Monday, September 25, 2006

Yet another Mt. Tabor controversy

staircase, mt. tabor

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A few photos of our fair city's Mt. Tabor Park [map], which is in the news once again. Word on the street is that the city's looking at selling off a chunk of it -- and to a creepy conservative religious college, no less.


Naturally, Grandpa Simpson, er, Bojack, & Co., are going ballistic -- see the previous link, or this update. I try not to indulge in hysteria here, and sometimes I succeed, so let's all take a deep breath and try to puzzle out what's going on.

greenhouses, mt. tabor

One key point here is that the land under discussion is currently home to a Parks Bureau maintenance facility (above photo), including a bunch of greenhouses to serve the bureau's decorative plant needs across the city. On the map linked to above, it's roughly the area between SE 64th & 66th, just north of Division. It's not exactly the area you think of when you think about Mt. Tabor; I don't think it's even open to the public. This fact seems to have fostered the notion that it's not really part of the park, and what the city does with the land is none of the public's concern. You'd think the city would be a little cautious about this, since the park's one of the city's crown jewels, and the public went ballistic last time the Powers That Be tried to monkey around with the place. (Remember that ugly business about burying the reservoirs?)

ducks, mt. tabor reservoir

Sadly, the bureaucracy has precedent on its side. Some time back in the 90's, the city decided it didn't need Reservoir 2, at the SW corner of the park, so they simply demolished it and sold off the land. Now there's a charmless Beaverton-style subdivision there. The only remnant is the reservoir gatehouse, at the corner of SE 60th & Division, and it's been turned into a private residence. I have to admit I wouldn't mind owning that gatehouse building myself, but I don't understand why they went the subdivision route. Other than generating revenue for the city, I mean.

Another account of the city's periodic real estate shenanigans, from a 2002 letter from area neighbors to then-Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who was responsible for the Parks Bureau at the time:

Commitment to keeping public lands, publicly owned concerns all of us. When the Mt Tabor changes were brought before the Landmarks Commission, the first question the commissioners had was whether or not the reservoir land was to be sold. This was not unfounded, as Reservoir 2, another 1894 marvel was sold and developed in the 1990's. Those of us who have lived in the Mt Tabor neighborhoods for a long time have watched as part of the old nursery land (Mt Tabor Yard), technically part of the park,
has been parceled out and sold for housing development. And recently, we have learned, an historic building in the nursery was demolished. We are interested in maintaining what is left of our green space and history. It is integral to our neighborhood and to the very city itself. We do not want to have what is left of our greenspaces sold or developed. We regret the move in this direction with the sale of Reservoir 2, the adjoining lands in Mt Tabor Yard, and the projected fire station to be built in Forest Park. As the Commissioner at the helm of parks, we hope that you will see fit to spend our tax dollars on protection of what little public land we have left and not continue the precedent of putting these lands up for development.

With a recent history like that, public mistrust is inevitable, and well-earned. While I doubt anyone at City Hall is seriously considering selling off the whole park for development, they clearly don't have a stellar track record of acting in the public interest, especially when that bumps up against the self-interest of well-connected insiders.

To me, and probably to most people, the land is part of the park, and if for some reason the city doesn't need it as a "backstage" area anymore, it ought to be turned into something the public can use and enjoy, not quietly sold off as surplus property. There's all sorts of things you could do with the area. Ball fields, open space for the off-leash dog folks, or maybe a greenhouse/conservatory people could visit and enjoy in midwinter. I've long thought it'd be nice to have something like that in town, somewhere to visit during the 9 months of the year when it isn't warm and sunny here. True, the place would be awash with tour buses full of geezers much of the time, but the inevitable gift shop might go a long way to plugging the hole in the city's parks budget, just on the collectible spoon and novelty shot glass revenue alone.

For a little more background on the area, the local neighborhood association has a history of the park and its reservoirs here.

