Thursday, May 9, 2024

Celebrating the South Park Blocks


Robert Wright, Wendy Rahm and Brooke Best celebrate a rare achievement

Several of Portland’s most dedicated preservation enthusiasts met in the South Park Blocks for the celebratory unveiling of a plaque recognizing the park’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

 It was the happy culmination of a three-year effort led primarily by volunteers to provide documentary evidence of the park’s 153-history as a centerpiece of graceful natural beauty and respite in the heart of downtown Portland. 

 In a city as big and convoluted as Portland, citizen-based initiatives always face a huge challenge.  The Downtown Neighborhood Association took on the task of earning national recognition for the park, and stayed the course right down to buying two new bronze plaques, located at each end of the 12-block park.

 Not surprisingly, perhaps, no one from the municipal government or Portland Bureau of Parks bothered to attend the ceremony.  Just as well.  It would have been a long stretch to find anything positive to say about their role in the detailed designation process.

 As Brooke Best, one of the key authors of the National Registration nomination noted, the city government had talked on a few occasions dating back to 1985 about seeking national recognition for the long, narrow urban park.  But never bothered to follow through.

Under direction of downtown residents Wendy Rahm and Walter Weyler, the Downtown Neighborhood Association took on the task in 2021, summoning volunteers to take on the necessary detailed research.  Ultimately, preservation consultants Best and Kirk Ranzetta steered the nomination through the state and national channels.

 As the process unfolded, the Parks Bureau tried to derail it in public meetings.  The bureau had begun its own 50-year masterplan that would change the historic planting scheme and allow some of the historic elm trees to die out without replacement. 

The 50-year plan also would remove on-street parking in front of four churches that face the South Park Blocks.  The planning committee that approved that recommendation did not include any representatives of the churches – certainly some sort of breech of reasonable planning policy. 

What happens to the 50-year plan is not known.  The city lacks funding to start carrying it out at present.  The National Register listing would prevent use of any federal funds for making changes without a formal historic review.  And one wonders if a new 12-member City Council that comes to power in 2025 might decide not to carry out a flawed plan approved by its predecessor.

 In the meantime, the five axial rows of elegant elm trees as laid out by pioneering horticulturalist Louis  Pfunder will continue to rule the blocks with their welcome canopy of spring, summer and fall foliage. 

 While no one from the Parks Bureau attended the celebratory event, the bureau did issue a press release in advance.  “The park remains one of the city's most distinctive, valued, and significant historic open spaces – a place for respite and enjoyment of all,” it said.

 On that point -- if the Parks Bureau truly believes it -- the preservation community can joyfully agree. 

 ---Fred Leeson

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  1. Fred, thanks for reporting on the good news. We depend on you to keep us informed! Rob Stoltz

  2. Yes, thank you Fred! Keeping your fingers on the pulse of Portland's notorious city government is no doubt more than a full time job. Preserving representatives of our civic history IS important and I am thankful for every such building saved.