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New park plan gets people off the lawn

Artificial surface proposed for popular waterfront stretch

Forget about watering the grass Ñ Tom McCall Waterfront Park soon may need a vacuum cleaner.

That's because the park's new master plan calls for an artificial, all-weather surface between the Salmon Street Springs and the Morrison Bridge, a stretch of four city blocks.

The idea is to direct the frequent summer festivals to the artificial surface and ease damage to the overburdened lawn.

The new outdoor rug is one element in a series of changes included in the $30 million plan for Waterfront Park. They include a new fountain, new lawns sloping to the river, serpentine pathways and more decorous fencing along Naito Parkway.

The master plan, in the works since fall 2001, comes before the Portland City Council on May 21. It tries to balance the twin needs of the park as a festival site and as a riverfront park, and the city hopes the plan will strengthen both functions.

'The idea is to reduce the impact of the events between the Morrison Bridge and the Burnside Bridge,' said David Yamashita, who helped develop the plan for the city. 'That's the one area that gets a lot of use. But also É the long-term development of downtown residential use is in that area.'

Little will happen soon. The city doesn't know where the $30 million will come from. And once the improvements start, they will take place slowly, probably over 10 years or more, officials said.

Waterfront Park marks one of Portland's great design successes in the wave of downtown urban renewal that started in the early 1970s. The city tore out the Harbor Freeway to build the park.

It has been one of Portland's most popular parks and home to numerous summer events that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer. These include food festivals, music festivals, cultural festivals and beer festivals. The two biggest events are Cinco de Mayo and the Rose Festival.

But its great success also creates problems. Those throngs of visitors take a toll on the lawn. Setup time, take-down time and the duration of the events themselves leave little opportunity for the grass to recover.

The master plan, drafted with the help of a citizens advisory committee and a series of public hearings, included the all-weather surface as a solution.

Routing the festivals, as practical, to the artificial material would take the pressure off the grass and keep most of the festivals at the park's southern end. That, in part, would help the Portland Development Commission in its plan to add more housing near and along Naito Parkway.

The city hasn't decided just what kind of surface will be used. It won't be a hard material, officials said, or gravel, but probably a type of synthetic that allows water to percolate downward. Dick Clark, executive director of the Portland Rose Festival Association, likened it to the surface sometimes found in McDonald's play areas.

'There are lot of events that could use it in fall, winter and spring,' he said.

Artificial surfaces bring their own maintenance problems, cautioned Ken Puckett, director of operations for PGE Park.

NeXturf, the artificial surface used at PGE Park, cost $1 million for 100,000 square feet. The city would need several times more than that for the four city blocks of coverage it needs. In addition, the ballpark had to buy special maintenance equipment, and the city might have to do the same.

'I can see vendors dumping their dishwater and everything else into that turf,' Puckett said. 'It could be a sticky mess.'

An artificial surface for a park, he added, would have different characteristics than what's needed for a ballpark.

Dan Yates, owner of the Portland Spirit, the cruise ship that berths in the park along the Willamette River, was a vocal participant in the master plan process.

He submitted a series of ideas for how the park could get more use in the offseason, including a series of waterfront bonfires, perhaps during Christmastime; a rain festival; a dog run; a coffee and chocolate festival, perhaps near Valentine's Day; and a busker (street musician) festival.

But Yates also is skeptical about the park plan. He thinks the city is minimizing the role of festivals.

'I think it's stupid,' he said. 'Instead of making another pretty, quiet tranquil park, I'd make it the best festival facility in the world. Why aren't we building on that success? We're already 95 percent there.'

The Rose Festival's Clark sees it differently. 'In the end,' he said, 'Portland is going to have a great Waterfront Park that can host major events as well as people having picnics with their families.'

Contact Don Hamilton at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..