Before it closed in 2018, students say the Kmart on Northeast 122nd and Sandy Boulevard in Portland was an important resource for the community.
“I had cousins going there, I had friends, family going there,” said Julius Hunter Napa’a, a senior at Parkrose High School.
The site is across the street from the shared campus for Parkrose High School and Parkrose Middle School, where about 1,700 students attend.
After the Kmart closed, students said the big empty parking lot became a space to practice driving. During a 2019 active shooter incident where a student entered Parkrose High School with a gun, the vacant Kmart site was a meeting place for students to find each other. In 2021, the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys, took over the parking lot and staged a rally before it became violent along 122nd.
Now, developers at Prologis, a global company, intend to turn the vacant site into a distribution center that students and community members say will negatively affect the Parkrose community. Community members say trucks traveling in and out of the site will increase diesel emissions and increase traffic in an already congested part of the city, impacting air quality and safety for residents.
The school board, which includes Napa’a and three other student representatives, has led a monthslong campaign opposing the plan for the site. They’re hoping to get more information about the potential environmental and safety impacts to the community.
“Hearing that it’s being turned into this warehouse was just a little disappointing and a little angering,” Napa’a said. “Because you’d figure that a warehouse being built near a school is not the greatest idea… I was just confused as well on who decided this and why it’s actually happening.”
School board chair Elizabeth Durant said the board wants to move past the site’s connection to the active shooter incident or the Proud Boys rally and become something good for students.
“It’s a site of trauma for us,” Durant said. “Then it’s our responsibility to try and change the experience that our students and families have had. They’ve experienced this thing that is traumatic and we want to be part of the healing for that.”
School board members including Durant and four student representatives said they had ideas for what the site could become, including a center for career technical education, a skating rink, a grocery store, or a community area hosted by the Boys and Girls Club.
Parkrose student leaders have key role in community’s response to proposal
The activism from the Parkrose students is an example of the growing role of students in the operations of their schools and more broadly, their communities.
School board leaders have been a part of this conversation for months. As members of the Parkrose community, their families are affected by their environment. Neighborhood associations as well as the local advocacy group Neighbors for Clean Air have led community meetings to raise awareness of what’s going on and to seek solutions and ideas for the Kmart site.
But students also interact with the neighborhood and the area surrounding the site. Some students walk to school, or go to the gas station or restaurants nearby for lunch. Others play soccer on the field adjacent to the site.
“It’s really close together,” Napa’a said “I think that’s probably my main concern, for sports outside. Our distance runners, or our cross-country kids, when they’re running, they’re actually running in that area.”
Over the last several months, the school board has taken several actions to increase awareness of plans for the site. School board members have also expressed their concerns with the potential environmental impacts of a distribution center in an area of Portland already plagued with pollution.
The board’s student representatives have been there every step of the way.
They’ve signed the petition created by a community member opposing Prologis’s plan. It has more than 5,000 signatures.
A letter calling for an emergency moratorium on the project cites student concerns around safety and traffic.
And they’ve been part of meetings with county and city officials, including Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio.
In a statement to OPB, Rubio’s Chief of Staff Jillian Schoene said Rubio plans to visit the site and coordinate a meeting between the school district and Prologis.
“We have met with Parkrose School Board leaders and shared their concerns with Prologis representatives. Further meetings will occur,” said Schoene in a statement to OPB.
“We also want the community to know that, under Commissioner Rubio’s leadership, the city will always be looking for alignment between our planning efforts and climate goals.”
Parkrose High School students also went to Salem to speak to elected representatives and submitted testimony in support of a bill that would require companies to notify affected residents of sources of air pollution. Parkrose High School junior Justin Santos was one of the students.
“Me and my community want an environment where we breathe clean and healthy air,” Santos wrote. “I want to see Parkrose athletes prosper and grow without having that struggle to breathe.”
In a statement, Prologis Senior Vice President for Global Communications Jennifer Nelson said the company “works closely” with local government and community groups when developing a property.
