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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 30 July 2013

Southeast 123rd and Division Street at vacant site

Corner of 123rd and Division Street

Trees. Parks. Playgrounds. Some neighborhoods have them. Others don't. Take East Portland. Home to 40 percent of the city's children and teens, many neighborhoods east of NE 82nd Avenue simply don't have enough safe places to exercise, play and enjoy the outdoors.

Parks matter for many reasons. They're important to our physical and mental health. They give us beautiful places to play, walk, picnic and hold community gatherings. They help keep cities cool in hot weather. They soak up storm water, which prevents flooding.  And their trees pump out oxygen, improving our air quality.

The Parks bureau owns more than a dozen sites in East Portland and has created master plans for seven of them.  But it's unclear how building out those plans will be funded. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who recently took over the parks portfolio, is weighing her options. 

Meanwhile, environmental justice nonprofit Groundwork Portland is working with East Portland neighbors through the East Portland Action Plan's brownfields subcommittee, to turn unused lots into community green spaces and gathering places.  Brownfields are vacant city lots that present a challenge for development because they are polluted or contain other potential hazards. 

"Our challenge is that we are competing with the development market, especially with privately owned sites," says Cassie Cohen, executive director for Groundwork Portland. "We're asking property owners to slow down a bit and not just take the highest bid. So we let owners know that we will test the property to determine whether it is contaminated. And if it is contaminated we'll help pay for cleanup. We encourage them to become the stewards of the land, and leave a legacy that benefits everyone in the local community in the long run."

What's the Future for Portland's Parks?

Portland Parks director Mike Abbaté says the goal is for everyone to live within half a mile of a park.  But although the Parks bureau has acquired land and created plans for several parks and natural areas in East Portland, that goal is still a long way off. One in four Portlanders and 40 percent of Portland's children live east of 82nd Avenue, often in high density apartment buildings. 

"It's all about livability and community," Abbaté says. "Commissioner Fritz is very interested in providing equity by ensuring all Portlanders have access to parks."

To improve play opportunities for some of those children the Parks bureau created a mobile playground that visits some of those apartment buildings, taking play equipment directly to where children live. It's a creative solution to part of the problem.  But in the long term, uneven access to the benefits of parks remains a challenge.

"We have a phenomenal parks system right now, but that's because of previous investments made by Portlanders," Abbaté says. "The question now, knowing we have these gaps, is: 'How do we build out the parks system for the next generations?'"

Figuring out how to fund new parks is now the job of City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. And any proposal will need approval from Portland City Council. In the past new parks have been financed with bonds, and private donations, raised through Portland Parks Foundation.

"No decisions have been made," Abbaté says. "Building parks takes three major steps: First acquiring land; the second is doing a master plan for that park; and the third is building it. We've made tremendous progress in acquiring land and doing master plans for parks. But the public might still see a vacant piece of property."

So far, working with students from David Douglas school district, the committee has found five sites with potential. Currently they are looking closely at two:  a site on Southeast 127th, just south of Burnside Street; and a site on Southeast Division Street at 123nd Avenue.

The first site, around 24000 square feet, is owned by Portland Water Bureau. The bureau hasn't made any decisions about future plans for the site, which stands next to a water bureau building. The site also is bordered by an apartment building full of families with young children.  The committee dreams of turning it into a small park with play areas, trails, a gathering space and drinking fountain.

"We've done some canvassing at the apartment complex and the residents expressed a lot of interest in that land being turned into a place they can take their kids," says Cohen.

The second site, 51,000 square feet backing up to Southeast Division Street, is owned by two brothers and valued at around $1.2 million. The brothers, who pay hefty property taxes, want to sell or lease the land. But they're also open to hearing a community-based proposal from the committee. Neighbors say local teens need hangout space. Also on neighbors wish list are: a community center with a commercial kitchen, meeting rooms, an urban garden and a youth sports area.

"I work with a lot of developers searching for property, and this has commercial zoning on the Division Street frontage," notes committee volunteer and land use planner Seth Otto. "You can't ignore the profit potential here. Maybe there's a hybrid development here that would bring profits and satisfy community members."

The committee has tons of expertise, with volunteers such as Otto, Dan Miller of the National Parks Service; Rebecca Wells, from Oregon DEQ; and Abigail Cermak, from Portland Bureau of Environmental Services.  Environmental designer Jordan Secter has even drafted proposals for the sites.

But to make any of these dreams a reality, means overcoming a long list of challenges. Neighbors and property owners must agree on a plan for each site. The plans have to meet city, state and federal regulations. And the group has to figure out a sustainable funding and management plan for each site.

"It's a challenge to turn people's visions into reality," Cohen says. It's a challenge to find the resources that can make that happen, and the resources to preserve the vision –so the community can get what it wants and needs."

Groundwork Portland overcame similar challenges in developing the Emerson Street Garden in Northeast Portland. With support from neighborhood volunteers, the environmental justice group turned a lead-contaminated eyesore into a thriving community garden that will nourish generations to come. And its Green Team youth internship program offers opportunities for youth to learn as they earn, helping them stay in school and on track.

"It's not just gardening," says Cohen, about the garden. "It's a community gathering place and a safe, multicultural space for elders to share their wisdom with younger generations."


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