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Many see better use for old high school

Washington High's sale or lease would give lift to ailing district budget

The Portland school board will vote Monday on a recommendation that the old Washington High School site be declared surplus property.

A yes vote will kick into motion a process that will allow the district to sell or lease the area for the development of a community center and mixed-use housing.

Growing budget concerns during the past year have pushed the district to consider the liquidation of extraneous or abandoned real estate such as Washington, which hasn't been used as a school since 1983.

'Because of our financial issues, we've had several studies done and we've been advised to stop employing the property for district use,' Superintendent Jim Scherzinger said.

It's easy to understand why the district wants to lose the financial burden of a site like Washington. Pat LaCrosse, a member of the school district's Real Estate Trust, estimates that the district shells out about $300,000 a year just to maintain the facility, which is in Southeast Portland.

The school board vote will be timely, since the school district's fiscal year ends June 30.

In February 2002, the board passed a resolution that created the Real Estate Trust, a volunteer advisory board made up of seven real estate and development professionals contracted to help the district unload surplus properties.

Since the resolution, the district has sold four properties for a net profit of approximately $2.6 million, LaCrosse said. But these transactions have been relatively small compared to the Washington site, which offers roughly 7.1 acres of prime inner-city real estate. The 1923 building also offers 157,000 square feet.

The Washington site has not yet been appraised to determine its current value, but estimates range from $4 million to more than $7 million.

'The Washington site is definitely the biggest surplus property the district has considered at least in terms of monetary value,' LaCrosse said.

As far as lease or sale of the site is concerned, he said, it wouldn't make that much of a difference: 'The money is going to get to the district one way or another.'

The site spells big opportunity for Susan Lindsay, chairwoman of the Buckman Community Association.

Lindsay and an advisory board composed of various inner Southeast neighborhood groups have spent the past year looking for a site on which to build a community center.

The district contacted Lindsay last November about the Washington property.

'Part of the resolution for surplus requires the district to engage the community in its redevelopment plans,' said Shawn Cunningham, legislative specialist for the school district. This emphasis has allowed community-minded nonprofit groups such as Ethos Inc. and Early Childhood Development to buy two of the four previous surplus sites.

The Washington site is no different.

'We want local ownership on this project,' Lindsay said. 'It's the right fit for us, and the school board needs the funding.'

But details of the exact use of the area are still up in the air.

Scherzinger said housing would be the ideal primary use for the Washington property with a community center taking a smaller role on the site.

With school enrollment declining, the district hopes to develop housing as a way to lure families back into a neighborhood inundated with multiple-family households and few school-age children.

Lindsay was quick to add that the association's primary focus is a community center with a pool and open public space.

A place for a park?

The city of Portland also has weighed in on the Washington High issue. Portland Parks & Recreation has already made public its intent to pursue part of the space for a community center. The parks bureau has jumped at the rare opportunity for open space in inner Southeast Portland an area that has been chronically deficient in park development.

Commissioner Jim Francesconi called the Washington site a potential for a 'win-win-win' situation.

'We have the making of a plan that would help the city deliver a long-promised park to Southeast, give the neighborhoods a community center and give the school district some long-term revenue,' Francesconi said.

The project's heavy focus on community involvement also appeals to the city.

'I think the city wants to avoid the neighborhood controversy that surrounded the construction of Gabriel Park in Southwest,' Lindsay said. 'It wants to be involved in a project that already has the support of a community.'

'A balancing act'

Francesconi, who sees the parks bureau driving the development of the property, already has offered $50,000 from city and park resources to help fund the master plan. The school district also intends to contribute $25,000 to the initial six-month process.

Sumner Sharpe, a private planning consultant, was hired by the school district to help the community design a master plan for the site.

'It will be a bit of a balancing act to include the interests of everyone involved,' Sharpe said. 'But we intend to address everything in a master plan that will serve the needs of the entire community.'

LaCrosse said, 'We'll look at parking, size, cost, land use, zoning, circulation the whole range of issues that follow such a big project.'

Once the master plan is complete, the district then will seek bids from outside development teams.

Lindsay said she's confident that the development of a potential surplus site would be a smooth experience for everyone involved.

'So far it's been a very positive process of partnership in getting to 'yes' in all directions,' she said.