Jack & friends suspect all sorts of dark fanciful plots, full of new aerial trams and condo towers and such. And in truth I wouldn't be surprised if money and insider connections played a part in this proposal, but this is a classic case where one shouldn't attribute to malice what one can attribute to stupidity. Recall that Dan Saltzman, the city commissioner responsible for the Parks Bureau, was also responsible for the abortive hide-the-reservoirs plan. He unveiled it as a done deal, not open to public debate, only to have the whole thing unravel at his feet. I mean, I think he's generally a decent guy, and his heart's in the right place when it knows what the right place is. He probably read somewhere that unveiling a grand plan and presenting it as a done deal is a mark of a decisive, forceful alpha-male leader, and possibly that's even true, generally. It's just that when he tries it, it's always a ham-fisted, politically tonedeaf effort on behalf of a poorly thought-out idea. And then when the proposal garners public mistrust, suspicion and hostility, he doesn't have the clout to push the thing through over everyone's heads. If you'd like an object lesson in the ungentle art of the fait accompli, you'd do well to look elsewhere. We are a city of process geeks, for better or worse, and when someone doesn't play the process game, with public meetings, "visioning processes", stroking the fragile egos of neighborhood association bigwigs and whatnot, people get suspicious. If you don't invite everyone to a grand open house right off the bat, people assume you're conspiring with greedy cigar-chomping developers. That accusation is true far more often than it ought to be, so it's only natural that people assume it's always the real motive. If it looks like you're trying to sneak something unpopular through before the public catches on, that's never going to boost your poll numbers.

Oh, about the other photos: Photo 1 is of the long, narrow stairs between the upper and lower reservoirs. The stairs are quite a workout. Not only are they long, without a single landing on the way up, they also get increasingly steep as you near the top. Photo 2 is looking southwest from the upper reservoir, with the lower one in view along with a tangle of Oregon Grape and various vines. The ducks in photo 3 were at the lower reservoir, just steps from a sign forbidding visitors from feeding any wildlife that might be present. Apparently the city tries to capture any beasties that hang around here too long, and I don't know what becomes of them after that. Probably they just truck them somewhere and release them, but that seems kind of silly for a bunch of plain old mallard ducks. They aren't exactly rare or anything. And duck can be awfully tasty. So who knows, really?


Anonymous said...


Nursery Closing
Regardless of whether or not the City moves ahead with selling the Mt Tabor Park maintenance yard, nursery and horticultural service area, including recently renovated greenhouses, Portland Parks and Recreation has apparently made a decision to get out of the business of growing any of its own plants. Apparently, PPR has done no cost comparisons to see if this is a good idea financially. Other cities that have tried contracting out their horticultural services have found it problematic and more costly and have moved back to growing their own.

Nursery History
Mt Tabor Park's nursery was established in 1908 by a premier horticulturist, Emanuel Tillman Mische, who was on the Olmsted (NYC Central Park, Yosemite Valley, White House, Reed College) landscape architectural firm's staff for 8 years. Mische was trained at Harvard's Arnorld Arboretum and Kew Gardens in London. An Arnold Arboretum mentor of Mische's, a famous plant collector, sent him a large shipment of unusual plants dug from the wilds of China. Mische, in striving to beautify Portland, fought for and established a large tree nursery at Mt Tabor. Most of the stately street trees that grace our neighborhoods, and the astounding array of plants that beautify the yards of older homes, came from Mische's efforts, as well as his assistant, Charles P. Keyser. Keyser followed Mische as Portland's parks supervisor. He carried on the Olmsted/ Mische legacy for Portland's parks for forty years.

The sale of Mt Tabor Park's historic nursery and maintenance yard, within the boundaries of the National Register of Historic Places designation, was far down the road to completion when it was "discovered" in early September by citizens.

Sale Agreement
The City and Warner Pacific College had a Memoandum of Understanding, signed August 24, 2006, which was less than a week after Mayor Potter paid a visit to the college. A picture of the Mayor with the college's president can be seen in Warner Pacific's most recent glossy newsletter, where they also announce that they are "interested" in purchasing the land. The MOU called for a sales agreement to be completed by Nov. 15, 2006. Former Commissioner in charge of PPR, Jim Francesconi, is legal counsel and government relations specialist, for Warner Pacific College.

Warner Pacific College officials attended the Mt Tabor Neighborhood Association meeting in mid- September, after the dealings were discovered, but before records revealed details of the sale agreements, and announced that they were only in the earliest stages of discussions - no plans, no timelines,just talk. Reluctantly, Portland Parks and Recreation officials also attended the meeting where they, too, said that there was no plan to sell the land, just discussions.

