Public land use past and future

By Nancy Tannler

Additional information provided

by Mark Bartlett and Shannon Loch

The struggle to identify the best use of the Mt. Tabor Park reservoirs is about to heat up.

The potential of decommissioning these historic features of Mt. Tabor Park1) has the City asking, once again, “What goes on top?”

The relationship between the stewards of the second-largest park in Portland – including Portland Parks and Recreation (PPR), Portland Water Bureau (PWB) and the City Council – has ebbed and flowed over the last century.

Mt. Tabor Park was designed with the reservoirs as the soul and centerpiece of the park. So intrinsic were these bodies of water to the design of the park, that the purchases for both park and reservoirs was made simultaneously by the City to ensure that the whole butte was protected in the public’s trust.

In 1903, landscape architect John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. recommended the city obtain the first of an eventual 196 acres of land for Mt. Tabor Park. Even though he wrote his wife saying,“…as much as the landscape is fine and the possibilities for parks, as far as land is concerned, are excellent. But I fear the money will be deficient.”

The people of Portland proved him wrong thanks to their civic pride and vision of perpetuity. Portland Water Board had already purchased land on Mt. Tabor for Reservoirs 1 and 2 in 1894.  In 1909, they passed a bond to buy approximately forty lots on Mt Tabor, all several acres in size, for $366,000.

Ultimately, the park would incorporate some 54 parcels. Prior to this bond issue, a measure was passed to procure funds to build two additional reservoirs on Mount Tabor and, at the same time, to purchase additional land for creation of a public park.

(Building the four reservoirs began during the great depression of 1893-1894. Lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and all working-class men were employed as day-laborers working on the reservoirs at $1.50 per day and glad for it.)

One of the key features in the John Charles Olmstead/ Emanuel Tillman Mishe2) vision of Mt. Tabor Park design was integrating the reservoirs into the landscape features. Their plan proposed using the reservoirs of Mt Tabor as a park and connecting parks with landscaped boulevards.  The parks the Olmstead brothers designed in Portland served as the model for many young U.S. city’s development. Olmstead also noted that the park “… must be kept from the hands of politicians”.

In a 1909 document from the City archives about the land purchases for Mt Tabor Park, it was stated that, “To this must be added in the case of Mt. Tabor, about forty-five acres belonging to the Water Board. This property is bounded on three sides by Mt. Tabor Park and will ultimately be available for use as an ornamental feature of the park.”

During this time there was a lot of front-running where politicians and high-ranking business people heard of the Olmstead plans and Mt. Tabor park development and bought the land up cheap and sold it to the City for obscene profits.

Property prices paid by the city ranged from $1 paid to the Commercial Trust Company, to $37,500 paid to land speculator Henry L. Pittock, owner of the daily newspaper, The Oregonian.

Mishe was made parks director, but resigned in 1913 due to politicians moving responsibility from the original group to a new board who had a different view than Olmsted / Mishe and influenced by other agendas

Between 2006 – 2009, the City spent $600,000 to revise the Mt. Tabor Master Plan and plan for an updated maintenance yard, which was then approved by Council in early 2009 (resolution # 36539). This 35 citizen committee consisted of PPR staff, citizens at large, and professional consultants.

“The primary focus of the plan is to preserve and enhance the natural qualities of Mt. Tabor. The circulation systems, the recreational uses and the facilities envisioned have been planned in balance with the environmental qualities of the park. It is intended that this document set the framework to guide decisions to provide balance between human and environmental needs…for the next 20 years.” (available at

During this process, the Water Bureau made it known that decommission/demolition of the reservoirs was part of their long-range master plan. This plan was developed long before there was an LT2 ruling that made decommissioning these reservoirs a likely result of that rule (see last month’s SE Examiner)

The revised Mt Tabor Master Plan maintains the original vision of the park as a sanctuary from the City within the City.. Uses such as ballfields and skateparks were intentionally excluded to help it remain a natural setting and to respect the listed view corridors while maintaining its role as a migratory bird sanctuary.

