What’s going on at Mt. Tabor?

Horticulturist John Long leads a tour of the Mt. Tabor nurseryYesterday was Mt. Tabor Day, the first of three big public outreach events in our planning process for the Mt. Tabor Central Yard and Nursery. It was a lot of fun, and a great opportunity for us to present our work and hear feedback. The tours of the maintenance yard and nursery facility were also informative for me — though I’ve toured them before, the issues involved are complex, and a little repetition helps things sink in.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that stand out to me, at this point in the process.

Horticultural concerns: In their 1904 report, the Olmsted Brothers recommended the sunny south slope of Mt. Tabor as an ideal location for a plant nursery for municipal parks. Olmsted employee Emanuel Mische later became Portland’s Parks Superintendent, and implemented that vision; and when the city later expanded to the east, the location became became a truly central location, further enhancing its value as a centralized nursery and maintenance facility. Most plants for Portland’s parks — flowers, shrubs, trees — came to be produced here. But the last decade or so have seen horticultural services downsized, outsourced, and privatized.

This is one of the things that has caused us the greatest concern, because once you dismantle this sort of infrastructure, it is practically impossible to restore. Horticulturists who have worked for PP&R for decades have an intimate knowledge of our parks’ needs and peculiarities. A nursery system that is shielded from the supply-and-demand that drives private nurseries offers unique opportunities to focus on native plants and sustainable practices. And finally, any ability to negotiate good prices from private nurseries will surely evaporate if City-owned infrastructure is dismantled.

In the last week or two, it’s become clear that we have not paid close enough attention to horticultural issues in the design of our process. But our Site Program subcommittee and Project Manager Jon Makler have responded quickly to that concern, and I think we’re in good shape to give increase our attention to this issue as we work with architects to redesign the yard.

Are we becoming the bad guy? Those of us who have been involved for a long time have had times of great mistrust for those guiding the process. Through last year’s mediation process, we have come to regard Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) as partners in a planning process; skepticism rears its head on occasion, but for the most part we are working together effectively.

In the last few weeks, concerns about a potential bike path, street, and/or driveway on the west edge of the maintenance yard have drawn the attention of some neighbors who have not been closely involved in our process. Among other things, I’m hearing echoes of our own earlier rhetoric in their voices; it seems that they have skepticism toward our process, that is similar to our own skepticism of City Hall that initiated this process.

I firmly believe this new skepticism is misplaced, but I find it a little disconcerting that it exists, and hope that it’s possible to earn these people’s trust.

Capping of reservoirs: A (temporarily?) foiled plan to cover the Mt. Tabor reservoirs underlies much of our project. In the last decade, this issue has been definitive for the challenging relationship between City Hall and interested citizens. In short, Portland is unusual in having reservoirs that are above ground; and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants Portland to cover the reservoirs. The first skirmish on this issue resulted in the formation of the Friends of the Reservoirs group, and a historic designation for the park that limits the kind of redevelopment that can be done.

Following citizen resistance, the City resisted the EPA and called for an exemption, but a recent EPA ruling has Water Commissioner Randy Leonard stating that the time to capitulate may be drawing near. This is no mere neighborhood issue; it stands to cost the City $500 million, and many people feel that the case has not been made that there’s any benefit to that kind of expenditure.

If the City goes ahead with capping the reservoirs, one thing that will be needed is increased access to the park for large trucks and construction equipment. A street at 64th Avenue, connecting the park more directly with a major artery (Division St.) and the maintenance yard, may be a part of meeting that potential need.

I think that some people opposed to reservoir capping see the street as an opportunity to slow or halt the reservoir capping. I disagree. While I have concerns about the capping, I don’t think that the lack of a street will halt it from going forward; if anything, it will simply increase the cost to Portland taxpayers, by requiring a street to be constructed in the future on a more limited timeframe.

Map of Mt. Tabory Yard, highlighting vehicle issuesAccess along the western boundary: Okay, so what about this possible road?

