Funding boost for North Portland Aquatic Center and Parks (Jan. 2024)

Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan is directing $59.8 million toward the construction of the planned Aquatic Center at Northgate Park, in the Portsmouth neighborhood. 

Map showing Northgate Park
Location of the Northgate Park and future North Portland Aquatic Center

The $59.8 million would be from System Development Charges (SDC) that builders pay for new construction. The SDC infusion would raise funding for the Aquatic Center to $91.5 million. Ryan oversees Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R).

The announcement comes with PP&R Director Adena Long’s communication office acknowledging that the Aquatic Center project cost has ballooned from $50 million to $102 million. The cost increase is “in part due to inflation, higher labor and material costs and the PP&R desire to deliver a first-class, full-service aquatic center,” a Parks Bureau spokesperson said. The center will include two year-round pools and other amenities.

Possible $800 million bond

In other major Parks news, Ryan and fellow Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who manages the Portland Fire Bureau, are proposing a bond measure for voters in the November 2024 General Election. If approved, the bond would raise funds for parks and fire facilities maintenance and new capital projects. It would raise property taxes by about $200 for the average residence. 

Gonzalez has previously spoken of needed fire station repairs in North Portland.

The proposed measure would be a sea change in city policy enabling PP&R management to address its $600 million maintenance debt with its financial consequences.

A new look at Columbia Pool

The prospect of the Park Bureau getting hundreds of millions of dollars to invest is also re-energizing Columbia Pool advocates, upset that then-Parks Commissioner Carmen Rubio shuttered the pool in 2020, leaving North Portland without a year-round pool until 2029 when Northgate could open.

Ed Fernbach, a retired engineer who has worked on many city construction projects, is intrigued that the proposed $800 million bond measure would allow funding of other capital projects, which he believes could include creative re-use of the closed Columbia Pool. Fernbach lives a few blocks from the pool and teamed with several local architects in 2020-21 to write a Friends of Columbia Park (FOCP) Facilities Assessment Report they believe is more comprehensive than PP&R’s own assessment.

Fernbach said that a minute fraction of the bond revenue could convert Columbia Pool into a summer-season facility similar to Pier and Peninsula Park pools. The 2021 Assessment Report specified that PP&R could fully repair and sustain Columbia Pool for another 20 to 30 years for $4,425,000. 

He said converting Columbia to summer-season use would save taxpayers several million dollars by avoiding PP&R demolition costs. Secondly, roof removal should be an easy process, although if the city has not protected the interior since the 2020 closure, the pool surface might have algae growth, that could require resurfacing.

The opportunity for capital project funding also intrigues FOCP Chair Chris Manno, who would like to engage city leadership on investments and access to “cherished institutions like Columbia Pool.”

Early polling shows that a bond measure has a serious shot of winning voter approval. A PP&R-commissioned poll showed that of 780 likely voters sampled, 54% would support a $600 million Parks bond measure, Willamette Week reported. When the poll question added Fire & Rescue to the package increasing the bond to $800 million, 62% of likely voters said yes. 

Beatriz Itzel Cruz Megchun, a University of Portland assistant professor of Design & Innovation, has assigned students to research how the closing of the Columbia Pool has affected North Portlanders.

The report showed that residents, and particularly BIPOC residents, remain worried about their lack of swimming access and the proposed Northgate Aquatic Center has not yet reduced that concern.

Community members unanimously agree on the adverse effects of the Columbia Pool closure at multiple levels. Many are unable to get to another pool despite PP&R providing free bus passes.

“Many residents were unsatisfied with the PP&R’s recent public engagement efforts. Community members felt that their engagement and participation in the Northgate Park Aquatic Center (NPAC) decision-making process was inadequate,” the report said. 

Community members emphasized that their situation has worsened since Columbia Pool closed. “Feelings such as exclusion, discrimination, isolation, loneliness, social support, neighborhood safety, stress, mental health, access to water safety, and transportation” have become more serious for “the historically underrepresented population,” the study concluded.

Megchun is also researching corporate sponsors to potentially help the city on pool financing strategies.

(Mark Kirchmeier is a board member of the Friends of Columbia Park).

If you would like comment on this story, contact NPeninsulaReview@gmail.com.