Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sandstone Park Blocks

Today's adventure takes us out to the Portland 'burbs, to a 70's-era subdivision along NE San Rafael at 162nd. 162nd marks the border between Portland and Gresham in this area; it's not my usual part of town, and I'm fairly sure I never would've ended up here but for a tip from Gentle Reader av3ed. I imagine s/he saw my "East Park Blocks" series from a few years ago & (rightly) figured I might be interested in this place. (The same person also tipped me about the old survey marker at Peninsular & Farragut. Which in turn got a comment by someone else, leading me to the old city boundary marker in the historic Columbian Cemetery. So feel free to leave your own suggestions down in the comments & keep the chain going.)

The reason we're here is that San Rafael has a wide landscaped median between about 160th and 169th, with an asphalt path down the middle, as it passes through the "Sandstone" subdivision. I was surprised by how many runners and walkers were using it when I visited. If you look at the place in Google Street View, you'll also see a few runners using the path. This alone makes it more park-like than a lot of the places I called "park blocks" in that earlier project, so I think I"ll use the term here too, for convenience. So "Sandstone Park Blocks" is really just my description, not an official name or anything.

Dedicating this much land to recreation space instead of more houses is unthinkable in today's sardine-can-like subdivisions, and it was unusual even back in the 1970s. But this isn't just any old subdivision; a portion of it was the 1979 Street of Dreams. The Street of Dreams is an annual show by Portland-area homebuilders showcasing the latest trends (or fads) in home design. In recent years they've focused on increasingly crass and ridiculous gazillionaire houses, but the 1979 show had houses just a step or two above what the average homebuyer could afford, and the show drew record crowds.

From what I can tell, the dream houses were all located on or near NE 165th, a side street off San Rafael, and the surrounding area (including San Rafael) was largely undeveloped at the time of the Street of Dreams. If you wander along 165th on Street View, you can tell that the architecture is a bit more 70's avant-garde than usual, and no two houses are alike. The landscaped median would have made for a grand entrance into the show area, and the path was probably a big selling point for people who fancied themselves as joggers (since that was a big fad at the time).

The rest of the subdivision came along later, beginning around 1985. In the intervening years, Oregon's economy experienced one of the worst recessions in its history, as the poor national economy meant no demand for wood for construction, and in those days any shock to the timber industry had a large ripple effect on the entire regional economy. So I imagine development ground to a halt for a while here, and resumed when the economy finally began improving in the late 1980s. The Sandstone subdivision was featured in a March 1986 Oregonian article "Housing industry coming out of slump", in fact. (There was also a steady stream of real estate ads as new houses came on the market; see these from April 1985 and October 1986 for example.) The ads and article mention that the subdivision was created by a division of the Weyerhaeuser Corp., the large Seattle-based timber company, so I imagine there was a forest here at some point before the houses came.

More recently, the local neighborhood association's transportation policy advocates for a marked crosswalk at 162nd & San Rafael, which they say is needed due to all the extra foot traffic along the central path. PortlandMaps says the pathway is part of the street right-of-way, but I'm not sure whether it's maintained by the cities of Portland and Gresham, or by a local HOA, or someone else. If it was located in inner NE Portland, say, or St. Johns, instead of distant Gresham, this would be a hip, trendy street. City officials would brag about the median path as a great sustainable walkability feature, or something along those lines. Actually this could still happen; Portland home prices and the general cost of living keep going up all the time, and we may reach a point where only boring rich people can live in the central city, kind of like what's already happened to San Francisco and Manhattan and parts of Seattle. If we get to that point, I've begun to wonder which Portland suburb will become our Oakland or Williamsburg. Downtown Gresham is kind of cute, and it's convenient to the Columbia Gorge, and I think getting around is generally less of a hassle than out in Washington County, so it's probably my leading candidate if I had to guess. In this hypothetical future, I could see househunting hipster couples stumbling across this neighborhood and going nuts for it, the way their predecessors did over Portland's close-in eastside neighborhoods. Not this year, likely not this decade, even, but sooner or later.

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