Activists balk at using public funds to demolish historic Shriners hospital in Northeast Portland

After sitting vacant for nearly 20 years, the historic Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Northeast Portland may be demolished this fall.

The Portland Development Commission is helping to fund a plan by Shelter Resources Inc., a Bellevue, Wash., development company, to tear down the decaying 79-year-old building and replace it with 338 affordable town houses and other residential units, mostly for senior citizens.

The plan upsets some neighborhood residents who say they don't oppose the housing project. They just don't want public money to be used to tear down the former hospital, which was built by the Shriners in 1923 to care for children with polio and other debilitating diseases.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

'We're opposed to the use of public funds to demolish a historic building,' said Peter Meijer, a Portland architect who has served as land-use chairman of the Roseway Neighborhood Association, one of three neighborhood associations that border the development site.

'In our view, public funds should be used to save and restore, not to demolish, a building of that stature,' he said.

The former hospital sits on 10 acres at Northeast 82nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. Besides Roseway, it is bordered by the South Madison and Sumner neighborhoods.

The associations representing the three neighborhoods are part of Central Northeast Neighbors, a coalition of eight neighborhood associations working with the city to help decide the former hospital's fate.

The PDC is providing $1.3 million for the project in federal Housing and Urban Development funds that are earmarked for low-income housing, said Andy Wilch, a housing development manager for the PDC.

He said that PDC officials decided that demolishing the decaying building was the only viable option they had.

'There had been several attempts (over the last 20 years) where developers had tried to reuse the site or redevelop it, and none were successful,' Wilch said. 'The reality is, it is not economically viable to preserve the building.'

'We're in a position to develop a very rare site within the city of Portland,' he said. 'The outcome will benefit the city, the neighborhood and most definitely low-income families who need a place to live.'

A shelter for the sick

The 18,000-square-foot hospital has changed little since it was built in 1923, one of 22 children's hospitals established nationwide by the Shriners.

Designed by architect Frederick Fritsch, it had been the site of many Rose Queen coronations. Baseball legend Babe Ruth once visited the hospital.

The hospital closed in 1983 when the larger, modern Shriners Hospitals for Children complex was built on Pill Hill near Oregon Health & Science University Hospital.

A former Shriner, John Goss, bought the property and tried for years, until his death at 91 two years ago, to sell the property, which, according to his widow Eline Goss, is still owned by his estate.

Because the hospital building is listed as a historic landmark, federal law requires that the developer agree to lessen the 'adverse effect' the plan will have on the property.

In other words, Shelter Resources must find some way to offset the loss of the historic building, said Christine Curran of the State Historic Preservation Office.

Such mitigation plans 'can run all over the board,' Curran said. 'A standard one is to have some photographic documentation of the building.'

Wilch said Shelter Resources has agreed to make a photographic record of the site Ñ and to do more.

'They agree to have interpretive markers and panels on the site that display its history,' he said. 'The developer will salvage significant architectural features, such as windows, doors, porticoes and walkways.'

Thomasina Gabriele, a Portland area development consultant working with Shelter Resources, said the developer also has pledged to save as many trees on the grounds as possible and to preserve the property's sweeping front lawn.

She said local residents 'gave us good feedback and provided guidance' in drafting the plan.

Approval pending

Curran, of the state preservation office, said the plan must be approved by Portland Mayor Vera Katz and city commissioners, officials from the state preservation office and representatives of a federal agency, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Wilch said that could happen within six weeks.

The Roseway association's Meijer said his group hopes to have a voice in the property's disposition. The neighborhood association has asked the historic preservation council to contribute information when the City Council reviews PDC's plan.

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

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