Last Tuesday, Matt and I attended the open house for the new Community Center that Portland Parks & Recreation is proposing on the grounds of the vacant Washington High School. Although I became aware of the project only a few months ago, it has been in the works for 18 years. The committee presenting the process expects final designs to be submitted to the city in October. The timing of this conversation is especially serendipitous, as I – along with thousands of others – will soon converge at the vacant high school, which is serving as a hub for this year’s PICA’s 10 day tba festival.
SERA Architects presented three preliminary designs for the site. The first is for an entirely new building adjacent to the high school, which Portland Public Schools still owns, unlike the surrounding land, which PP&R purchased years ago. The second consists of a center spanning a new structure to house pool facilities along with a renovation of the lower floors of the high school to house additional functions. The third places all functions within the existing high school – essentially demolishing the interior while preserving the exterior structure.
There’s no doubt that this site is under utilized right now (although it occupies two city blocks, its primary use right now is as a dog park) and the addition of a community center would undoubtedly be a positive addition to the neighborhood. But the presentation left me with numerous questions. Why is this facility so sports-centric? What about cultural functions - specialized studios, sound-proof practice rooms, performance spaces? Why does the primary transportation question under consideration at this early stage solely involve cars, given the demographics, central location and density of the existing neighborhood? Why was there no viable exploration of a renovation plan that kept the school intact, or perhaps added a smaller structure to accommodate more specialized functions like the pool facilities? Why were there no 5, 10 or 50 year plans to look at how these proposals might serve the needs of a growing city and changing community?
A short list of what I would like to see better addressed in the plan:
The plan calls for extensive underground parking, but in this early phase includes no plan for bikes and little thought as to how pedestrians in the surrounding area might navigate through the site as part of their day-to-day functions. When asked about the lack of bicycle parking, the architect simply replied that this is a level of detail that will be addressed in the next round. Rather than simply be an afterthought, the full picture of transportation should be considered as a whole from the beginning - otherwise, they will simply be creating a destination for cars that ignores how this community actually functions.
The addition of a few specialized facilities might enable this to reach out to a broader segment of both the local and greater SE community. I’m thinking a kiln room, practice spaces for musicians, a dedicated art studio space for classes and open use. It was telling that no presenter mentioned the upcoming tba festival during the presentation. I imagine it’s the first real activation of this site in years.
Buckman is a densely populated neighborhood that is comprised of 84% renters, and many young, single person households. The grounds of the proposed site should address this population in everything from functionality to access to trying to better integrate the center within the retail and pedestrian functions of the neighborhood. The site currently is used as a dog park - likely an outcome of apartment living - and not one proposal addressed its current functionality. Instead, many of the plans called for open fields very similar to what currently exists on the Buckman elementary school grounds, only blocks away. Because this is a neighborhood of renters, community gardens are in high demand, generating waiting lists that require a multi-year wait for a small plot. While one plan included a small community garden, it was clearly not a central aspiration for the site, even though the demand is certainly there. The community center should be activated not only inside the walls of the center, but throughout the entire grounds.
Portland is growing, and this centrally located southeast neighborhood will get denser in the years to come. An assessment of future use in the years and decades to come might alter current planning, ensuring that the project can grow and change, and won’t feel obsolete down the road.