At the meeting, Warner Pacific College noted that they might need to move their campus if they couldn't expand. Their offer was to build an athletic facility that would have some public access. They were not interested in leasing or allowing the City a first right of refusal. Officials stated that half of their board wanted to move to a rural location and half were commmited to remaining urban. No plans for the property were to be developed until the college completed their conditional use master plan. The MOU timeline called for this to be done in October, 2007.

Portland Parks and Recretion Quiet Restructuring
In concert with the Mt Tabor Park land sale, Portland's City Council is poised to adopt a resolution, later in November, that will affect Mt. Tabor Park's nursery and maintenance yard. The two resolutions, on the agenda for Nov. 1 and then continued to Nov. 8, that have been made public, set in motion a "fundamental change" in Portland Parks and Recreation's service delivery. The Nov. 8 resolution was withdrawn and a new one is to be presented later in November.

Mt. Tabor Park's sale appears to be part of a major restructuring in PPR. The bureau seems to be moving away from a bureau-led park department and into the creation of park districts. There has been little, and no formal, discussion about this effort. Park districts appear to be best for smaller, affluent communities since they need highly-motivated citizen support. Districts in urban areas, with their varied socio-economic landscapes, may exacerbate existing areas of concern regarding equality and quality of services.

Limited Time to Influence Budget Process
In light of these big changes, it is unfortunate that PPR appears to be holding only one 2007-8 fall budget meeting this year, with a follow-up in January. Commissioner Dan Saltzman, in charge of parks, seems to believe that public process is the budget process, making it even more important to speak up during this window of time.
PPR will be receiving a sizeable chunk of money from the Metro Greenspace levy over a period of years. This money cannot be used for maintenance but must be used primarily for acquistion of new natural areas where the chief service will be walking.

PPR's funding levy will run out in June, 2007. Another levy was not on the November, 2006 ballot. PPR's finance director reported to the Parks Board on Nov. 1 that there is a backlog of maintenance costs that exceeds $100. PPR's strategy to deal with debt appears to include the sale of parklands and the creation of transition sites. These transition sites include Pittock Mansion, community centers, pools and other recreation facilities. Transition sites are those services that can be moved toward self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency may sound like a logical way to unload maintenance stressors, but it certainly can change the face of Portland's esteemed park system. It can also place some of Portland's historic and cultural treasures in great jeopardy and at risk of full or partial privatization. Once out of the public domain, these sites are at grave risk of being rezonedfrom Open Space and developed.

This City's reputation for being a City of parks started when word spread throughout the nation that Portland had hired John Charles Olmsted to complete a park plan for the City, that he then updated in 1907. According to archival accounts, other cities' park directors wrote to Portland requesting to borrow the report.

Portland's political and business landscape has not always been supportive of parks for a variety of reasons and neither have voters. The park system we have today has primarily been created first by the well-heeled "activists" of the west side applying their political clout, and supported by the scrappier east side "push clubs" who applied relentless pressure to get parks for their rapidly developing neighborhoods.

We reap the benefits of these past efforts every time we enjoy one of our many parks. Right now Portlanders deserve a full conversation about these "fundamental changes" that PPR is quietly undergoing. Right now the City is making a decision to discontinue its nursery operations that supply highest quality landscape plants to all the public sites in Portland. This truly is a major change for our city and leaves more of Mt. Tabor Park at risk of development, especially the area north of Lincoln St. at SE 60th.

Mt. Tabor Park is not the only parkland at risk of sale, either. More and more sites, along with public school properties, are being placed on surplus lists. All of this is coinciding with urban density planning, when every inch of open space will become even more priceless. Portland's parks are integral to our quality of life. They are important economic drivers for our community, too. Our park bureau, its lead Commissioner, the appointed Parks Board and Parks Foundation all deserve our support and our guidance.

Please forward this information to interested people and groups.

Here's some contact information to help you get involved now.

