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East Portland plays catch-up for parks

Commissioner Nick Fish's E205 initiative tries to balance needs
by: Christopher Onstott Sebastian, 3, plays in the East Portland Community Center pool with his mom, Julian Squires. The $12 million LEED platinum-certified waterpark and pool is one of the biggest recent investments in East Portland parks.

For most of the 16 seniors at the Cherry Blossom Seniors' weekly bridge game, playing cards is a way to socialize and keep sharp. But 81-year-old Ken Johnk, a Northeast Portland tax preparer who's played for the past 17 years, jokes that he comes for one reason only: to win.

'It's not complex,' he says. 'You just wanna beat the other guy.'

The drop-in program at the East Portland Community Center is a ritual for this group of retired teachers, doctors, engineers and World War II veterans. Every Tuesday afternoon they sit in a sunlit, air-conditioned room with their Fig Newtons and thermos coffee, keeping a speedy pace at competitive party bridge - a variation on the traditional rules.

When time's up three hours later, the bridge club spills into the hallways, where the community center is a dizzying mix of summer camps, swimming, Ping Pong and fitness classes.

'There's all sorts of stuff you can do here,' says Dayton Turner, one of the bridge-playing seniors.

His biggest complaint: it's sometimes impossible to find parking, because the addition of the $12 million LEED platinum-certified waterpark and pool - the most sustainably run in the country - gobbled up several parking spaces when it opened three years ago.

There's no question that East Portland residents cherish their parks facilities, with the community center being the crown jewel. Yet City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees Portland Parks and Recreation, is the first to admit that the city fails to meet its goal, in East Portland, of providing access to parks or natural areas within 15-minute walks of area homes.

'Many of the (city's) parks provide a variety of amenities, from ball fields and playgrounds to pathways and picnic areas,' Fish says. 'When looking at the park system east of I-205, we see a different picture.'

E205 plans

What people see is reflected in the city's new 'budget mapping' tool, which tracks the flow of money spent on city services in each part of town during one specific budget year.

Compared to other parts of town, East Portland holds the distinction of having the most residents (139,000) and the largest land area (29 square miles).

It also has shown the most growth - in population and schools. East Portland is increasingly more diverse and impoverished than the rest of the city. And 40 percent of families with children live in East Portland.

Despite those facts, the maps for 2010-11 show that East Portland ranked sixth out of seven regions in the city in the amount spent on parks services.

The city spent $74 per person in East Portland, compared with $159 for Southwest residents. Only downtown fared worse, at $37 per person.

As far as neighborhood livability goes, East Portland residents often feel alienated from the city and can point to this year's mapping project results as further proof.

'Incorporated later into the city of Portland, East Portland does not have the rich tradition of parks and recreational places,' Fish notes in his E205 (East of I-205) initiative, which he introduced in February. Due to the growth, he says, 'Demand for equitable recreational services is high.'

Because new parks can cost tens of millions of dollars, the parks bureau is considering a bond measure to address the gap. There's no word yet on the size or timeline.

Fish's E205 initiative aims to leverage city money with private dollars to make minor improvements - less than $250,000 per site - to at least five parks during the next 18 months.

Among the projects: a community garden at Ed Benedict Park, a pathway system at Lynchwood Park, new playgrounds at the East Portland Community Center and East Holladay Park, and a replaced playground and other amenities like benches or picnic tables at Parklane Park.

Other potential improvements could come in the form of benches or picnic tables at Argay Park, Cherry Park, Midland Park and West Powellhurst Park.

Playing catch-up

When it comes to parks equity, the budget maps don't show the whole picture. The maps show existing services but not future parks the city has been working to acquire and develop, on its own and through its share of Metro's 2006 Natural Areas bond measure.

For example, as part of the bond measure, the city committed to purchasing three new park properties in park-deficient areas. The first of those was the Werbin Property, in Northeast Portland's Cully neighborhood, although not east of I-205.

The second came in February, when the city acquired the 20-acre Wilkes Headwaters Property in Northeast Portland. The $1.9 million purchase - which Fish calls a 'down payment' on the E205 initiative - includes four acres of neighborhood park space and 16 acres of natural areas and watersheds.

For its third Metro bond project, the parks bureau is still pursuing a parcel of land, potentially in the Centennial neighborhood.

In all, East Portland has received more city spending on parks acquisition than any other region in the city during the past 20 years. According to parks data, East Portland received $32.5 million on land acquisition from 1990 to 2010 - far more than Northwest, Northeast, Southeast and North Portland combined. Those regions received $2.8 million (Northwest), $5.8 million (Northeast), $9.4 million (Southeast) and $4.1 million (Northwest).

The Central City's share for that period was $18.4 million. That includes the $4 million in city money budgeted for The Fields, a 3.2-acre park in the Pearl District that's been a long time planning, scheduled to break ground in January and open in October 2012.

Some East Portland residents have questioned why the $4 million can't be spent in their area instead. It's because the money comes from the River District urban renewal area, and there are no urban renewal areas east of Gateway or Lents, according to Fish's explanation in a June city budget hearing.

Recent discussions have sparked a new provision: that 50 percent of parks systems development charges must be spent on the east side.

Dolores Wood, chairwoman of the Powellhurst Gilbert Neighborhood Association greening committee, says the city's investments are critical to East Portland's livability.

'So many people are out of work; they can't afford to go out to dinner and a movie or other entertainment,' she says. 'Our parks are here for anyone who wants to use them.'

It's a common sight, Wood says, to see 200 to 300 people out on a summer night at Raymond or Ed Benedict Park, enjoying a picnic, family reunion, skateboarding or other athletic events. There are also huge crowds for the free concerts in the park and neighborhood nights out.

East Portland is so late to develop because it was the last part of the city to be annexed, in 1980 - nearly 100 years after the central city's beginnings.

In 1992, the city limits were expanded further into East Portland.

'All these rural areas didn't have parks and amenities that the other parts of the city had,' Wood says. 'So now we're playing catch-up.'


Parks bureau in line for top national award

The Rose City could soon add another trophy to its mantelpiece.

In addition to being No. 1 in biking, sustainability, beer and books, Portland Parks and Recreation is one of four finalists for the National Gold Medal Award for best parks.

The parks bureau is filming the video part of its application this summer. The winner will be announced in early November at the annual gathering of the National Recreation and Parks Association in Atlanta.

The award honors excellence in parks systems' long-range planning, resource management, volunteerism, environmental stewardship, program development, professional development, and agency recognition.

Three other finalists (having a population of 250,000 or more) include: Mecklenburg County, N.C.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; and Kansas City, Mo.

Eighty-five percent of Portland residents rate their parks as 'very good' or 'good,' according to a city audit last year. The city operates 10,000 acres of parks and natural areas, employs 400 permanent and 1,000 part-time parks employees and has 6,000 parks volunteers.

In the summer, events kick into high gear. Some of the summer's more unusual offerings include the giant chess pieces on display at downtown's Director Park (where people can play a giant game of chess on some days); free weekly bike and car races at Portland International Raceway; and guided nature trips such as hiking amongst wildflowers, picking huckleberries and witnessing spawning salmon.

For more information, visit www.portlandonline.com/parks .