Visit, but don't play

Depending on whom you ask, Pearl park is a boon or a bust
by: David Plechl, A brisk walk along the perimeter is about all that Deirdre Lawrence chooses to experience of Tanner Springs Park, where the focus is on contemplation rather than recreation.

At noontime on a Thursday Shag Johnson is sitting on the cement wall that marks the boundary of Tanner Springs Park in the Pearl District.

He's taking his lunch break with two fellow construction workers, enjoying some sun before getting back to work putting stairways in the buildings that surround the park. But what's odd about this picture is that Johnson and his buddies have their backs to the mostly empty park.

They could be taking their lunch on one of the benches within the park. They could be turned around on the wall, looking at the tall native grass or the pond just past the grass or the fence constructed from old railroad ties beyond that.

Instead, Johnson and his friends are facing Northwest 11th Avenue, and the high-rise condos on the other side of the street.

'We watched them put it (Tanner Springs) together and thought, 'What a waste of money,' ' Johnson says.

Johnson is not alone. Even some national experts think Tanner Springs wasn't worth the nearly $4 million the city spent on it. But there are others who think Tanner Springs provides Pearl residents with exactly what they need most - solitude and a little taste of nature.

Tanner Springs is about to hit its one-year anniversary. It cost the city $2.3 million to build, $600,000 less than Jamison Park, two blocks to the south. But in addition the city had to purchase about two-thirds of the Tanner Springs property at a cost of $1.25 million.

The Pearl District Neighborhood Association has embarked on a campaign to encourage more families with children to settle in the neighborhood, but if Tanner Springs represents any kind of community statement, the association might need a new sales pitch, according to park critics.

The signs at Tanner Springs make it pretty clear this is not a place for traditional children's activities:

Stay on the pathways and lawn areas.

No swimming or wading.

No pets.

Johnson says he's seen the result of the park policies - most of the day Tanner Springs stands nearly empty. 'You see any girls out there?' he says. 'I don't think it's particularly attractive. The railroad tie stuff doesn't do anything for me. If you've seen it once you've seen it.'

Deirdre Lawrence is taking a quick lunchtime walk right past the park's north end. Asked to stop and make an appraisal she says, 'It looks like it could use a little more work on that side.' She points to the park's east half. 'If they tidied the grass and without the construction work going on it would probably be a nice place to stop,' she says.

Lawrence takes a second look and points to the park's taller grasses farther west. 'It's kind of messy in this half,' she says.

Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, an internationally renowned nonprofit organization that consults on public spaces, says he thinks that the park's entire concept represents landscape designers putting their egos ahead of public need.

'I'm not very positive about landscape designers,' Kent says, 'because they're into their own egos and their own design ideas. The community has a very different set of needs than to try to be part of somebody else's ego.'

Use weighed against mission

In Kent's view, park use is the best barometer of how well the public is being served by a park in a city.

'You need gathering places,' Kent says. 'People get isolated in apartments. They don't have natural areas in terms of gathering places where they can feel community and get excited about seeing someone, about chance encounters, about being around children that are younger, or seniors that can enjoy the smiles of children. You're talking about human ecology.'

But Andrea Clinkscales doesn't think turning Tanner Springs into a gathering place would benefit the Pearl at all.

Tanner Springs is supposed to be 'contemplative,' according to city plans. And that's exactly what Clinkscales likes about it.

Clinkscales, chairwoman of the volunteer group Friends of Tanner Springs Park, lives across the street from the park. She grew up in rural Dundee but likes living in the city. Knowing Tanner Springs was coming in played a big part in her decision to buy a condo in the Pearl, Clinkscales says.

'It's really difficult for me to think about living in such a densely populated area without access to some contemplative nature scene,' Clinkscales says. 'I think something like (Tanner Springs) was needed in this neighborhood, and I wouldn't want to live in this neighborhood if it wasn't here.'

Chance encounters?

'Most of the people living in this neighborhood don't need social interaction,' Clinkscales says. 'They're busy people, and that's why they chose to live here. The Pearl attracts people who are not interested in that reaching-out-socially part of their lives.'

Solitude's a draw in itself

On a bench in the middle of Tanner Springs a young man, who won't provide his name but says he is a Portland State University graduate student, sits alone, leafing through day trader documents.

'I like this park a lot,' he says. 'It's different than the rest of them.'

Has he noticed the lack of children? 'That's not so bad,' he says. 'Maybe that's part of what makes it attractive. There aren't any people using it.'

Erin Braithwaite is walking fast past the park's north side. She's got Madison, her Pomeranian, on a leash.

'If they allowed dogs in I'd be in there all the time' says Braithwaite, a medical student at Oregon Health and Science University. But they don't allow dogs, not even on leashes. So Braithwaite, who lives in a nearby apartment, walks Madison on the sidewalk around the park's perimeter every day. And Madison, Braithwaite says, 'longingly looks at the grass.'

Braithwaite says she has seen condo owners yell out their windows at dog owners who dared to take their pets into the park, toward the enticing grass.

'It's kind of a strange park,' she says. 'It's more like something I just observe.'

Jamison Park bustles

Observing is more than Shag Johnson and his fellow construction workers are willing to do at this point. 'If there were kids here there would be girls here and maybe husbands here,' he says. 'It would be alive. It looks like a waste of money, a dead space.'

What would make Johnson turn around and take his lunch facing the park? Activity, he says. And energy. 'Even the laughter of kids,' he says.

There are plenty of kids a block away at Jamison Park.

At 3 o'clock on a recent hot Sunday afternoon in July there were 110 people at Jamison Park, from young children splashing around in the cascading water to adults lounging in the grass. There was even a woman selling ice cream bars from a cooler near the water.

At the same time there were six people in Tanner Springs - one man reading on a park bench, two women sitting on the terraced lawn at the park's north edge, two people strolling and a homeless man sleeping under a tree.

Henry Kunowski, program manager for Portland Parks and Recreation, doesn't think the Portland Tribune's informal survey tells a complete story. The city doesn't keep tabs on how many people use each park, Kunowski says, and one of the reasons is that the parks don't operate individually but as pieces of an ensemble.

Fields may fill popular need

A third Pearl District park, called the Fields and scheduled to open in about three years, will have grass and trees and a field on which children can play, Kunowski says. It also will feature a play area for dogs. Tanner Springs, he says, serves a different need. Jamison Park is mostly what he calls 'hardscape.' Tanner he calls mostly 'greenscape.'

'With Tanner we felt that in a high-density area you need a sense of green relief, and not looking out your window and seeing a mass of people gathering on a hard surface,' Kunowski says.

Kunowski points out that the final plan for Tanner Springs was arrived at after three public workshops, each of which was attended by at least 150 Pearl residents. And they liked the idea of a contemplative, ecological park.

'It was virtually unanimous: 'We want this park,' ' Kunowski says.

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