Portland Parks & Recreation 2007-2008 Community Budget Meetings

Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Oregon State Office Building
800 NE Oregon Street
7-9 pm

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Oregon State Office Building
800 NE Oregon Street
6:30-8:30 pm

Commisioner Dan Saltzman

Portland Parks Board
Nancy Stites, 503-823-5135

Anonymous said...

I see an error in my earlier post entitled, Mt. Tabor's Giant Yard Sale and More.

The error is in the 9th paragraph under "Limited Time to Influence Budget Process"
It should read: PPR's finance director reported to the Parks Board on Nov. 1 that there is a backlog of maintenance costs that exceeds $100 million. (Instead it says $100).

brx0 said...

Thanks for the info. It wasn't so long ago that the city was proudly offering tours of the nursery, and treating it like their pride and joy. But what's an urban crown jewel or two when you (and by "you" I mean "Dan") have rapacious campaign contributors to appease?

As far as I'm concerned, Warner Pacific's threat to leave town should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat. It's a chance to add to the park, not to make it smaller. I mean, I fully support people's right to attend the creepy religious school of their choice and all that, but I wish they'd do it somewhere other than here.

Anonymous said...

I thought Creepy Fundie Groups were like terrorists and what-not, not people that have actually devoted hours of service to the park itself. What leads you to believe WP is creepy or fundie? Leads me to believe that others in the conversation are ignorant and uninformed...maybe?

brx0 said...

Ok, sure, there's room to split hairs about whether Warner Pacific and its parent denomination are "fundamentalist" in the strict sense. Nonbelievers like me tend to use the word "fundie" in a broad-brush sense, covering conservative Protestant denominations even if they don't make a big deal out of the whole literal truth issue. The precise doctrinal nature of the church is beside the point in the present matter, and I prefer to spend my time worrying about things that actually exist, thank you very much.

So far as I'm concerned, "creepy" follows directly from the conservative religious stuff, but in this case the word would still apply even if the place was a liberal religious school, or a secular school, just on the basis of the backroom wheeling and dealing. If the quid pro quo is that the school devotes "hours" of service to help the park, and in return gets to nibble away pieces of it every few years in a series of sweetheart giveaway deals with no public input, that's the sort of help the park, and the city as a whole, does not need.

jh said...

You're words...not mine:

"Nonbelievers like me tend to use the word "fundie" in a broad-brush sense, covering conservative Protestant denominations even if they don't make a big deal out of the whole literal truth issue."

I only point this out because the use of "broad brush" terms such as "fundie" are not helpful. This seems like a difficult way to earn much credibility, but that's another topic for another day.

The assumption that you made about "backroom wheeling and dealing" creating your criteria for "creepy" is a bit off as well. While the city and how it deals with various groups is up to the city, the college has been nothing but forthright in how it has handled this. Your suggestion of backroom deals is an indictment on your lack of understanding of the timeline.

Clearly we've both shown our hand as it relates to our opinion on this land, but your implication that the "creepy" and "fundie" college on Tabor is somehow being anything less than upfront in this process is absurd. If you think the college is a bad neighbor...ask the neighbors. The college has been there since the early 40's. You may find a few people in the neighborhood that remember when the college moved here.

Make your points...say what you have to say...but, please don't offer uninformed or "broad brushed" statements that only breed hate. The fact that you don't acknowledge christianity as something real should not come to bear on things that as you say "really exist" i.e, the Tabor property.

You love your park...I get that. I'm sure the "fundie" students do too. It would be great if we could be as concerned with one another as we are with stereotypes don't add to constructive dialogue.

Are you concerned that the College will mishandle the land? Are you concerned that the community will not benefit from the College having it? Are you not interested in encouring the promotion of liberal arts education? Are you concerned that the college will pave over the paradise that the Maintenance Yard appears to be?

Keep talking, the college, the city, the neighbors need to hear your concerns. Perhaps you may discover some misleading information that will help you and other change their mind. Perhaps the college might hear the same thing. It is difficult to hear anything through mud-slinging.

brx0 said...

I thought my position was pretty clear, but let me reiterate:

* I'm not in favor of selling any part of the park. To anyone. For any amount of money. Period. If Mother Theresa rose from the dead and offered the city a billion dollars for part of the park, I'd be against it.