The strip in question is between points (C) and (D) in the map to the right, which is presently not passable by any vehicle. The big questions are: should we have a bike/pedestrian path? should we have a through street of some kind? and, should we have a driveway or other features to improve the functioning of the maintenance yard?

As it stands, the maintenance yard suffers from having only one entrance on Division St. (B). (The entrance from 64th, (A), is used lightly, because of its residential location.) Also, the fuel pumps and vehicle maintenance facility (1) and the storage warehouse (2), which both need to be accessible to large trucks, are located deep within the yard. To make matters worse, there’s no space for large trucks to turn around within the yard, so they must back in or back out, all the way past (1) to (2).

It’s possible that either or both of these internal functions will move as the yard is redesigned; along with that, we must consider whether a second driveway facing Division St. would improve traffic flow within the yard, and prevent various yard functions from stepping on one another’s toes.

A bike and pedestrian path strikes me as a relatively uncontroversial good thing, and is relatively inexpensive. Non-auto access from the South Tabor neighborhood (south of Division St.) should be easy, and it’s not. My friend and neighbor Steve N. has taken an opposing view (see comment thread here), but most of what I’ve heard from neighbors supports my position.

I hear many of my neighbors opposing unrestricted through access for cars, and also expressing some reservations about restrictions like one-way access or other traffic mitigation as well. I don’t hear much desire for a through street, which would be an expensive option. There are some theoretical “pros” to car access, but unless someone starts making a strong case for this option, I don’t see us moving in that direction. We will likely be required to design in a way that doesn’t rule out a street in the future; I don’t see that as a cause for concern, but simply prudent urban planning.

Historic designation: I learned some important things about the site’s historic designation, and what it means to a redesign, during our tour. The main historic designation is for the park and reservoirs themselves; within the yard, there are three buildings that are “contributing structures” to the historic designation.

The designation does not require that these buildings be preserved. It provides for other options as well: if demolished or moved, it might be necessary to properly document the buildings; or we might be required to incorporate some design elements into new structures.

I think there’s widespread agreement that the maintenance and horticultural functions of the yard, and the working conditions for its workers, are of high importance. Preserving historical elements is very important too, but it’s nice to know that there are established and sensible guidelines to how we should proceed if removing any of the buildings proves to be the best option for the yard’s functioning.

Zoning: Land use law is one of the most complex and confusing aspects of this process. Here’s my understanding of how it impacts our project:

The entire park, including the yard and nursery, is zoned as open space. This designation determines how the property may be used. Permitted use includes maintenance for the property itself. Prohibited use includes industrial use (like urban forestry or the kind of large-scale construction that reservoir capping would entail). Also prohibited are maintenance tasks for other properties.

The maintenance yard, of course, serves parks all over the city, as well as other city bureaus in some cases. This use is not permitted by the “open space” zone, but that’s not as big a deal as you might think; the maintenance tasks pre-date the zoning, and as such are considered merely a “non-conforming use.” Moving existing maintenance functions around within the two parcels where they already occur — which even includes much of the area north of the present yard, currently used for plant development — will not require a land use review, and is not likely to pose any kind of problem.

But expanding the use to include urban forestry, or more maintenance tasks, would impose complex zoning requirements. Undertaking the reservoir-capping project might require rezoning as well, but that’s outside the project we’re engaged in. So, there may be reasons why we need a land use review.

Fortunately, a recent land use review almost certainly exists. City correspondence with Warner Pacific College, related to the 2006 attempted sale of the yard, makes frequent reference to a land use review that may provide important guidance on many of the issues we’re facing. Thus far, requests to see that review have been unsuccessful; we need to make a more concerted effort to get access to this important document.

