings imminent in my neighborhood—with each pile driving job taking six to eight weeks—we face six to eight months total of being exposed to this daily abuse. This is unacceptable! I’ve spoken with many neighbors about it, and everyone I’ve spoken with is suffering somehow from this nightmare.”

Van Orden hears their pain.

“This board really does take this seriously,” he told Block 17 neighbors. “This board is pleased to have you here.”

Portland’s pioneering noise program—the first comprehensive noise program established in the country in 1975—continues to push the envelope in raising noise as a health hazard akin to other forms of pollution and a factor in long-range policy formation.

Van Orden, who has held the position 18 years, sometimes grows frustrated by the city’s failure to adopt stronger regulations. After years of study, for example, City Council has not passed recommendations to reduce noise from nighttime garbage collection in residential areas. Noise complaints provide ammunition van Orden and his board can marshal for reform.

“We hear you,” said Noise Review Board Chair David Sweet. “You are living with a serious noise impact, and it affects your health.

“We are really impressed that this many people came down here on a nice evening.”

The day before the May 20 Noise Review Board meeting, van Orden took readings as high as 109.9 decibels within 50 feet of the Block 17 pile driver.

OSHA requires ear protection for workers exposed to decibel levels of 110 for more than 30 minutes per day. That volume is equivalent to a power saw from a distance of 3 feet.

With mobilized citizens backed by scientific evidence and a supportive city office, the path to regulatory action may seem clear. It is not.

For one, the city specifically exempts pile driving from any noise limits.

“The city is not in a position to impose a short-term solution,” said Sweet, noting the developer and contractor cannot be forced to curtail their noisy operations and any council action would not come soon enough to address the series of buildings about to break ground.

While he believes “we can get something better than present,” he cautioned neighbors against expecting the city to adopt stringent limits on pile driving.

Hanson and her troops have done their research, and they know quieter technologies exist.

KOIN news did a substantial segment on the campaign, including a video clip of a virtually silent giant drill used in New York City and European cities.

“The issue is whether City Council has the will to impose the best technology on the developers of Portland,” said Sweet.

So far, that looks like a tall order.

The Pearl District Neighborhood Association has stea- dfastly treated pile driving as the cost of progress. 

PDNA President Patricia Gardner, an architect, said piling driving has been employed for all but one major building since the Pearl became a residential district.

“They all had pile driving,” said Gardner, noting The Gregory as the one exception. “That’s all they can do. The reality is we’re on fill.”

Gardner concedes that pile driving harms livability, but most longtime Pearl residents have borne it without complaint.

“It definitely is a quality of life issue, and it always has been,” she said. “What people have done is grit their teeth.”

She called the giant auger method “ridiculously expensive.”

“I get it; people complain,” she said. “People complain about a lot of things. Just because someone complains doesn’t mean we have to take it on. We would just end up fighting all the time.

“Where the slippery slope leads is: We don’t want to see more development.”

“What do they want us to do, stop construction?” asked PDNA board member Yasmine Foroud, whose opinion of more development is unalloyed: “It’s all good.”

Two PDNA board members suggested a more supportive approach toward Block 17 neighbors, but no action was taken.

There is no hint that City Council will revisit the city noise ordinance or the pile driving issue.

“My understanding is that the state regulations set the floor for the standards in construction,” said City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. “In some issues, local jurisdictions are prohibited from adding more restrictive requirements. I don’t know whether that is the case for this matter.”

That’s as far as she went with it before directing inquiries to Mayor Charlie Hales, who oversees the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, of which the Noise Review Board is a division.

Hales has no intentions of meeting with Block 17 neighbors as requested.

“We’re not offering any particularly good news that those neighbors want to hear,” said Hales’ spokesperson, Dana Haynes. “We’re not offering a remedy for the neighbors other than we get that it can be really, really annoying.

“We’re pleased that they’re developing there,” said Haynes. “We want people building.”

Tiffany Sweitzer, president of Hoyt Street Properties, the developer of Block 17, has even less sympathy for the neighbors.

“Every one of our projects was built just like Block 17,” said Sweitzer.

“This small group of complaining (mostly) renters has had the luxury of a bad economy and no activity around them for five to seven years. Now with some recovery (luckily), we are building again, and I would think everyone would understand that this is progress.

“The pile driving took about 45 days total, always following the allowed hours as required by the city.

“This is nothing new. Hopefully everyone is prepared for Block 15, The Abigail and the Unico project—all starting this year. Isn’t this how cities and neighborhoods are built?”■