PORTLAND'S OLDEST Eastside high school has sat boarded up for six long years, attracting graffiti and taking up an entire city block in the heart of Southeast Portland. Plans are finally rolling forward to turn Washington High School or its fields into a $50 million community center, but neighbors and the city's parks department are rushing to choose between two imperfect options.
Portland Parks and Recreation is currently looking at two options: buy the $4.65 million building from Portland Public Schools (PPS) and entirely gut its interior, or build the community complex next door and worry that Washington High School will remain an eyesore for another decade.
When PPS "surplused" Washington High in 2003, the district planned to sell the 80-year-old brick building to a condo developer. But the condo deal fell through with the recession, and now windows are often broken at the building on SE 12th and Stark, says PPS Field Operations Supervisor Josh Hjertstedt.
"We try to stay on the graffiti pretty quick. If it stays on there, it just attracts more," says Hjertstedt. But schools that actually have kids in them take higher priority than vacant Washington High, so repairs take longer, he says. "It's definitely an eyesore—seeing a building that has boarded-up windows."
The school district employs only one custodian to patrol and do minor repairs on its four abandoned schools and eight leased school sites in Portland. The total annual maintenance and utilities cost for Washington High comes to $72,000.
At a packed public meeting last week, PPS Chief Operating Officer CJ Sylvester was clear that the school district is unlikely to cut the city a deal on the 80-year-old school. "Our board has the fiduciary responsibility to sell lands at fair market value," Sylvester told the crowd.
Neighbors at the meeting were asked to choose between the two community center designs. The cheaper option is to build the center on 4.7 acres next to the school the parks department bought for $4.5 million in 2004. While gutting Washington High and building the center inside could cost $10-15 million more, it would leave more green space in the area and make sure the school is no longer an eyesore.
Neighborhood resident Mary Francillon seemed to express the feelings of many after the meeting when she crossed out the middle option on the community center opinion survey ("Either one is great!") and scrawled in her own choice: "Neither one is good enough!"
"I think the whole building should be saved," explained Francillon. "On the other hand, I'm afraid to see it sit there for decades."
If the community center advisory committee does not choose a plan by the end of the month, the center could be left off Portland Parks and Recreation's planned 2010 bond measure, and not get funding for years. Parks has been hoping to build a community center in inner-Southeast Portland for more than three decades. The closest community centers to one of Portland's densest neighborhoods are in Sellwood, in Northeast Portland across I-84 and in Southwest Portland across the Willamette River.
For one month this fall, thousands of Portlanders saw what Washington High could be. The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art occupied the old school for the Time-Based Arts Festival, turning classrooms into art installations and hosting nightly performances in the high school's central theater. But that sort of reuse of the original space is impossible, say community center architects and planners, because the building requires expensive earthquake upgrades.
Also, a community theater does not fit into the parks bureau's financial plan. "The first thing that parks said was that they didn't want the theater," says Susan Lindsay, Buckman Neighborhood Association chair who heads up the community center advisory committee.
"The things that bring in money for parks are a leisure pool and lap pool. The theater has not been seen to be anything that pencils out," Lindsay says. With a lap pool, leisure pool, and spa, the parks department estimates the community center would cover 53-55 percent of its total operating costs per year—public money would pay the rest. Both plans include a roughly 180 spot underground parking lot costing over $7 million to build.
At the public meeting last week, Lindsay explained why the official neighborhood association had chosen the more expensive "gut and stuff" option despite the opposition of a historic preservation group that wants the school's interior preserved.
"I'm fearful that the building will be razed, or sit there for 10 years in disrepair," said Lindsay, bluntly adding that PPS "has sat on properties" rather than turn vacant schools over to the city for other uses, over the years.
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