Why I am voting NOT to protect our parks: Congress Square et al, June 10

“Meet me at the park.”

If you live in Portland and you hear that phrase you might be at a loss as to where to meet.

Deering Oaks is home to well-used sports fields, a farmers market, and various events but it isn’t exactly a hangout spot or a focal point. Lincoln Park is a empty cut-through space which was enlivened by Occupy and occasional festivals. The Eastern Prom is a wonderful outdoor space but the back end (which faces the Back Bay) is seldom used outside of sleigh riding. Tommie’s Park is where you go if you want to pick up a game of hacky-sack.

In other words our parks need some help. The knee-jerk if well-intentioned response to help is to preserve all park space for posterity. However, parks are expensive to maintain and it is worth considering how much return on investment we are getting; is there not a better way to invigorate dead spaces?

On June 10 a referendum to strengthen Portland’s Land Bank Ordinance goes before the voters you can read about it here:

protectportlandparks.org/

I am voting against this measure.

Deering Oaks, Congress Square, Lincoln Park are failed spaces which could be enlivened by developing portions of them. What’s more developing portions of parkland will provide much need housing and revenue in the form of construction jobs, real estate tax, etc. The new Brooklyn Bridge Park includes a residential tower to offset the maintenance costs of the project, it also guarantees a built-in user base.

This whole kerfuffle over selling park space started with the sale of part of Congress Square Plark (there is some dispute as the whether the space is a park or a plaza). What has largely been lost in the debate is the fact that Congress Square Plark is a hole in the urban fabric that was created on the tail end of the urban renewal movement. It was modernism at its worst.
Congress Street in the ’70s and ’80s was a pretty dreary strip and the remedy (or so it was thought) was to bulldoze the notoriously sleazy Dunkin Donuts on the Corner of Congress and High Street and put in a clean modern plaza adjacent to a new Art Museum (the other half of the project). The Museum is a nice enough building but from an urban design perspective it engages poorly with the street in that it blocks the sun thus creating a cold dark corner. The museum has setbacks on the back side to allow natural light to flow into the galleries, had the setbacks been in front we’d have been able to enjoy a bit of sunlight out in front of the Museum. A building, a parklet, and a redesigned intersection is what that square needs–and funds to realize the project can found in the sale and property taxes.
Deering Oaks was designed by the City Engineer and it shows (the rumor that it was designed by Fred Olmstead is false). It is a sad testament to the failure of that park that the property across from it is so run down. Architect Michael Belleau has a visionary plan to partially enclose the northern portion of the park (along I-295) to create an urban room. Small commercial shops along the southern portion (Park Ave) and a residential tower would transform the area into a wonderful new district.
Jake Owens, a landscape architect, pointed out to me that Portland has a lot of open space–virtually on every block–throughout the peninsula (one check of google maps reveals this). And these open spaces are parks–for automobiles. How about developing parking into parks?
The issue of building and maintaining parks is a complex one. But preserving what we have for no other reason than maintaining the status quo (although not really) seems a silly way to plan and improve.
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Zack Barowitz

About Zack Barowitz

Zack Barowitz is a writer, artist, and flâneur. He is the radio host of "This Land Is" on WMPG Tuesday nights at 7:30. His work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.