County "tops off'' the new Health headquarters as last beam lifted into place

December 6, 2017

In a rite as old as the building trades, Multnomah County leaders and construction crews “topped out’’ the new Gladys McCoy Health Department Headquarters Wednesday, Dec. 6. More than 100 people whooped and cheered as the last steel beam was raised into the blue sky overhead and installed in place.

“Almost exactly one year ago we had our groundbreaking celebration here right before a major ice storm.  Well, we have come a long way in a year,’’ said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “I am so proud of our Multnomah County project team, and the men and women in the trades who have been out here every day, in rain, in ice, in snow,  making our dream a reality.”

The County is building a 9-story, $94.1 million headquarters for the Health Department across from Union Station. The project has been in the works since 2010 and is expected to bring nearly 500 health professionals to work everyday in Old Town-Chinatown.

Moments before the beam was hoisted, the Chair signed the beam with her name with a peace sign and a heart, as did Commissioners Sharon Meieran, Jessica Vega Pederson and Lori Stegmann,  department heads, project managers, county employees, community partners and dozens of construction workers.

Health Department Co-director Wendy Lear signs the last steel beam.
Health Department Co-director Wendy Lear signs the last steel beam.

Tom Heger, vice president of the County's general contractor, JE Dunn, said the “Topping Out” signifies reaching the highest structural point of the building. In a custom dating to ancient Scandinavia, workers would celebrate the materials used by tying on a tree to the highest wooden beam and hoisting it into place. When the custom made its way to America, the United States flag was added. On Wednesday, crews hoisted the beam bearing the flag, the symbolic evergreen tree, and banner of the partners.

As a crane lifted the steel over NW Glisan between NW Sixth and NW Broadway, two workers poised on other beams near the top of the building expertly pulled the last beam to them and attached it to the superstructure. They then met in the middle of the beam, and shook one another’s hands.  

“This is really our chance to formally thank and appreciate our skilled trades men and women who put the work in place,’’ Heger said.  “The real builders who make this all possible deserve our respect and gratitude’’

Tom Heger of JE Dunn describes the topping out tradition.
Tom Heger, vice president of JE Dunn, describes the topping out tradition.

Heger said the skilled trade workers on this project performed many different types of work, and in impressive quantities. For example, more than 1,150 tons of steel from R.F. Sterns has been used. Among them:

  • 16,900 pieces assembled in the field.              
  • 21,100 bolts.
  • Workers spent 15,500 local shop hours to fabricate the pieces and 12,800 hours to assemble.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran said construction jobs are great, family-wage jobs, and the apprenticeships the County has supported along with this project give workers the training they need to thrive in the trades. She said the County has wanted to build diversity and opportunity in that workforce.

“That’s why we’re requiring that state-approved apprentices have 20 percent of the work by trade on this project, and that at least 20 percent of those apprentices be minorities and 25 percent be women.”

Meieran said the County knows these are challenging goals--the labor market is tight right now. To meet these goals, we need a thriving and diverse labor pool. "Our projects are partnering with Construction Apprenticeship and Workforce Solutions (CAWS) to directly work with and grow pre-apprenticeship training program to increase the available pool of qualified and diverse workers. The program is estimated to help at least 120 minority and women workers obtain employment as registered apprentices,'' Dr. Meieran said.

Chair Kafoury said for more than 150 years, Multnomah County has prevented disease, promoted wellness and provided medical care for all of us, but especially for the County’s most vulnerable people. This building will carry that mission forward for the next 80 years. The gathering included Wendy Shumway, a member of the Community Health Council, which governs the County's clinics, and a member of the Neighborhood Involvement Committee, as well as staff from building designer ZGF Architects, the County’s owner's rep Shiels Obletz and Johnsen and “employees of the best health department in the country: the Multnomah County Health Department!”

The  Chair also thanked the City of Portland, Prosper Portland and Home Forward, and particularly the folks next door at Bud Clark Commons as they tolerate our construction. And we are grateful to the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association for their continued involvement and support as we have developed our plans for this site.

Vanetta Abdellatif, co-director of the Health Department.

 Vanetta Abdelatif, who co-directs the Health Department with Wendy Lear, said, "We are now one step closer to opening the doors to this incredible facility and continuing to fulfill our mission of serving everyone in our community. This building will house:

  • Clinics to provide critical specialized services to people most in need,
  • A central lab,
  • And 500 dedicated, hard working Health Department staff.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to move into a space that will provide a respectful and beautiful environment of healing and health for the clients we serve, the public and our staff,'' Abdellatif said.