The Last Best Summer Ever
In what will soon be Portland’s finest sanctioned mountain biking facility, solitude doesn’t come easily.
The whoosh of a semi follows you down a path knitting its way through a stand of trees; the shriek of a speeding MAX train vaults itself with you over a curving set of dirt jumps. Stand close enough to any end of Gateway Green, and the traffic of two mammoth freeways can make it hard to hear someone standing mere feet away.
None of this matters in the least.
When Gateway Green opens as a public park on June 24, closing the loop on more than a decade of work by advocates, it will represent the city’s largest-ever step toward welcoming off-road riders.
Sure, the 25-acre patch of green space—surrounded on all sides by the gray confluence of interstates 84 and 205, and a short walk from Gateway Transit Center—is a far cry from the sprawling trails mountain bikers seek out at Stub Stewart State Park 34 miles to the west, or Sandy Ridge 40 miles to the east. But in a city whose repeated deference to single track naysayers has spurred protests and T-shirts emblazoned with “Portland Hates Mountain Bikes” in recent years, even a small patch wreathed in noisy freeways is a big deal.
“You get out and get some recreation in, and you don’t necessarily even have to load your bike up on your car,” says Chris Rotvik, president of Portland’s Northwest Trail Alliance (NWTA), picking his way along one of three single-track trails in development at Gateway Green on a recent Monday, adding that the park offers “that mid-week or Saturday afternoon” ride.
As Rotvik walks through the park, Gateway Green has a way to go. When the property finally opens to the public in late June, the “Dirt Lab” bike park will have three miles of easy to intermediate single-track trail, a line of imposing earthen ramps for riders to launch themselves over, a “skills area” of various obstacles, and a flowing pump track riders can zip around.
But on this gray day, a backhoe is still moving dirt near the unfinished line of jumps. The skills park and pump track are nowhere to be found. The single-track trails still need a bit of work.
None of that worries Rotvik in the least. One thing about the pent-up angst over a lack of mountain bike facilities in Portland is that it creates a lot of enthusiasm when the wheels of progress actually start turning.
Two crowd-funding campaigns, raising more than $200,000 between them, are helping with park design and features that can’t be constructed by volunteers. And for the rest of the park? There are volunteers.
Nearly 150 people showed up to an event in February, at which enthusiasts helped dig, smooth, and otherwise shape the series of paths laid out by Portland resident Chris Bernhardt, a respected trail designer.
Not all of those people were even mountain bike enthusiasts, Rotvik notes, which is part of the point of Portland’s new bike park: The NWTA sees it as a means to woo many more people to the sport.
“This is about engaging developing riders and getting people to a point where they feel confident, where their next step might be going out to Stub Stewart or Sandy Ridge,” he says. “I don’t want to denigrate it, but you kind of think of it as a minor league ball field.”
Rotvik’s organization also markets Gateway Green as “a prototype of urban mountain biking’s future in Portland,” a characterization which might sound optimistic to people familiar with the sport’s history in this city.
For long years, local mountain bike enthusiasts have pressed for greater access to trails in Forest Park and similarly ample forests in and near city limits. And for years, they have been snubbed.
People who live near or frequently walk in Forest Park have successfully pushed back proposals to expand bike access into narrow paths within the park again and again.
Just two years ago, the city cut off access to the popular River View Natural Area in Southwest Portland—largely because of concerns over a lawsuit the city faced over sewer and water rates.
Even the history of Gateway Green, which has sat unused and encased in freeways for decades, reveals how slowly progress has come for the sport.
The park has been in the works for more than a decade—since the day in 2005 when a local developer named Ted Gilbert looked down on the parcel and thought it could make a park.
As Gilbert tells it, he’d become interested in the Gateway District’s success after buying a cheap apartment building there in the early ’90s. Watching the population of the neighborhood slowly increase, he became convinced that the sheer magnitude of transportation options there—interstates, accessibility to the airport, MAX trains—meant Gateway would be the next big thing.
But it didn’t—and doesn’t—have enough parks. “The idea was borne of necessity,” Gilbert says today.
When the island of land that now makes up Gateway Green caught his eye, he told a neighborhood advocate named Linda Robinson, who along with Gilbert has been a driving force behind the park. The pair got to work, and before long had come in contact with mountain bike enthusiasts.
“The cycling community was an absolute gift,” Gilbert says. “These people were passionate, organized.”
In the years since, Gilbert, Robinson, and an expanding list of partners have worked to get permission from the Oregon Department of Transportation and federal government to use the land. They convinced the city to purchase the parcel from the state for $19,300 in 2014, and secured an additional $2 million commitment from Portland Parks and Recreation to create a public park there late last year. Metro had already agreed to toss in $1 million.
Finally, in 2017, Portland is about to have its first mountain bike park.
“You tell me I’ve been working on this for 11 and a half years and it’s, ‘Holy cow,’” Gilbert says.
No one’s claiming Gateway Green is perfect. Mountain bike advocates have cited the noise, and the air quality tarnished by millions of passing vehicles. Advocate Frank Selker even called it “Gateway Brown” in a 2014 Oregonian op-ed pushing for Forest Park access.
“Gateway Green is not in lieu of anything,” is how Gilbert responds to those concerns. He points out that other popular recreational areas—like the Eastbank Esplanade—are also close to the freeway. “This is an opportunity, in supposedly the most accessible location in the region, for people to get acquainted and build their skills.”
And it’s entirely possible the city will further expand its mountain bike offerings in the near future.
The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is in the midst of taking stock of city resources, and developing an Off-Road Cycling Master Plan that will sketch a course for even more mountain biking in Portland’s future.
As part of that planning, city staff are considering plots of land as varied as Rose City Golf Course, Portland International Raceway, and Mount Tabor.
And once again, Forest Park will enter the discussion, which of course means the old arguments between cyclists and other park users are already re-emerging.
But with the recent progress at Gateway Green, and a collective understanding that Portland should finally do more to welcome mountain biking, Rotvik is optimistic.
“Over time,” he says, working his way down a hill at the site of what might be his sport’s greatest victory to date in Portland, “there will be quality opportunities for cycling in Forest Park. The question is not if, the question is when and where. But it will come to pass.”