• Jeff Yarbrough

For more than 30 years, inner Southeast Portland residents have agitated for a community center in their part of town. Ever since Portland Public Schools moved out of Washington High School on SE 15th and Stark six years ago, neighbors have eyed the plum piece of property and historic school that has sat vacant. At a public meeting last night, the Portland Parks Department and SERA Architects publicly presented two plans for finally building a community center at Washington High School. But neither plan is perfect: one involves buying Washington High from Portland Public Schools (PPS) and demolishing the interior to build a community center inside, the second plan would build on the grassy acres next to the high school building, leaving the decaying school in the hands of PPS.

Two WaHi options: click to enlarge!
  • Two WaHi options: click to enlarge!


And either option brings a hefty price tag—$49.5 million to build a community center on the adjacent lot and $59.4 million to build it inside the high school, plus the cost of buying the building from PPS. The citizen advisory committee is rushing ("working fast and furious" in the words of Parks Director Zari Santner) to choose a final plan. The neighborhood needs to decide on a set plan by the end of this month to have it included in the bond measure Parks plans to put in front of voters in 2010. If that funding falls through, the community center idea could be stalled for who knows how many more years.

For the children! Cute signs at last nights meeting.
  • For the children! Cute signs at last night's meeting.

Opinion at the meeting last night was divided on the idea of "gutting and stuffing" Washington High, which is up for Historic Landmark designation this month (and, by the way, if the school gets it, the gutting plan is off). The Buckman neighborhood association voted to support the gutting option because putting the community center within the walls of the old building will save land, "reduce neighborhood impact" and reuse a beautiful but neglected building. Also, as advisory committee chair Susan Lindsay put it, if Parks does not buy the school from PPS, there's the distinct possibility it will molder vacant for another decade. “I’m fearful that the building will be razed, or sit there for ten years in disrepair," said Lindsay last night, bluntly adding that PPS "has sat on properties" rather than turn them over to cities or neighborhoods.

After the meeting wrapped up, Kerns resident Mary Francillon filled out the community opinion survey as other residents looked over plans and asked questions. On the survey section asking which plan she supports, Francillon had crossed out the middle option, "Either one is great!" and scrawled in, "Neither one is good enough!" "I think the building should be saved," explained Francillon, "But I'm afraid to see it sit there for decades."

More on this story below the cut! PLUS: Should Portland Public Schools hand over Washington High to the city for free so it can become a community center?

The Buckman neighborhood and Parks department originally planned to build the community center on the corner of SE 12th and Stark, and bought that 4.5 acres from PPS for $4.5 million five years ago, thinking Washington High School would be remodeled into condos (like Queen Anne High in Seattle). But as the economy tanked, the condo deal with Beam Development fell through and Portland first eastside high school is back to square one. Though the building was appraised for $4.65 million back in 2006 and it's structurally sound, according to SERA's architects, it also needs seismic upgrades and there's no way the inside of the building could be just slightly remodeled to fit the pool(s) neighbors want in a community center.

Historic preservation advocates and some neighbors in the crowd were upset at the idea of demolishing the school's interior. I wrote a very short history of WaHi last month, mentioning some of the same details about the building that historic preservation group Bosco-Milligan called out in a stern letter it circulated ast night saying the gut and stuff option is unacceptable. "The tactic of 'hurry up and pick the easy option or get left out of the bond measure' is obvious and inappropriate," reads the letter. Historic preservation advocate Brian Libby criticized the "gut and stuff" idea on Portland Architecture , suggesting PPS donate the school to PICA, hosts of the fabulous Time Based Arts festival which occupied Washington High in September, reviving the school for a month and showcasing the adaptive reuse of its beautiful classrooms.

One neighbor in the crowd last night piped up: "As a structurally sound building, it certainly seems better to be used by someone else, rather than spending all this money gutting it out.”

Since cost is a big factor in this project, rather than having Parks shill out $4.65 million to buy Washington High School, some neighbors in last night's crowd felt strongly that PPS should just give the school to the Parks Department and save itself both the trouble of finding a buyer and the costs of maintaining the aging school.

As Francillion opined, "The money all comes from the same pot—the taxpayers!"

Portland native and 20-something Sunnyside resident Ben Rhinger agreed. "It would be sad to see the interior space destroyed, but it doesn't seem like the school district is going to do anything with it, they're just sitting on it. So why can't they just give it away to save the city the money?"

But PPS representative CJ Sylvester did not seem moved by the idea. "Our board has the fiduciary responsibility to sell lands at fair market value," she told the crowd. The money from a possible sale of the site has already been promised to other school sites, so giving it away or cutting the city a deal would mean taking promised money away from the other schools' coffers, Sylvester explained.

The nitty gritty on both plans and upcoming meetings are here at the city website.