When Brenda Palmer gives directions to her house, she jokes: “Come to 34th and I-5.” It’s one way to help people easily find her and her neighbors’ homes planted alongside the freeway.
The freeway is close enough that her house was tagged for demolition a decade ago. Planners sought to build a new Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver and rebuild sections of freeway. But the project failed to get funding and the bulldozers never appeared.
A new map shows roughly 60 properties in Vancouver could see substantial “underground construction” as a new bridge replacement project ramps-up. Planners say they may need to drive large screws under the properties to anchor new construction.
Nothing is final, planners told OPB, and the massive, years-long project has barely started its design phase.
The map has stirred up past feelings for some people living on or near the construction sites. Some are optimistic that very few homes, if any, will be lost. Some say they want to stay informed as plans are drawn up.
Palmer shares both stances. In an interview with OPB, she doubted her home could withstand the kind of digging needed for large infrastructure. The house was built in 1931 and its basement is made of cinderblock.
“They would have to take the property because trying to go underneath my basement probably would not work,” she said.
Palmer’s is mere feet from the freeway. She can gauge the traffic from her kitchen window. The only buffers for her property is a sound wall and a narrow alley.
During the last decade’s bridge replacement program, called the Columbia River Crossing, she reconciled that she and her husband would likely move. Her husband died shortly after appearing in an article lamenting the loss of their “forever home.”
Palmer today shares the home with her two grown children and an 8-year-old granddaughter.
“I know my granddaughter’s already been affected. She’s like, ‘Well, where are we going to move to if we have to move?’” Palmer said. “And I said ‘I don’t know.’ They will have to find me someplace to live.”
The map provides a bird’s eye view of the bridge replacement project’s impacts in Vancouver. Several interchanges on both sides of the river, for example, could be rebuilt in the process.
Around the neighborhoods of Rose Village and Shumway — where Palmer lives — a purple dashed line encircles the homes. That line shows how far out planners may have to drive “large nails or screws” to anchor the rebuilt freeway.
Casey Liles, design manager for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, said the anchors would run from the freeway and under the residential area. The dashed line indicates the “limit” of how far the anchors would travel.
“This construction method can typically be completed underneath properties that have above-ground buildings without harming the building above,” Liles said in an email.
Liles acknowledged that planners would have to get a closer look, though, to find foundations, basements and utilities.
“This work and investigation will be done in the early stages of project design,” Liles said. He said planners will have more official designs to be published later in 2023 and there will be ample time for people to give feedback.
Liles said the new project’s design is less than 10% complete.
When asked about the potential for displacing homes, Liles said planners “will do everything feasible to avoid, minimize and mitigate all impacts” from rebuilding the bridge and freeway.
“No final decisions have been made about what ultimately will be built,” Liles said. “There are several more steps in the process that must be completed before discussions about specific property acquisitions or compensation can begin.”
Neighbors and some local leaders said they expect planners to reach out to the community before decisions are made. Vancouver’s mayor, Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who lives in the area, said she is asking the bridge’s planners planning staff to hire more staff for community engagement.
Even some people living near the project aren’t aware of the new underground construction plan, according to Shumway Neighborhood Association Chairman John Caton. He said news is moving at a trickle.
“The map is quite new. We’re trying to get information out,” Caton said.
The neighbors who have heard about it seem to be more confused than distressed, Caton said. As much as planners say designs will change, residents wonder how those changes will shape the area. For example, how close will the freeway get? What will happen to the alley in Shumway, which some homes use to access their garage?
“It’s just too many unknowns for them to anticipate,” Caton said. “The greater the impact, the more concerned they’re going to be about the value of their house in the future. Or even if they’re going to lose it because the foundation is compromised. Communication is what we want.”
Caton, who moved into his home in the 1970s, said he is optimistic his neighbors will be kept informed. He has served on planning commissions and has seen plans disintegrate when a project team fails to consult with neighborhoods.
“By talking to the people in the neighborhood whose homes will be impacted, and listening to their concerns, it can save them a lot of time and grief,” Caton said. “It might get in their plans a little bit to make some adjustments. But that’s why they get paid their big bucks — to figure out how to thread the needle.”
Liles said the team wants to be “transparent and proactive in sharing information with the community and properties” as plans develop.
Those plans — and how they impact surrounding neighborhoods — will come into greater focus later this year, he added. Later this year, he said, planners will publish a new report that delves into design plans and how those could affect homes, air quality, noise and more.