by Karen Hery
It’s taken quite some time for a closed down high school in the inner Southeast to graduate to its next use. The diploma is almost in hand and the story of its road to redevelopment is long and mighty.
Over 30 years after the last senior graduated, the Washington High School PDX web site is offering lease information for a classroom or two or a whole floor of creative office space with breathtaking views of downtown. Ground floor retail space is up for grabs. Couples can start planning roof top weddings and receptions. Performance events and public gathering space are a real possibility in the not-so-distant future in the wrap around balcony auditorium.
It all started with a school closure in the 1980s. Washington High School, nestled in the middle of the Buckman neighborhood at 14th and Stark, stopped being a Portland public high school in 1981.
The building was actively used by Portland Public Schools and other children’s services for a few more decades. When it was finally emptied out and declared surplus by the district in 2003, 4.5 acres of the high school property, mostly fields and a few buildings, were then sold to Portland Parks and Rec with the intention of building a new, from the ground up community center on this open space portion of the property when funds became available.
In 2004, a citizen task force examined the whole 7.5 acre property and developed a master plan for its use. Part was set aside for a future community center, part as public open space, and the part that was still in PPS’s hands including the old high school building, was designated for sale as a housing development.
While the City of Portland, PPS, Parks and Rec and various developers jockeyed around each other, the building housed several years of PICA’s annual time based art festival and overlooked Earth Day events on its front lawn.
Susan Lindsay, co-chair of the Buckman Community Association and chair of that original citizen task force (and every other incarnation of the Washington High School Community Center Project Advisory Committee over the years), didn’t leave very many stones unturned looking for the best or most reasonable ongoing use for the building and the funding and champions to see it through.
Her friend and historical developer, Art DeMuro, was one of those champions. He started courting the project in 2008 and stood on the steps outside the Portland Public School Board Meeting for a picture with Lindsay on April 23rd, 2012 when the board voted unanimously to sell the remaining acreage and the main high school building for $2 million to his development firm, Venerable Properties .
DeMuro passed away of adrenal gland cancer less than six months later at the age of 57. His sure plan for developing the building as multi-family housing died with him.
When the sale was final on October 24, 2013, Venerable Properties President, Craig Kelly, took the project in a different direction. The historical designation he was able to acquire allowed for rezoning the 112,00 square foot building from the surrounding R1 neighborhood designation without the otherwise required land use review for a quicker path to new possibilities.
A community center is still possible on the parcel owned by Portland Parks and Rec so Lindsay, ever the determined optimist, is declaring the latest turn of events, “a positive and exciting development that will include a public meeting space for neighborhood activities.”
“Craig has been a fantastic developer to work with,” she says, “and we anticipate an awesome grand opening that will include neighborhood tours of the renovated building.”
According to the Washington High School PDX development blog, some possible features to look forward to on that upcoming tour: old high school lockers staying on to be rented out to office workers, a 2,680 square foot roof terrace with views of downtown (no high schooler ever got to go roof side except on a dare) is planned and there are ambitions to be a music and performance hub that can accommodate 50 to 800 people.
At least one modern day renovation will have to take place before any prospective office tenant, retail customer or performing/community group will be truly satisfied: the notoriously drafty building previously relied on an old, unattached boiler for heat that is now obsolete and no longer even part of the property.
That beautiful roof top terrace, if it comes to be, will be sharing space with state of the art condenser units connected to high efficiency heat pumps that can pump either hot or cool air into office and retail spaces.
Exactly who will be sharing space in the old halls and classrooms and auditorium remains to be seen.
Determinedly optimistic, active community members like Susan Lindsay are already pleased to see the building coming back in action and more than ready and able to be a part of seeing a balance of community and commercial interests served.
For blog updates on the renovation and lease and rental information: