By Midge Pierce
Now that a proposal to rezone a chunk of Mt. Tabor Park has been rescinded by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, park supporters are breathing significantly easier.
“We delivered a resounding No! to the plan and Fritz listened,” noted John Laursen after applause rounded the packed Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association meeting room.
In the span of some 72 hours prior to last month’s meeting, word had spread that a portion of the park would be sold. Residents with apprehension thick as the TaborSpace church’s stone walls flooded the meeting.
Then, before attendees could get thoroughly wound up, Fritz raised her arms and repealed the recommendation, declaring residents had shown her how much they treasure the park.
The strong show of support worked. The park would remain intact.
Praising neighbors for restraint and Fritz for her transparency, Laursen said, “This is exactly how government should work. Bringing proposals to communities that will be profoundly affected before implementation is the right thing to do.”
It was a wake-up call for some. For a short while, the fate of the beloved park hung on a little blue cottage just inside Tabor’s Salmon Street entrance. Once the park caretaker’s home, it is now a rental, albeit an unusual use inside a park listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Assuming the lot could be rezoned for development – questionable given its historic status – the City could sell the parcel and be rid of maintenance on the house.
The threat to carve the cottage lot out of the park was real. With the Park Bureau that Fritz runs under what seems an annual directive to cut 5% from budgets, she had asked City staff to identify parcels smaller than an acre that could be sold to offset shortfalls. They suggested the modest house on less than an acre inside the park be rezoned and sold for housing.
When the session began, Landuse Chair Stephanie Stewart described the first thing many visitors see when they enter the west side of the park: a grassy knoll with a small, quaint house. The vista is integral to the landscape laid out by the famous Olmsted family more than a century ago, she said.
Her comments were followed by Fritz’ explanation that her bureau faced a $3.2 million shortfall that necessitated looking left and right for options. Residents responded that selling parkland sets a dangerous precedent.
Laursen questioned the legitimacy of separating out a “parcel that is visually and functionally part of the park.”
Friends of Mt. Tabor reported that visits to the park from folks near and far had risen dramatically in recent years and that retaining the lot behind a key entrance was critical.
Association member Michael Turaski said, “So many people turned out for this meeting because they don’t want the City to divest public lands, especially as we absorb more Infill.”
Another resident declared, “You can’t let our parks become ATMs for the City every time it wants to raise money.”
Reading the room, Fritz withdrew the proposal. As rezoning firmly bit the dust, she challenged residents to seek solutions to cover shortfalls (despite the City bringing in record revenue last year) and the cost of deferred maintenance on the lot. “You take the sale away, now what?” she asked.
The room responded by discussing whether volunteers could handle repairs or if maintenance workers could move into the house to relieve congestion at the Visitor Center. A suggestion to raise the rent on the cottage was met with cautions from Stewart who cited the shortage of affordable housing nearby.
Some skepticism lingered when the meeting wound down. Park activist Dawn Smallman said that twelve years of park advocacy had taught her some tough lessons.
“When the City controls the process, it gets the outcome it wants.” Under earlier administrations, she had witnessed parcels sold clandestinely for a care center and a private college.
Some wondered if the sale was a portent of more to come. Residents of the so-called Lincoln longblocks, who are objecting to the bureau’s plan to move plant cans to the field in front of their homes, worried if it could be a target in the future.
Here and there, grumblers complained about City mismanagement of funds. One attendee, carrying a paper about “unscrupulous, closed door shenanigans, charged the City with treating the Eastside inequitably for its failure to close a deal on the former Washington School site slated for a community center and possible pool.
The purchase had been requested by the Buckman Community Association and approved by the SE Uplift Board of Directors, according to Mary Anne Schwab, to potentially benefit some 180,000 SE residents.
For everyone, the meeting was a reminder that city benefits can be tenuous. Even in an age of record revenue collections and unprecedented growth, community centers like Woodstock and Sellwood face closure; and the City can’t protect businesses from graffiti and feces, keep drugs off the street or house the homeless. For now, City dwellers are grateful that the park they treasure as a gem of the Northwest will not be touched.
Update: Plot Price Increases Proposed
The potential sale of a part of Mt. Tabor was not the only heated park development last month. Friends of Portland Community Gardens’ Allen Field alerted MTNA to a proposed Portland Community Garden Fee increase of 40% on some, but not all, community plots.
Field said the plan, designed to raise $9,000, was inequitable since it singled out only nine of the gardens including Clinton, Ivon, Col. Summers, Sewallcrest, Sellwood and Tabor.
Indicating officials told him these plots were selected because they had long waitlists, Field said he believed they were targeted because they were in affluent areas, even though gardeners come from all parts of the City.
MTNA joined other neighborhoods in supporting a draft of a letter seeking a more equitable solution.