“We comply with all local government requirements, as we have with our property at 122nd/Sandy,” Nelson said in a statement. “We are a leader in sustainable development and plan to invest $39 million into the property’s redevelopment, which will be LEED Silver certified and will include EV charging infrastructure for passenger vehicles. We also plan to include a bike lane, sidewalks and other amenities to the site for pedestrian safety.”
Nelson noted that the site is zoned for industrial use and said it will “create new local jobs and help the local economy.”
“Facilities like this one are vital infrastructure to deliver essential products to people — food, medicine, baby formula, medical care equipment, clothing, and much more.”
12350 Northeast Sandy Boulevard is the address for the proposed Prologis logistics facility. Members of the Parkrose school board, which includes students, are concerned about potential impacts to safety and air quality.
Conversations and action about the future of the site are ongoing. The school board and community plan to speak at a Portland City Council meeting next month, and are asking county officials to step in and call for an Environmental Impact Study on the site.
After the Oregonian published an article detailing the environmental concerns around the plans for the site, school district officials were approached by ARGOS, an air quality monitoring company, offering to install air quality monitors across campus.
Parkrose Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said the company is presenting an air quality monitoring plan to the board next month, with a completed installation by mid-May.
With the air quality monitoring, district officials will learn more about air quality in the area around the district, before any additional impacts from a distribution center.
As members of the board, Napa’a and the other students offer insight that the board’s adult members might not have. But being on the board also allows students to become more aware of what’s going on in their schools and community at a higher level.
The students say they don’t think they would’ve found out about Prologis if they weren’t on the school board.
“I don’t think any of us would figure it out until we … received a parent letter going to our parents,” Napa’a said, noting that some parents might not even share the contents of a letter with their student.
The case for student involvement on school boards
Students across the state and country have led walkouts and protests related to gun violence, the environment and issues at school. But those actions don’t always lead to change at the school or district level.
School board decisions do.
Several Oregon school districts now have students who sit on the board, attending meetings to give monthly reports or share their thoughts on district-level decisions.
Many school districts have one or two student representatives.
Parkrose has four.
“We get to tell the school board what’s going on at the high school that they might not know because they’re not here,” said Bemnet Berhe, a senior and a Parkrose student representative.
“When you have that insight, it helps the community a lot more.”
The student representatives are able to speak about issues students face, such as racism experienced at sports games.
“Most students — they didn’t feel heard when they would talk to an official, or when they would talk to one of the principals… they didn’t feel like they were heard, they didn’t feel comfortable even speaking out,” Napa’a said.
“Now that we have four student representatives on the school board… I definitely have seen more action being taken by our school board members, I’ve seen more empathy towards our students.”
In turn, Napa’a and Berhe said the added visibility helps students feel more empowered to take action, especially in a place where student and community voices have not always been heard.
“It’s very important that the students know what’s going on because it directly affects them and their family,” Berhe said. “Parkrose — a lot of the people that attend this school are people of color, people from underrepresented communities, so when stuff like this happens, it really affects them.”
The student representatives said they’ve learned more about how pollution and other environmental issues disproportionately impact communities or color and lower income communities. Students connect that newfound knowledge with what’s happening in their backyard.
Napa’a rattled off all of the current impacts to air quality in the community, from the airport and multiple warehouses, to a lumber yard and a train.
“It’s kind of strange that they’re building this in our community, and I feel like it would be such a tragedy if our voices weren’t heard the way another group’s voice would be heard,” Berhe said.
If the Prologis project moves forward, school board members, including the student representatives, want the impacts to be as minimal as possible.
“I want boundaries set,” Santos said, “where those semi-trucks weren’t able to drive in that area while kids are passing through the street. Because already passing there, I do fear for my safety.”
Going forward, Napa’a said there are plans for even more students to speak with policymakers and share their thoughts on the future of the Kmart site.
Santos said he’s seen his community come together like never before over the plans for the former Kmart site. He wants to see that community building and activism continue.
“To the students, our battle is not over, and we just need to keep fighting for what we believe in,” Santos said.