It is quite amazing to think that 8.67 acres of the most iconic, historic and beloved land in downtown Portland has never been graced with a permanent building. Yet it is the front yard for four churches, three major cultural institutions and one of the state’s biggest universities.
And a playground for toddlers, senior citizens and buyers of fresh vegetables.
The South Park Blocks comprise this historic turf, running 12 blocks from S.W. Salmon to Jackson Streets along S.W. Park Avenue. When it was given to the city in 1852 – only one year after Portland’s incorporation – it seemed far from town. The city's first dedicated park land lay fallow for 25 years before the first formal planting scheme was developed.
Now, 168 years after pioneers in a small village magnanimously gave this land to the city, the question is how much “turf” will remain – and how much will be devoted to presumably more “active” public uses. The Portland Bureau of Parks is working on a new masterplan for the park in a process that has received far too little public attention.
First, let's glance at some history. Rows of elms and poplars were planted in 1877 by Louis Gustav Pfunder, a pioneering horticulturist who earlier had worked on plantings for Central Park in New York and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Since then, the blocks have been most notable for deciduous trees and green grass.
By the late 19th century mansions by some of the city’s important business and political figures abutted the park, followed in the early 20th century by several seemingly high-rise apartments that still exist in what became densely populated neighborhood.
A detailed inventory prepared for the Parks Bureau outlines many changes in the park since its first days. At differing times, statues were added, walkways changed, lighting and some flower beds added. In the early 1970s, the southern area of the park became a formal part of the Portland State University campus, bringing the addition of a performance deck and rows of seats.
Two citizen groups are busy studying the South Park Blocks today from differing perspectives. The Portland Parks Bureau, funded by a grant from a major downtown developer, is working with a Citizens Advisory Committee on a new “master plan” for the park. Details are not yet final, but the proposal is expected to suggest new gathering spaces, more flower beds, conifers instead of elm trees and new plans for human seating.
Meanwhile, a committee of the Downtown Neighborhood Association is preparing an application to place the park on the National Register of Historic Places. Acceptance on the register would not mean that no changes could occur, but would protect the “historic” characteristics of the park.
Regardless of all changes made over the years, the overriding purpose of the park has been to provide quiet green space, a living retreat from the pressure of high-density urban living. Breaking up that ambiance with “visual clutter” would destroy the park’s historic essence and significance, says Story Swett, an architect with an extensive history of working on preservation projects. He chairs the neighborhood committee working on the National Register nomination.
“Despite all the pressures of the surrounding density, the overall character of the park continues to have its historic integrity,” Swett says. “By breaking it up into small bite-sized pieces, the overall sense of a place for quiet contemplation and unstructured rest is ultimately lost.”
Seeking status on the National Historic Register is not a new idea. Work on applications was begun in 1995 and again in 2000, apparently under the auspices of the city government. However, the processes were never completed. Final approval of the registration would require assent from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service. City Council approval is not required for submitting an application.
Meetings of the Park Bureau’s advisory committee have indicated little interest in historic elements of the park. Trees are one of the contentious issues. The Downtown Neighborhood Association likes the historic choice of elms because they provide shade in the summer and allow needed natural light in the winter after the leaves fall. Proponents of conifers see evergreens as being a more indigenous choice, but the conifers by their circumferences would reduce open green space.
You can view three preliminary design concepts from the Parks Bureau here:
The first, called Emerald Arrow, comes closest to retaining the historic sense of the park. The other two, called Braided Districts and Mirrored Chain, add more intrusive elements. When a final plan is proposed, this blog will provide an update with links to the plan and how to comment.
The Parks Bureau, working with design consultants and the advisory committee, is expected to suggest a proposed master plan sometime in June. The plan will have to be approved by the City Council at some point, since any final plan would require money for implementation. Given the strong feelings shown by both citizen groups so far, the council hearing likely will not be a place for quiet contemplation.
*In 1970, Portland police in riot gear attacked protesters against the Vietnam War who had gathered near Portland State. It quickly became known as the "battle of the Park Blocks."