by Karen Hery
There’s not much stirring as winter approaches St. Francis Park except the final work of a city sewer project along the walkway between the park area and the buildings of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, but change is in the air.
St. Francis Park is managed and maintained by St. Francis parish with just one paid maintenance staff for all their facilities and a small crew of volunteers. Valerie Chapman, pastoral administrator for St. Francis, is actively looking over what options the church, neighborhood and community have to serve each other best in the coming years.
The block of land the park sits on at SE Stark between 11th and 12th is worth over $1 million according to city records. Talks between St. Francis and Catholic Charities held lots of promise last spring for much-needed seed money coming back into the church while still keeping the land for sale in charitable hands.
The proposal was for more affordable housing – a resource in short supply all over Portland and especially for those more down and out and struggling to get by in this inner city buffer zone between the light industrial buildings near the river and a back-to-back set of popular inner SE neighborhoods.
Not all the funding needed to make the project work is secure at this time so the proposal is on hold as only one future possibility.
Other proposals and queries have been coming in. Chapman works patiently and thoroughly on all of them as she has for 25 years in her role as the main liaison between the community, the diocese and the church committees who advise her every decision.
She is always happy to hear from neighbors interested in being a part of keeping a good park going. She also knows if she can’t actually keep a good, safe, well-maintained park going, there comes a time to shift gears. There’s been talk of neighbors coming together to raise the funds needed to buy the land. Chapman is understandably skeptical of this idea becoming a reality.
Chapman was hired by the church back in 1988 in response to the closure of their school. She’s been through all the ups and downs of community park management: from play structures that couldn’t be insured to challenging debates on who should be using the public/private space.
Much has changed in the neighborhood since the sweet (but now aging and leaking) water-feature was put in with a wading pool at its end in the center of the park.
“The industrial area is jumping over us and reaching farther and farther up through the neighborhood,” Chapman explained describing the demographics of the land her parish serves.
Gone are the days when the parish ran a school that was 80% neighborhood kids not predominantly of the Catholic faith. These days she stewards a parish from the river to 28th and Madison to highway 84, where just 30% of the buildings are residential and only 12% are households with children.
Ironically, the best way to stave off a change in the park isn’t, at this point, as much about finding more funds for the park itself, but more about the parish finding other ways to fund the new building-wide heating system that must come from somewhere, new kitchen stoves and an upgrade to the showers the homeless rely on.
While windows are clearly in need of replacement and the buildings all beg for better flooring and fresh, protective paint, Eagle Roofing already completed a ½ price roofing project last November with fundraising paying for what wasn’t donated.
Even if donation angels arrive in full force in the coming years, Chapman doesn’t want to give any false assurances that St. Francis Park will remain a park forever.
There is no doubt she is determined to honor those that came before her and those that will come after in the decisions that get made on her watch.
“There will be no Walmart or purely market-rate housing,” Chapman says with confidence. “This parish is committed to the work of the inner city. We will just have to balance our strong environmental sense with our mission to the poor and move forward the best that we can.”