Final choice for Aquatic Center announced: Northgate Park (July 2023)

Northgate Park is the surprise winner of the long battle over whether to build, and where to build, a $50 million North Portland Aquatic Center.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan announced the selection of Northgate Park over the Charles Jordan Community Center and Columbia Park in a June 22 news release. Ryan oversees the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau (PP&R) whose director Adena Long joined in the announcement. 

The Aquatic Center will have two 50-meter, competition-level pools, water features and parking.

“The new aquatic facility will address historical gaps in access and service quality for North Portland communities,” Ryan said. The Northgate Park site will be accessible and transformative for a densely populated neighborhood with a significant number of neighbors who earn low incomes, he explained.

Northgate Park final selection for aquatic center
Illustration of the future North Portland Aquatic Center at Northgate Park

Ryan’s decision seemed popular with neighbors adjacent to Northgate Park at the corner of N. Fessenden Street and N. Geneva Avenue. The area has more modest median household income than most other North Portland neighborhoods. The Northgate Park selection pleased those residents interviewed by the North Peninsula Review.

One homeowner said she would miss some of the green space that the Aquatic Center takes up, but she added that the park is often empty at night time and that isolation contributes to crime, including a double-murder last summer right across the street from her house. “I’m for the Aquatic Center because it will bring more people to the park,” she said.

Just down the street, Donald Dimick agreed. The Aquatic Center “will bring a lot of positive energy to Northgate and this area.” Fifty yards away at the Trimet stop on N. Fessenden, Rudy Martin Baeza who doesn’t speak English said “Cómo puedo ayudar a que las piscinas sucedan?” (How can I help make the swimming pools happen?”)

All three finalist sites, Northgate Park, Charles Jordan Community Center and Columbia Park are within the Portsmouth Neighborhood Association (PNA). Chair Neveen Hurd wasn’t available for comment, but former chair Mary-Margaret Wheeler-Weber said, “Decades of deferred maintenance and the ultimate closure of Columbia Pool were bad choices. But there are no bad choices this time…Northgate has a lot of people living in apartments without a lot of services or options for recreation within close walking distance…”

Greg Dilkes, a member of the North Portland Neighborhood Services parks committee, has been a withering critic of past and current PP&R top management for running up a $600 million maintenance backlog. But he liked Northgate’s location near Roosevelt High School and many grade schools.

Ed Fernbach, a retired engineer who has long tracked the project, praised Ryan’s choice for its central location and lower construction costs than the alternative sites.

Fernbach said, “a new state-of-the-art world class aquatic center in Northgate Park would be something the whole Metro area could be proud of.”

The problem for Portland—and it’s a big one—is the city’s mysterious new Charter Review change that could take the project approval process into unknown waters. “The new City Manager next year must find the remaining money ($20 million) and get a 12-person city Council to approve it,” Fernbach explained.

Nor can the Northgate selection fix a pressing North Portland-wide problem: the closure of Columbia Park Pool in 2000 has left this part of the city without any year-round swimming pool. Northgate won’t open until 2029 or later. As neighbor Susan Kincaide said in the March 2023 North Peninsula Review, “that nine-year gap means a generation of kids, will not learn to swim.”

Ryan and Long said in the announcement that Columbia Park and Charles Jordan Center will also receive improvements. According to a PP&R statement, “The specifics of those park enhancements will be informed by further community engagement but could include the replacement of the old Columbia Pool building with new park amenities and sports fields improvements at the Charles Jordan Center.”

Fernbach believes that provides an opening. “It’s really simple. Fast track an upgrade to Columbia Pool to provide swimming until Northgate opens, and leave a legacy that Ryan and PP&R got it done.”

The Parks announcement concluded by saying it will work with the design team to update the Northgate Aquatic Center project schedule and announce the next community workshop date soon.