Friday, May 11, 2007

Corbett Oak


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This is Portland's tiny Heritage Tree Park, at SW Corbett Ave. & Lane St., just south of downtown. The Oregon White Oak tree you see here, known as the Corbett Oak, is a real survivor. Back in the late 1980's, infill rowhouses were going up all over town. Developers would buy up a few adjacent older houses with large yards, tear them out, and replace them with rows of identical townhouses, like the ones you see on the left of the photo. Those rowhouses were supposed to extend the full block, but ran into quite vehement opposition from the neighborhood. At one point the developer had someone come in with a chainsaw to kill the tree by girdling it, making the "save the tree" argument a moot point. Angry neighbors stopped the guy, but even now the tree bears a horizontal chainsaw scar from the attempt. This 1997 Oregonian piece tells the whole story up to that point. Local residents eventually raised enough money to buy the land, and convinced the city to acquire the tiny parcel as a new city park. I imagine that what really saved the place in the end was its smallness; the developer crammed as many rowhouses as he could onto the rest of the half-block, and as a result the remaining bit of land was too small to be viable for development, by him or anyone else.

A June 1998 story about the park's creation says

Glazer said the park probably will see few changes. A city sign and a bench might be installed, and a few stairs might be cut on the slope for better access.

It's been close to a decade since then, and those improvements haven't happened yet. There isn't even a sign saying this is a city park. That could just be due to the parks bureau's perennial budget crisis, but if you ask me, it was probably a deliberate decision. Given the current leadership at the city, and the parks bureau in particular, celebrating a neighborhood's victory over big developers is absolutely the last thing they'd ever do. If you let people know it was possible twenty years ago, they might start thinking it's possible now, and we simply can't have that. So the city, or someone, mows the grass, but otherwise it just looks like a well-maintained vacant lot. The only indication there's anything special about the place is a tiny "Heritage Tree" badge on the tree itself. The city parks website says almost nothing about the place, other than noting it was created in '97, and comes to .09 acre -- in case you ever wondered what roughly a tenth of an acre looks like. Elsewhere there's a mention of the tree being designated an official "Heritage Tree". The controversy about the tree actually led to changes in the city's Heritage Tree ordinance, making it much easier to get trees onto the list. Sure, the law's one of those quintessential "liberal city" things that the talk radio crowd loves to freak out over. But it's made the city a better place, if you ask me, so let 'em freak out if they want to.

In retrospect, the development wars of the 80's seem almost quaint. Housing was being replaced with denser, and uglier, housing, but it was still pretty small-scale stuff. We weren't yet building luxury condo towers, streetcars, and aerial trams with taxpayer money. People were actually protesting and going to jail to prevent 1920s bungalows from being torn down, and sometimes it even worked. I'm not an anti-development Luddite by any means. I live in a high rise tower myself, actually. As a general rule, I think infill close to downtown is vastly better than sprawl out at the edges of the burbs, and if you're doing infill, you might as well build tall. But that's not the right answer everywhere, all the time. Our stock of centuries-old oak trees is not getting any bigger, obviously, so there's a point where you have to figure, what does the city need more, one ancient tree preserved, or a couple more cookie-cutter houses?

More info about the park at ExplorePDX, the South Portland Neighborhood Association, and NW Garden History.

Updated 5/31/07: More photos of the oak, with the chainsaw scar still visible nearly two decades later:

chainsaw scar, corbett oak

chainsaw scar, corbett oak

chainsaw scar, corbett oak

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