* If the city truly doesn't need the maintenance facility anymore, there should be a public process to decide what to do with the land.

* Ideally the land should remain part of the park, possibly as an athletic field, or an off-leash dog area, or a garden.

* If there is absolutely no chance of reusing the land for park purposes, or any other use that would benefit the general public, the land should be disposed of in a transparent process. In other words, the highest bidder wins, whether it's the religious school, or the condo tower guys, or an adult video store, or whoever has the most money.

If the city's going to sell land to some obscure religious group for less than fair market value, that's essentially a government subsidy of religion. I realize it isn't fashionable to be against that anymore, but I am.

* In case it wasn't sufficiently clear in the previous point, no, I don't believe there is any public benefit whatsoever to giving Warner Pacific a helping hand.

The only argument that's been presented so far in favor of that proposition is that people at WP are rather fond of the park, just like I am. Well, that's no surprise, I mean, who wouldn't be fond of the place? The difference is that I've never gone to the city and demanded they give me a chunk of the place for my very own.

As for the "backroom deal" issue, sure, the college publicly expressed an interest in the land. But then they went into a closed-door process with Saltzman and friends to cut a deal to buy the land. In case you hadn't noticed, I've had more than a few harsh words for the city and its behavior in the deal. It's disingenuous, though, to place all the blame on them for not inviting all potential stakeholders to the proverbial smoke-filled back room. The college knew, or ought to have known, that it was engaging in a non-public process to dispose of the land with no public input. If they'd felt uncomfortable with that arrangement at any point, they could have put the deal on hold pending public hearings, etc., and they didn't. Apparently they were too busy coveting their neighbor's property to consider the implications of what they were doing. Now they've got an all-out PR disaster on their hands, and declaring war on critics isn't going to make it go away.

Along those lines, I'd just like to note that your attitude has become increasingly personally abusive and condescending during the course of this dicussion. I'm not inclined to reciprocate with the namecalling, but I'd like to point out that you aren't doing yourself or your cause any favors.

What you think of me as a person, or about my opinions, or my "credibility" is of utterly no interest to me. However, I do strive for accuracy here, so I've changed "creepy fundie" to "creepy conservative", not that I expect you'll be any happier about that. The church, on its own FAQ page, describes itself as conservative, so I trust there will be no hair-splitting about that. As for "creepy", that's my honest opinion. I'm not a big fan of conservatives, generally speaking. I don't know if it's the war, the wiretapping, the waterboarding, or what have you. It's just a thing with me, I guess.

beckster said...

I'm well aware this is an old post.. but I'm new to Portland and explored Mt. Tabor for the first time. Do you now how i could get to those steps of the photo you posted? Perhaps nearby st. names? Thanks!

brx0 said...

No problem, welcome to Portland! The stairs in the photo are on the west side of the park, between the upper & lower reservoirs. Here's a Google map of the area.

If you're driving, the easiest way to get there is to turn off 60th Ave. onto Salmon St., and drive uphill into the park until you get to a hairpin turn and a street that's gated off. If you look down that street, you'll see the gatehouse to the upper reservoir on your left. The top of the stairs is right across the street from the gatehouse. You can actually sort of see the stairs if you zoom the map in a bit more.

If you move the map a little and look at the northeast corner of the map, there's another set of stairs going to the top of Mt. Tabor. I haven't walked them in ages, but I think they're even longer than the stairs you see here.

If you're interested in stairs like these, you've moved to the right city. We've got quite a few like this hidden here and there around town. There was a book that came out maybe 10 years ago called "Portland's Little Red Book of Stairs". I haven't been able to find a copy for sale yet, but the downtown library has a reference copy, FWIW. The city's Area Walking Maps show a lot of the stairs around town too. There's no map for NW Portland for some reason, at least not yet, but the rest of the city's covered pretty well. ExplorePDX has some fun photos here.

Oh, and I've done a few posts about stairs too, complete with photos & everything. I'm such a total nerd....

Steve, the Library Guy said...

Uh, your helpful directions to find the stairs came about 6 months after the question. I won't ask any myself, cuz I know it been a few years since your last post. :)

Steve, the Library Guy said...

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