When Kiely Quintero thinks of the ideal future for the Parkrose neighborhood, where she lives and goes to school, she envisions a healthy, thriving community with accessible grocery stores and welcoming spaces for all. But Quintero says she’s already felt the impacts of environmental injustice living in the Parkrose neighborhood. 

The outer Northeast Portland neighborhood is located near some of the city’s major diesel truck throughways, and its residents experience disproportionately poor air quality compared to people in the rest of the city. Last summer, residents’ frustrations and fears were exacerbated after an old Kmart building at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 122nd Avenue went up in flames.

“It was smoky in a different way,” Quintero, a sophomore at Parkrose High School, told the Mercury. She said she can see the impacts of air pollution by looking at the plants in her backyard garden, which “don’t grow like they used to.” 

That’s why Quintero is so disheartened by the development of a Prologis diesel freight warehouse at the former Kmart site, just across the street from her school. Faced with the prospect of further degradation to the neighborhood air quality and overall environment, she and her fellow students are speaking up. 

A map of diesel particulate matter concentration. Outer Northeast Portland, near the Parkrose neighborhood, has the highest concentration of diesel PM. portland bureau of transportation

Quintero and her classmates had a chance to share their thoughts on the Prologis warehouse plan at a Parkrose High School environmental action fair last Wednesday. The students presented alternative visions for what could fill the now-derelict lot at NE 122nd and Sandy, in hopes of showing city leaders they deserve a say in the future of their neighborhood. 

The event was met with enthusiasm by environmental advocates, who have long protested the new freight facility. As project construction gets underway, several local environmental groups are involved in a legal appeal with the city of Portland over the Prologis permit. Even though fighting the development has proven difficult, community advocates and students think it’s vital to fight for the livability of their neighborhood.

Environmental justice in Parkrose 

Last week’s environmental action fair at Parkrose High School was the culmination of an environmental justice course, offered at the school for the first time last semester. Moé Yonamine, who taught the class, told the Mercury she designed the class to revolve around climate justice broadly, but she realized the students were hungry to talk about environmental concerns in their own community. 

The adjacent Parkrose and Argay neighborhoods are some of the most ethnically diverse parts of the city, and the Parkrose School District serves primarily BIPOC students. Yonamine, a longtime ethnic studies teacher, said she wanted to emphasize the importance of marginalized communities within the climate activist movement and point out that “being an environmental activist isn’t one size fits all.” 

“We focused on indigenous and marginalized communities who have been silenced in mass media and in the environmental movement,” Yonamine said. “With the diversity of the students in the room, I wanted to make sure they could see themselves in the movement.” 

The class began just a few weeks after neighborhood residents saw the abandoned Kmart building go up in flames. The fire spread toxic debris around the surrounding neighborhood, including large pieces of ash found to contain asbestos, and residents felt frustrated and out of the loop about whether or not it was even safe to leave their homes. Yonamine said students saw the event as a real-life example of how environmental outcomes impact people differently depending on where they live. 

“No matter where in the globe we were talking about, somebody would constantly bring us back to Kmart, making the connection and raising questions about what happened and where we can go from here,” Yonamine said. “It was just a no-brainer that we needed to focus on all the different issues with the fire and the lasting impacts of environmental racism.” 

From there, the class turned to look at the future plans for the former Kmart site. Yonamine said although many of the students didn’t know about the planned freight warehouse development, they knew what it was like to be left in the dark about important issues happening near their homes and schools. After students in the environmental justice class began investigating Prologis, a San Francisco-based logistics real estate company with distribution sites around the world, they tried to investigate the company and why they might choose the Parkrose neighborhood for a new development. 

“That’s where I saw a lot of kids come alive about the idea that they might have the potential to impact real change in their own neighborhood,” Yonamine said. “A lot of students wanted an audience to have their voices come out of the school and have a bigger impact so they can stop more harm from happening… the brilliance of their action ideas really came from their lived experiences.” 

This isn’t the first time air quality issues have impacted Portland students. In 2018, Portland Public Schools put in about $18 million worth of air filtration upgrades at Harriet Tubman Middle School due to polluted air from the nearby I-5 freeway. 

Tubman is located in the historic Albina neighborhood, and also has a primarily BIPOC student population. The air quality impacts and fear of future harm from the planned I-5 expansion led to significant student outcry, with several former Tubman students going on to become well-known local climate activists. 

Yonamine, a former PPS teacher, said she wanted students in Parkrose to have the same opportunities for activism. 

“The students in Portland have been such a big part of activism for climate change,” she said. “I had the importance of spreading climate justice education at the forefront of my heart [when I started the environmental justice class].” 

Students, activist groups united in opposition to trucking site

At the action fair, students sat behind poster boards that illustrated their visions for the future of the site. Instead of a freight warehouse they fear will bring negative air quality impacts and increased traffic dangers, Quintero said she would like to see a Trader Joe’s to fill a need for affordable, healthy food options. Other ideas included a community center, a homeless shelter, a public park, an outdoor plaza with food carts, an athletic complex, and a student center. 

“There are many things that the old Kmart site can be turned into that could benefit the community as well as our school,” one student wrote on their poster. “I feel like students should definitely get a say in what happens to it because there will always be students in the area since this is where our school is. Community members also live around here and they should also get to have a say in what happens to the site. It will be part of their daily lives.”

Quintero said she hopes city leaders will listen to student voices. 

“I optimistically hope they won’t dismiss us as children, and understand where we come from,” she said. 

Maya Kruger, a junior at Parkrose High School, is a three-sport athlete. She told the Mercury she is worried about the health impacts the Prologis site would have on kids training to go to college for sports, adversely affecting their future plans. Kruger said she thinks it’s crucial that students and neighborhood residents speak up against the plan. 

“If we let this happen to our community, we’re allowing people to think they can hurt marginalized communities,” Kruger said. 

Other environmental advocates have been fighting against the Prologis development for well over a year. In December, environmental groups 1000 Friends of Oregon, Neighbors for Clean Air, and Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed a notice of intent to appeal the city of Portland’s permit for the Prologis warehouse. The groups, represented by Crag Law Center, argue the city’s support for the development goes against environmental and equity goals outlined in city plans. 

The groups appealing the permit expect to hear back from the Land Use Board of Appeals about the future of the case within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, construction is already underway at the site. 

“At this point, we are literally begging for [the Prologis project] not to be built,” Jazzy, a Parkrose High School senior, told the Mercury. “It’s our community that will be living near it and experiencing the effects from it.” 

Yonamine said she thinks regardless of the outcome, the action fair was a good way to “show that students’ voices matter, that we see their knowledge, and we value what they believe and envision.” She hopes local leaders will take heed, too. 

“I think it would be so unfortunate to exclude the youth who are already at the table and want to stay at the table. That’s what we dream of, as educators and parents. We want that for our kids,” she said. “The kids are the future in the community.”