Portland Parks’ maintenance neglect impacts North Portland (May 2023)

The Parks & Recreation Bureau has the distinction of having the biggest maintenance backlog of any City of Portland bureau—$600 million—a figure that exceeds the Gross National Product of eight countries in the United Nations including the Marshall Islands, Tonga and Sao Tome. And closer to home, that figure is twice the $276 million backlog of the Seattle Parks and Recreation department that serves a larger population than Portland.

That neglected maintenance causes head shaking among those advocating for North Portland parks such as Arbor Lodge, Columbia, Peninsula and Pier parks. Nonetheless, most laud the commitment and skill of individual Parks staff.

For instance, Friends of Peninsula Park leader Mark Smallwood admires the city arborists who nurture the renowned rose garden. Friends of Pier Park board chair Steve Davis praises PP&R for investing in native plants and a new rest room. But Greg Dilkes, a member of the North Portland Neighborhood Services parks committee, cuts to the chase. “The work the city does is usually excellent, but what’s disturbing is they (City Council, Parks management) tolerate maintenance neglect.”

Pier Park restroom with chainlink fence around it
Former Pier Park restroom is now in disrepair.

“The parks I visit are clean and have kept-up baseball fields,” said Dilkes, a Friends of Columbia Park board member, “but it just seems the bigger issues are beyond their capability.”

A glaring example is that is the fact that North Portlanders won’t have a year-round swimming pool for nine-years due to Parks failure to perform basic maintenance on Columbia Park Pool. The neglect forced its controversial closure in 2020, said Ed Fernbach, an environmental engineer who has worked on many city projects. (See No North Portland year-round pool until 2029, Mark Kirchmeier, North Peninsula Review, March edition).

Fernbach believes that two Parks commissioners, the late Nick Fish and current Commissioner Carmen Rubio ignored maintenance of Columbia Pool to hasten its demise in order to clear their path to build a $50 million Aquatic Center that won’t be ready until 2029.

The North Peninsula Review previously reported that Fernbach and a team of independent architects wrote a facilities study two years ago that documented Parks’ neglect of Columbia Pool since 2006. It also pointed out that their own 2018 study shows they could repair the pool for $2,250,000.

Rubio permanently closed Columbia Pool last year and Parks has since begun planning for an Aquatic Center that would include two full-size competition-level pools.

In North Portland, the problems go far deeper than Columbia’s empty pool. Park advocates point to Columbia Cottage, a popular rental venue for events including meetings, lectures, anniversaries, birthdays, dances, and weddings. Cottage rental is a source of funding for Friends of Columbia Park that allows them to sponsor events such as the Juneteenth celebration. Yet the Cottage’s future is uncertain. Its shingled roof is growing a thick carpet of moss that could lead to damage. Advocates say that Parks’ upper management will not allow them get a competitive bid for repairs.

One hundred yards away, beneath a green canopy of fir boughs near the children’s playground is the 101-year-old Comfort Station. The elegant Tudor-style structure provides summer-time rest rooms and a cover for kid’s events. It was designed by Ellis Lawrence, the founder of the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture. It’s even is on the prestigious National Historic Registry—yet Dilkes worries for its future.

He explains, “It’s all about the roof. With its current condition, the building is on its way to eventual collapse. If it’s fixed soon, there’s no reason that building can’t live a second hundred years.”

Friends of Pier Park leader Keola Morley similarly cited positive relations with parks staff while expressing frustration with poor funding and leadership “Seeing buildings here under-maintained for so long that they had to be abandoned, makes me cry,” she said.

An independent City Budget Office analysis explains reasons the maintenance backlog is so severe. The report describes how city council regularly establishes a special fund, a capital set-aside fund, that by their own policy dictates should be used to pay large chunks of the maintenance backlog. However, the council has waived its own policy and instead shifted those funds to other programs.

Those council actions have redirected $34 million that would have otherwise been dedicated to maintenance. The analysis concluded, “It is concerning to the fiscal health of the city…[that] this process becomes unreliable, based on precedent to waive policy.” The same report shows that Parks has 1,201 assets that are either in “Poor” or “very Poor’ condition.”

Commissioner Rubio declined an interview request with this newspaper but her staff sent a statement: “As a recent former Parks Commissioner and as an elected official committed to the improvement of Portland, Commissioner Rubio maintains a great fondness for the City’s park system.”

In January, Mayor Ted Wheeler named Commissioner Dan Ryan to lead PP&R, replacing Rubio. Ryan has inherited the $600 million maintenance backlog and is proceeding with the $50 million Aquatic Center. He also supported a recent proposal to the Oregon Legislature to allow the city to create a Parks District with property taxation authority. However, the bill died in committee.

That an urban-oriented, Democratic-controlled Legislature rejected a Parks District now leaves the Park Bureau with few other attractive options for seriously addressing the maintenance deficit. Ryan told the North Peninsula Review that those options include using the capital set-aside fund for maintenance needs, exploring alternative funding such as a future bond measure, renewing a levy campaign, or tapping into the Bureau’s Sustainable Future program fund.

Ending city council’s redirecting of funds intended for maintenance would be a way to address the neglect. Pier Park leader Steve Davis urges city council to rethink waiving funds. “Good maintenance is part of efficiency,” he noted. Fernbach also suggests that shelving the Aquatic Center project for a couple of years could be a good step toward saving funds.

One veteran city hall operative isn’t optimistic about reining in the half-billion dollar backlog. “PP&R’s culture encourages the view among their employees, that they’re the most loved and important service in the city, and that will always lead to an insatiable demand for resources.”

Mark Kirchmeier is a board member of the Friends of Columbia Park