Beautiful Burden 

Will Plans for Washington High Fall Through... Again?

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AFTER HAVING STOOD empty for eight long years, Buckman's historic building-turned-expensive-eyesore, Washington High School, may finally be getting new life.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) entered negotiations in mid-February with well-known developer Art DeMuro to sell off and remake the 80-plus-year-old school.

But the potential of the school's site on SE 14th and Stark is matched only by its expense. Multiple optimistic plans for the school have collapsed since the school district shuttered Washington High in 2003. And if the financials don't pencil out, the latest deal may end up on the failure heap.

"The numbers on this project are terrible," DeMuro frankly told neighbors at a meeting about the project the night of Monday, February 28. "There's a really long list of warts on this project. I'm going to be lucky to come up with a formula that makes it financially profitable."

The details of the long-awaited real estate deal are still up in the air. Graffiti and decay have taken their toll on the beloved brick building—PPS shells out $72,000 a year to maintain it—but the district refuses to sell the building for less than its market value of $2 million. So for eight years, its windows have been boarded up with plywood and its gate chained shut.

"It's a decaying cesspool," says Buckman Neighborhood Association Chair Susan Lindsay bluntly, frustrated that the community has big plans for the space, but no money.

Buckman neighbors and Portland's parks bureau have dreamed of incorporating the old school into a new community center. In 2004, the parks bureau bought the 4.7 acres next to the school from PPS for $4.5 million, while the school district worked with Beam Development to hammer out a deal to turn Washington High into condos. But that plan gradually fell apart in 2008 as condo financing dried up.

And then Parks Commissioner Nick Fish's decision to put off a parks bond last year squashed any dreams of the city buying the school for the center.

And so the building sat.

"I was concerned that this well-known landmark building was decomposing before our eyes," says DeMuro, explaining why he would take on a project that doesn't clearly pencil out. If he and PPS can work out a deal, DeMuro imagines the school becoming housing that preserves the school's central auditorium. That theater attracted the only use the building has seen in years: Portland's Time-Based Arts Festival used the school in 2009 and 2010.

For now, the slow-burning fantasy for a community center is on the backburner until a parks bond emerges at some uncertain future date. PPS threw a curveball to the planning when it announced its own $548 million bond on the ballot this spring.

"They're making a huge 'ask' that we were completely unaware of," says parks staffer Elizabeth Kennedy-Wong. "It's really changed the entire political landscape."

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