After unveiling preliminary designs for a substantially remodeled Gresham High School, the district is getting pushback from the community and at least one member of the municipal Design Commission because the proposed designs don't save the vintage 1930s front of the building.
"The facade, I think, needs to stay intact," said Mike McKeel, a local dentist, real estate developer and member of the city's design commission. "I haven't talked with anyone who is inspired or satisfied with what they've done."
McKeel expressed his concerns at a May 3 commission meeting and to The Outlook in an interview.
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis also supports retaining the historic facade of his alma mater.
"I believe the district can achieve all the goals of security and modernization while also preserving the facade," Bemis wrote in an Outlook opinion column.
School district officials said they are flexible.
"Given the comments at the design commission meeting, we will revisit keeping the facade as well as options for addressing all the other comments from the meeting and how those options would impact the overall design," said Mike Schofield, the district's chief financial officer.
Gresham High Principal Michael Schaefer is surprised by the pushback.
"No one has said a word" about preserving the facade until the recent controversy, he said. Schaefer has made at least seven presentations showing the preliminary designs to the community, and nobody urged officials to keep the historic front of the building.
The Design Commission can deny development based on some standards, but not on historic preservation grounds in this case, because the school has not been designated as a landmark. Generally, getting a building approved through the process is a series of negotiations and compromises in which outright denials are extremely rare.
The building is being designed by architect Richard Higgins of BLRB Architects and the project management firm is Cornerstone Management Group. The high school is in Gresham's Downtown Design District.
In November voters passed a $291.2 million bond for the Gresham-Barlow School District. The bond will pay for substantial remodels of Gresham and Barlow high schools and complete replacement of East and North Gresham elementary schools. Hollydale Elementary will get some added classrooms, and all schools are getting safety and security upgrades.
The district considered trying to save Gresham High School's distinct facade, which faces Main Avenue. But saving it would cost significantly more than tearing it down and starting over, although Schofield could not say exactly how much more. Schaefer said the district is working on a cost estimate.
"Our team considered retaining the Main (Avenue) portion of the building early in the design process and it was not seen as an optimal solution."
McKeel would like the district to meet again with community members and discuss the proposed designs.
"It needs to be a conversation," he said.
Some commission members, Bemis and city staff also have expressed concerns the proposed entrances to the building on Main Avenue and Division Street were not prominent enough, and the proposed facade did not have enough visual interest.
The proposed student entrance, at the back of the building in the preliminary plans, is the most prominent gateway to the "new" school, some observed.
Recently, the district unveiled three proposed designs for the "new" Gresham High building. All the designs keep some of the artistic elements of the old building in a nod to its history, but not the facade.
The campus is now a hodgepodge of buildings constructed as five different projects at different times. There are 76 entrances to the school, making securing the building in an emergency nearly impossible.
McKeel discussed multiple historic buildings in the metro area that were close to being torn down but saved by citizen uproar and now enhance their communities. Chief among those is the McMenamins Edgefield resort in Troutdale. He also cited Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland's old Washington High School and Lincoln Hall on the Portland State University campus.
There is a survey on the Gresham High School web page for community input.
Visit ghs.gresham.k12.or.us for more information on the proposed designs, renderings, construction schedule and facilities bond.