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Why the new Lincoln High School is $58M over budget

How Portland's construction crunch and a prime downtown location ballooned the budget for Lincoln High School before workers broke ground.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Last spring, the Lincoln High School lawn was covered in campaign signs urging voters to pay more than three-quarters of a billion dollars to rebuild the overcrowded, unsafe school as well as several other schools in the district.

Exasperated Lincoln students invited reporters to tour their school, pointing out exposed asbestos, water-damaged ceilings, and packed classrooms in a basement never intended for that use.

“As students it is difficult to learn in a facility where your health is constantly being harmed and where your classrooms are ridiculously overcrowded,” said Lincoln High School senior Michael Ioffe.

Voters responded, passing the historic $790 million school bond in May 2017. About a quarter of that pot -- $187 million – was allocated for a brand-new Lincoln High School.

Construction is slated to begin in 2020 and the school will be finished in 2023.

But the price tag has already shot up to $245 million, dwarfing original estimates. The district says skyrocketing construction costs, inaccurate original estimates and tariffs added to the cost overruns, as well as the challenging design restrictions of building a new school in the heart of Portland.

Credit: PPS
The new Lincoln High School design

The new Lincoln

Lincoln High School’s graduation rates are routinely the best in the city, but for years the building itself hasn’t reflected the success of its students. The building is 66 years old and far too small for its student population.

The new Lincoln will be far different than the stubby brick structure that currently looks over Southwest 14th Avenue and Salmon Street on the cusp of downtown Portland.

The new school will stand seven stories high and have 100,000 more square feet than the current school. The school will be LEED Gold certified, meaning the building will be energy efficient and the materials used will be environmentally friendly, creating a safer environment for kids inside.

The school will be fully compliant with the American Disabilities Act, and it will be built on pilings drilled deep into the earth to protect the school from earthquakes.

The new school will be built on the opposite side of the land Lincoln sits on, currently occupied by the school’s track and field along Southwest 18th Avenue.

“If you look at the site plan, we’re just doing a flip-flop,” said Erik Gerding, a Portland Public Schools capital project director who is overseeing the Lincoln school construction.

Credit: PPS
The placement of the new Lincoln High School and track

All of those features will cost far more than PPS originally anticipated. The district acknowledged that it was too conservative in its estimates for school construction in the 2017 school bond.

“The initial estimates that were presented were lower than they should have been,” said PPS spokesman Harry Esteve.

But district leaders said other unanticipated costs have caused the budget to skyrocket, from its original $187 million to $245 million, even before construction begins – and the school board doesn’t know where that extra money will come from.

Downtown design requirements add to costs

The new Lincoln High School will be held to different standards that will cost the district millions more due to design requirements for buildings in downtown Portland.

Lincoln is the only Portland public school that sits within a “design overlay” zone, which means the neighborhood is held to specific design standards to maintain its historic character. The gatekeepers of that character are the city’s design commissioners, who hear a series of presentations from builders in design overlay zones and have the ability to veto building plans and materials that don’t fit a zone’s requirements.

Read more about Portland's design commission

PPS will attend its first design review hearing on Thursday.

The Design Commission, as part of the city’s 2035 plan, added specific requirements for new buildings in the design overlay zone. The plan was adopted this May.

That means Gerding now has to factor in more expensive building features and materials he wouldn’t otherwise use in school design. For example, he can’t use chain-link fencing or large concrete blocks.

“Any fencing would have to be a wrought-iron fence,” he said. As for concrete, block structures will probably have to be covered with another material such as brick.

Credit: Jira Hammond
Lincoln High School's current track and field, which will be the location of the new school

The design overlay also requires new buildings to have at least 60 percent of the roof covered in plants – a “green roof” -- and windows must be covered in expensive bird-friendly glazing so avian visitors don’t fly head-on into reflective surfaces.

Those additional requirements, Gerding says, will cost PPS several million dollars that he didn’t anticipate.

“When we went through our master planning and due diligence process, these requirements were unknown,” he said. “These have come in really this last year so that’s why they weren’t accounted for in the original budgets.”

Construction crunch, tariffs weigh down budget

A construction crunch and steel tariffs also sent the Lincoln budget soaring.

In the past, the Portland area might see one or two new schools being built at once. Now, virtually every district has a major construction project on the books. The Port of Portland is undergoing massive renovation projects, and commercial and residential real estate projects are exploding across the region as Portland’s population booms.

“We’re in an area we’ve never been in before,” Gerding said. “Usually, we get three to four contractors to bid on work. We might only get one [now]. It’s not competitive. They can almost set their own prices.”

The Trump administration’s tariff war also added to the budget. Steel tariffs tacked on an additional $1.6 million in steel costs to the Lincoln project, Gerding said.

Who pays?

Voters passed the $790 million school bond with the promise of rebuilding Lincoln, Madison and Benson high schools, and Kellogg Middle School.

Lincoln is $58 million over budget. The other schools will also see steep budget increases due to construction crunches, Esteve said.

At a May meeting, the PPS school board estimated the total budget overrun at $100 million or more.

Kim Sordyl, an employment law attorney and PPS critic, said chair of the bond committee Amy Kohnstamm failed to provide voters with accurate cost estimates for the building projects.

“I believe she was told by her campaign consultants that voters would not approve more than a $790M bond,” Sordyl said.

Esteve said the board will not cut programs at any of the new schools and will instead find additional money to pay for the extra costs. The most likely scenario would be to draw additional funds from another school bond.

The 2017 bond was one of several planned by the district, with the end goal of renovating or rebuilding all of the district’s old schools. The next bond will probably be proposed for 2020.

“It’s kind of seen as a continuum of projects, so it could figure into that financial equation,” Esteve said.