Friday, December 3, 2021

South Park Blocks (Chapter 5)


(State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation)

 Though consequences are yet unclear, a devoted group of volunteers trying to save historic fabric of one of Portland’s oldest parks has won a major step toward placing the South Park Blocks on the National Register of Historic Places.

 A 5-1 vote by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation on Nov. 30 was a hard-fought victory for the Downtown Neighborhood Association that sponsored the nomination, and a setback of sorts for the Portland Parks Bureau and Portland State University who opposed it.

What remains murky is the effect the designation could or would have on the Parks Bureau’s 50-year masterplan that would allow gradual death of dozens of historic deciduous trees, add conifers, change walking paths and impair the historic landscape plan with its five axial tree rows.  Despite substantial public opposition, the City Council earlier this year approved the plan for the 12-block stretch of narrow park blocks in Southwest Portland, even though there is no budget yet for making the proposed changes.

Four earlier posts on Building on History were devoted to master planning and its consequences.   earlier. 

If the park were a “building” instead of a park, substantial proposed changes would have to undergo a historical review to assess whether changes were necessary and historically appropriate.  However, there apparently is no such standard under the federal rules for public parks.  And even if major changes were to require historical review, it is probably that a series of smaller changes could slip through piecemeal. 

 A knowledgeable preservation expert predicts the city will "do everything possible to minimize" the impact of the designation.  

 On preservation’s plus side, a national listing would mean that no federal funding could be used for park improvements without historic review.  And advocates trying to preserve the park in years ahead can use the extensive historical document to lobby future City Councils against disruptive changes.  There is always a chance that future City Councils will pay more attention to the importance of historic public spaces rather than deferring to special interest groups that promoted the 2021 master plan. 

 The 12 park blocks were donated for park use in 1852 and planted in 1877 with five axial rows of deciduous trees, mostly elms, running north and south.  Those rows are largely intact today, with trees being replaced when necessary.  Although often used for public events, the blocks are noted mostly for the quietude the offer in the heart of a busy city. 

 A Portland State University official opposed the designation on grounds that the southern six blocks are now part of the PSU campus.  He also contended that a designation would hinder PSU’s ability to make changes needed for students of varying disabilities.  Heidi Slaybaugh, one of the state committee members, noted however,  that “there are many ways to provide accessibility in a historic park or a historic building.”

The detailed and heavily-documented nomination report was written by volunteer historical consultants  Brooke Best and Kirk Ranzetta.  They were assisted by a handful of volunteers who helped with  research and graphics.  Wendy Rahm, a neighborhood association board member, recruited, managed, cajoled and encouraged the volunteers in an extraordinary example of citizen participation.

The nomination  is based on the history of planning and development for Portland parks and for the distinctive landscape architecture.  

Given the recent preoccupation with ethnic awareness and inclusion, the nomination includes a concise narrative of indigenous history before the park was created.  Nevertheless, the Parks Bureau, which steadfastly opposed the nomination, asked for “a more nuanced narrative" -- whatever that means.  

Stephen Beckham, a well-known Pacific Northwest historian who chairs the state committee, seemed to push back on what might be an idyllic view of native life in and around the Park Blocks.  He listed tribes in Western Oregon that engaged in slavery, and noted that when first surveyed in the 1850s, the Park Blocks were composed of dense, old-growth trees showing no signs of human habitation.

The one vote cast against the National Register nomination was from John Arroyo, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon.  He said the number of “non-contributing” elements in the blocks outnumbered the historical contributing elements.

 In other action at the same meeting, the state committee approved National Register nominations for three buildings closely associated with African American History in Portland:  Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Golden West Hotel and Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop.   Photographs of those buildings and descriptions of their importance were detailed here on Sept. 19.  You can see the posting below:

----Fred Leeson

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  1. Once again a BIG thank you Fred!
    David and Meg Talbott

  2. Excellent overview of South Park Blocks....adds to the incentive to preserve the canopy of elms that define it.
    Bill Failing

  3. Fred. To your comment "...However, there apparently is no such standard under the federal rules for public parks." This statement is not entirely true. As the City is a Certified Local Government under Oregon SHPO and NPS rules, the City must comply with all NPS Standards, especially since the City receives federal dollars through the SHPO to fund its historic preservation program. As such, the city is obligated to meet the rules as cited in:
    PRESERVATION BRIEFS 36 - Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Planning, Treatment and Management of Historic Landscapes and; The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties and Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes, 1996. Further, under ORS 358.653 - Protection of Publicly Owned Historic Properties, the City is obligated to protect its cultural resources however, until an actual development is to be undertaken, the SHPO will not respond as they did not respond to the ill conceived SPB Master Plan.