The reservoirs in Mount Tabor Park were nominated and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in January, 2004. Cascade Anderson Geller wrote the nominations with assistance from Volunteers of the Friends of the Reservoirs and other members of the public, not only for the three Mount Tabor Park reservoirs, but also the two located in Washington Park.

As stated in the Oregon Historic Preservation Law 358.653 Conservation program; Leases. (1) Any state agency or political subdivision responsible for real property of historic significance in consultation with the State Historic preservation Officer shall institute a program to conserve the property and assure that such property shall not be inadvertently transferred, sold, demolished, substantially altered or allowed to deteriorate.

City code under Capital assets FIN – 6.11 requires the City to maintain facilities in good working order. These were passed by Council resolution number 36248 in 2004 and updated by 36435 in 2006.

The Water Bureau commissioned an independent consultant to do a condition report in 2009 which indicated the reservoirs were in good shape and would last for another 50 years. The Water Bureau has just spent approximately 40 million dollars in recent years to update these facilities.

This brief summary of Mt Tabor Park is intended to update readers on the initial investment the citizens of Portland have already made financially and for historical preservation.

Recently Mayor Hales stated that he was going to begin a “public process” to determine what should happen to the 51 acres that hold our reservoirs in Mt Tabor Park. The PWB believes that decommissioning the reservoirs, burying them and building a UV plant is the only solution to a purported problem they as yet cannot show exists despite extensive testing.

In 2008, another City agency, Portland Public Schools (PPS), was charged with at least 75 zoning code violations, codes that are supposed to govern public land-owners in Portland.

The violations were acknowledged by the Bureau of Development Services (BDS), City Hall, the Planning Bureau, and the Planning Commission.

[Conditional Use Review. Upon reviewing the relevant codes, the Bureau of Planning concluded that code changes should be explored, because the existing code thresholds are unclear. In the meantime, City Title 4 gives BDS the ability to suspend zoning enforcement actions pending a public process to clarify and/or improve the code.3)]

What PPS was charged with is bypassing the application process so that recognized organizations such as neighborhoods were not notified as required during the application process, nor would the said organizations be able to participate in that process.

Somehow PPS believed they were not subject to the City zoning code. (Law 33.910 Recognized Organization)

The City Council and the city attorney supported that view by manufacturing new language that gave PPS retroactive relief for ten years of accumulated code violations, while ignoring State and local land-use rules in place at the time.

Recently, the 51 parcels that comprise the entire Mt Tabor Park were combined into two larger parcels zoned Open Space.

Open Space happens to be the lowest valuation class of land so it is the easiest to rationalize when it does not fit the development agenda of “highest and best use”, which prefers high density, and does not consider the intrinsic value of land such as schools and parks.

The Open Space designation has become antiquated as inner City land becomes more precious.

Recently PPS, PPR and the PWB approved a new disposition policy reflecting their view of public process. It appears that the only input citizens would have is the three minutes before Council when they vote to approve the request for disposition, unless a land use review is required.

Even then, Council can approve a sale by other means without public knowledge or approval.

Bureaus can also use a facility’s deteriorating condition to rationalize selling land. This allows bureaus to assign a low numerical value (facility condition index) to justify demolition or disposition when long-term plans may be to develop the properties into something of financial value.


We were fortunate that the early settlers in Portland weren’t glued to televisions and computers and instead, along with City officials, helped forge the vision for the City of Portland.

It is imperative that people stand up for the integrity of Mt. Tabor Park and let Council know we, the people of Portland, already own this land and that any rationalization that it should be used to provide more revenue is not valid.

The parkland was acquired long before the concept of repurposing public land became a way to extract taxes, pay off debt and enrich developers.

It is only with eternal vigilance that the “public process” will have some transparency and accountability.


1) Mt Tabor Park is the touchstone upon which all other citywide parks action is determined. 

2) Emanuel Tillman Mische, formerly an employee of the Olmsted Brothers, was hired to oversee the implementation of the plan in 1908, serving until 1914 as Parks Superintendent.

3) Schools and Parks Project Scope, October 2008, available online at,  Record Number, 11/ED/7724

Public land use past and future

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