By Lee Perlman
For the Hollywood Star, January, 2010
On December 1 a special advisory committee and Portland Parks Bureau staff celebrated the completion of plans for a community center at the former Washington High School on Southeast Stark Street at 12th Avenue. The euphoria did not last long.
The committee adopted Option D. This, proposed by committee and Buckman Community Association chair Susan Lindsay, called for a developer (whom she did not name) to acquire the old high school building from the Portland School District, convert the upper floors to 45 to 50 housing units, and lease the lowest floor to the bureau for parts of a community center. A second building containing a pool and other facilities would be added nearby later on land previously purchased by the city from the school district, possibly financed by part of a tax levy the bureau is considering putting before the voters this year.
As a fallback position the committee endorsed Option A. Virtually identical to a master plan adopted in 2004, this would put the entire center inside a new building. The old school would be sold for private housing development, although one abortive attempt to do so has made historic preservationists uneasy about its fate.
Longtime activist Maryanne Schwab of Sunnyside stormed out of the final meeting, upset because, in attempting to make the project pencil out, the committee had declared that a leisure pool and water feature for children was expendable. Further, although an expensive underground parking garage had always been a feature of the project, Lindsay and others had agreed that they could make do with surface parking on the site until the second phase building was added; Schwab fears this could mean loss of the site’s open space or diversion of parking into the surrounding neighborhood. She was unhappy that the mystery developer would profit by his participation in the venture. Finally, she was unhappy that Parks is proposing to allocate only $20 million of the levy to this project when cost estimates indicate it will require more than twice that much. “We should be the star on top of the tree,” she complained.
At the developer’s request, Lindsay had for weeks refused to name him. Eventually an irate observer claimed that the person was Art DeMuro, former chair of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and the restorer of, among other things, the mini-mall at Northeast 15th Avenue and Brazee Street. DeMuro eventually confirmed for the Star that he is considering restoration of the old building but says, “We’d have to overcome a pretty wide funding gap.” Among other things, he is counting on the financial stability that a city bureau as a tenant would give him.
Lindsay has issues of her own. At a meeting of the Central East Side Urban Renewal Advisory Committee last month, she said that she, and other committee members, didn’t realize until later that the Option D plans had been drastically altered. A gym, multi-purpose room and other “revenue-generating” features had been eliminated from the school building basement. Lindsay shares Schwab’s skepticism that the levy will produce a new stand-alone building on the site; DeMuro’s project, if it pans out, would at least provide the community some facilities in the meantime. The current proposal, she said, is doomed to failure, leaving Parks with the Option A they prefer. Lindsay has clashed with Parks staff, including director Zari Santner, before during the course of this project; at the URAC meeting she called the current proposal “Option Z for Zari.”
Elizabeth Kennedy Wong, project manager for the center, says that if the center is to be divided between two buildings it makes sense to place active uses, such as a pool and gym, in one building and quieter uses in another.
Kennedy Wong later told the Star that it seemed to make sense, and would cost less money, to have all facilities that require showers and a locker room, such as pools and gyms, under one roof. However, she said, the bureau was willing to negotiate on the point.