Of note, it’s my understanding that Commissioner Leonard is pursuing an $55 $84 million bond (ordinance 181832) to do some kind of renovation at Mt. Tabor; and the cost of the renovations currently underway there was increased by $9 million, with some concern about the reasons, last fall. It’s also my understanding that City Council has the ability to simply change zoning without the kind of process we would have to go through, and that Commissioner Leonard raised the possibility of a zoning change involving “accessory use” in the hearings about the $55 $84 million bond. I wish I understood this stuff better; maybe my readers can help?

Urban forestry: There is a 2.6 acre facility adjoined to Delta Park, next to I-5, that is old and run-down like the maintenance yard at Mt. Tabor. It’s used for urban forestry — dealing with large trees — which, from what I hear, is pretty noisy and disruptive activity, not suitable for residential areas. It’s possible that the State of Oregon will claim that property (by eminent domain) as part of its efforts to build a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. If that happens, the City will need to find a place to relocate urban forestry, and the Mt. Tabor Yard may be one of the places under consideration. We need to be aware of all of this as we work on our design.

Portland City CouncilFunding the implementation of our design: The project we’re currently engaged in is a design process. Although it’s taken some work to secure funding for this phase, the big task is still ahead. Our intent is to introduce a bond measure in 2010, but there are other projects all over town that will be looking for funding in that same cycle. Notably, the desire for a long-promised community center at the Washington/Monroe school (SE 12th & Stark) is apparently coming to a head.

voter's guideI’m told that the political negotiations around such issues often get framed in terms of the city’s quadrants. So, although our project’s primary benefit will be to Portland’s parks as a whole, there may be people who are inclined to see it as a “Southeast Portland”-specific issue. It is therefore that much more important to make the case that it’s a citywide concern, and to be in communication with others around the city. I think we’ve done a good job of this so far, but we need to remember the broader political context at all times.

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7 Responses to “What’s going on at Mt. Tabor?”

  1. I live in Idaho and do not believe that I am qualified to make any decision on the Mt Tabor or the other Portland area issues . Thank you for including me

    Best regards Max Casebeau

  2. Max- not sure what I included you in, but thanks for the comment! Good luck in Idaho ;)

  3. Excellent and cogent blog. I am a little bit tired, and may not have read as carefully as some, but I am impressed with the work you have put into this real well done overview. Kudos. John O

  4. Jared Hassen Says:

    Thank you for the scope of topic. Being new to Mt Tabor, it is comprehensive. I caught you right at the end of the presentaion day on the green and didn’t quite get the picture. Please contact me if I can be of service. xtrabubba [at] com cast. I look forward to seeing you tonight at the meeting!

  5. Ben Jacklet Says:

    You’ve done a good job of translating a complicated bureaucratic process into clear English. The images and maps are also helpful, although in my opinion captions would be helpful. As for the issues at hand, I will weigh in by saying no to new roads in parks in general and Mount Tabor in particular, yes to bike/pedestrian paths anywhere, and yes to saving and enhancing the horticultural center at Mount Tabor. As for capping the reservoirs, it seems like a waste of money until you weigh it against the the risk and the expense of a contaminated water supply. I’ve never been persuaded of the great value of fenced-off water features when compared to more useful park features such as sports fields, playgrounds, fountains and picnic areas.

  6. Funding approved! (For the planning process.) Here’s the story in the Tribune.

    Ben, thanks for the feedback. I agree with you about captions, but the software I’m using doesn’t offer an easy way to do that…it’s something I’ll keep in mind though as the blog evolves, I’ll see about finding a good workaround.

    As for the contaminated water supply, check out the Friends of the Reservoirs site (linked above). It seems the case has not been made that this capping project actually does anything to protect our water supply. I don’t think anyone would argue against protecting our water supply, if that’s what they thought this project was genuinely going to accomplish.

  7. Congrats on the funding being approved!
    I’m wishing well to the Reservoirs appeal.

    On captions – it’s a work-around, but you could add the caption to the bottom of the photo itself…. (wouldn’t be searchable, but would get the info out there, and completely tied to the photo, too, so it couldn’t get misplaced.

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