News of the College February 2004

Trolley barns update: a message from Colin Diver

In recent months, stories have appeared in the local media criticizing Reed College for plans to demolish the Sellwood trolley barns, considered an emblem of local transportation history. I want to explain what the college has done and the reasons for its actions.

Four years ago, the college received a gift from Reed trustee John Gray that included the remaining assets of his real estate holding company. One of those assets was the car barn property, which had been leased for 30 years by a plastics manufacturing company known as Molded Container. Consistent with the college’s usual practice of selling donated real estate in order to realize such gifts’ intended benefits for Reed, we initiated discussions with the lessee to purchase the property. These discussions terminated when Molded Container declared bankruptcy. We put the property on the market and, ultimately, four offers were received—each proposing partial or complete removal of the barns and multi-residential redevelopment of the site.

The college spent a great deal of time working with the developer who wanted to keep the greatest portion of the buildings intact. Unfortunately, during an environmental audit of the site, significant deposits of toxic substances such as hydraulic oil, toluene, and lead were found to have massed under the building and seeped into the soil. In addition, the building itself was found to contain substantial amounts of asbestos. After careful review of the options with our environmental and legal consultants, we determined that the prudent course of action was to remove the contaminated soil. The only practical way to do this was to remove the structures. An agreement was signed with the developer whose purchase offer proposed replacing the buildings with new construction, allowing access to the affected soil.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) subsequently approved our plan to clean the site by removing several thousand tons of contaminated soil beneath the structure. In its notice of approval and public statement, DEQ characterized our action as “necessary to protect public health, safety, welfare, and the environment.” (Read more at

Notwithstanding that decision, we met with members of the community and worked with the buyers to find a suitable way to recognize the historic significance of the car barns. An agreement was reached to preserve the eastern (13th Street) façade and a portion of the adjoining southern façade and to erect a memorial plaque that describes the site’s history. Salvaging additional walls was determined to be impractical due to their poor structural condition. The remaining portions of the structures have now been demolished, and soil decontamination has begun.

As of December 24, 2003, nearly 6,000 of an estimated 9,000 to 10,000 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil had been removed from one area of the site alone and sent to a landfill. Contamination has been found to extend deeper than expected (up to 22 feet) in a number of areas. And finally, areas of contamination that were not previously identified have been found. These may add thousands of tons of soil to the removal process.

I regret that our action dictated the demolition of most of a historic structure, and that some in Sellwood and beyond have disagreed with our decisions. But I am convinced, based on the best expert advice available to us, and confirmed by the state environmental agency, that this case presented a direct conflict between the goals of protecting public health and preserving history. Given this conflict, I believe that the college took the only prudent course of action in this matter. End of Article

—Colin Diver, president

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Reed Magazine February 2004 2004
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