Closing the play gap
Thomas Thompson surveys the broad stretch of dried-up grass and the few trees that make up Lynchview Park. There isn't a single person at the park on a lovely, sunny Wednesday afternoon.
Thompson, who lives adjacent to the forlorn swath at Southeast 170th and Southeast Market Street, ambles into the park and watches as his three young daughters scramble around on the parched grass.
"A playground would be nice. There are plenty of kids out here," Thompson said.
Lynchview's only amenities are a couple of dusty portable toilets and a set of netless soccer goals. "I was thinking it would be great to have more trees," Thompson said. "I'd be into that."
Portland Parks & Recreation leaders readily acknowledge that the eastern part of its territory, which includes Lynchview Park, does not have as many parks and services as the rest of the city, and they are working to remedy that, just not fast enough to suit some.
Mike Abbaté, the director of Portland Parks & Rec (PP&R) admitted that the area east of Interstate 205 "had not had the same (parks) investment and planning as other parts of Portland."
But he said "that zone has been a focus for Portland Parks & Rec since 2011 when I became director."
The wide belt of PP&R territory between I-205 and Gresham and Fairview city lines doesn't have the rich outdoor spaces and programming of the rest of the city. The paucity — often called the play gap — is especially acute east of 122nd Avenue. That leaves lots of families — many of them low-income, ethnically diverse and living in apartments — with few places to get outdoors or for their children to play.
"There has long been a disparity for equity in East Multnomah County regarding Parks and Rec," said Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham.
She called the area between 122nd and Fairview-Gresham "no man's land."
East Multnomah County activist Arlene Kimura said "there are very few places for people to go" in East Multnomah County, adding that "it's hard to get resources for our boundary parks. Don't the kids in East (Multnomah) County deserve the same opportunity and choice as those who live by Mt. Tabor?"
Adam Kohl, executive director of the nonprofit organization Outgrowing Hunger, which partners with Portland parks on projects, said attention to public services and green spaces in East Multnomah County "historically has not been good."
PP&R's target is to have a park within a half mile, or a 15 to 20 minute walk, of every household. "We've achieved that for 80 percent of Portland residents, but not for those east of 205," Abbaté said.
East of I-205, only 61 percent have that access.
"The other thing is that there are a lot of population changes," he added. "Forty percent of all Portland children live east of 205."
The East Portland Community Center is the only community center east of I-205. But its location at 106th Street makes it a long way for many eastern Portland residents. Yet Abbaté noted the East Portland Community Center draws people from Gresham and Fairview. Gresham tried to build its own community center, but voters in November 2016 rejected a bond measure that would have provided funding.
"I'd love to see a community center out in East County," said Lori Stegmann, a Multnomah County Commissioner who grew up in Rockwood. Facilities "don't always reach the places they are needed most."
Parks programming is also spotty east of 122nd Avenue. For example, parks all over Portland feature free concerts and movies throughout the summer. This summer there are 115 events scheduled, but only three planned east of 122nd.
Jennifer Yocom, PP&R's community relations manager, pointed out there are more movies and concerts scheduled between 122nd and I-205. One possible reason for the disparity is the community has to come up with about one-third the funding for the concerts and movies, which amounts to several hundred dollars, at minimum. That can be difficult in low-income neighbrhoods with many needs.
But Kimura said it isn't necessarily too troubling to have local communities kick in for the concerts or movies. "I think the community doesn't buy in unless they contribute. You want the event to become a success."
PP&R has a couple of significant new parks under construction east of I-205, with two planned east of 122nd Avenue.
Although still in the early stages, a project Portland parks refers to as D150 will be a big boon to East Multnomah County. A 7.5-acre park at Southeast Division Street at Southeast 150th Avenue "is in the planning and design stage," Abbaté said. A blueprint for D150 should be finanized by the end of the summer and then, pending funding, will be constructed.
D150 is a gently rolling site with views of Powell Butte. The neighbors in the single and multi-family housing sourrounding the potential park speak Russian, Somali, Nepali and Spanish as well as English.
During the time the park was being discussed and planned, PP&R partnered with Outgrowing Hunger, which turned some of the D150 land into 80 community gardening plots that are 450 square-feet each. About three-quarters of the gardners are refugees from Burma or Nepali-speaking Bhutanese. The community garden plots will incorporate into the future park at Southeast Division Street at Southeast 150th Avenue.
"They've done an amazing job with the refugee community," Abbaté said.
PP&R involved the community in what they'd like to see in this yet unnamed D150 park, although Abbaté said PP&R had to come up with strategies of engaging the local community because it is so diverse. Kohl said Portland parks did a good job of getting input from area residents.
The biggst project east of 122nd Avenue is Luuwit View Park (pronounced loo-WIT), a 16-acre recreation area next to Shaver Elementry School at about 131st Avenue between Northeast Fremont and Northeast Shaver.
Luuwit View features a soccer field, basketball court, inclusive play area, picnic area, comminity gardens, foot and bike paths, climbing stuctures, ping pong tables, off-leash dog area and an amphitheatre for concerts and events. The park, which will open late fall 2017, has striking views of Mount St. Helens, or Luuwit, as native people called it.
Farther west, another project is Gateway Discovery Park, which will be Portland's second inclusive, barrier-free playground that children and youths of all abilities can use. In addition to the all-access nature playground, Gateway Discovery Park will have a skate park and picnic area.
This 3.2-acre park is located at Northeast Halsey Street and Northeast 106th Avenue. A grand opening is expected this fall.
"Gateway Discovery will become the Pioneer Courthouse Square for East County," Abbaté predicted.
PP&R is making improvements to existing parks east of 122nd Avenue. The four tennis courts at the 8.85-acre Argay Park at 141st and Failing are being restored. The courts had been unusable. Some dying trees have been removed and replaced with new ones, and there will be some new benches and drinking fountains. The work is slated to be finished by fall.
East Holladay Park, 12999 N.E. Holladay St., recently got a soft-surface playground for ages 2-12, giant ladybug climbing shell, swings, new play equipment and some benches.
Smaller improvements were made to Gilbert Primary Park at 134th Avenue and Foster
Road, Lynchview Park at Southeast 165th Avenue and Market Street, Wilkes Park at 3655 N.E. 154th Ave., Glenfair Park at Northeast 154th Avenue and Couch Court, and Parklane Park at 155th Avenue and Main Street.
There are also big plans for Leach Botaninical Garden, 6704 S.E. 122d Ave. It "has the opportunity to be seen as a significant regional destination" like the Japanese Garden in Washington Park, Abbaté said. "We have a stunning master plan for that facility," he said of the leafy 16-acre park that hugs Johnson Creek.
Parklane Park, at Southeast 155th Avenue and Main Street, has a small playground, sport courts, benches and picnic tables in the shade under leafy trees and a shiny new loo. Marsha Ehlers watches her two grandchildren play on the equipment. "This is the only park in the area," she said, adding that in nice weather she drives the grandkids around to various parks.
Unlike nearby Lynchview, there are kids playing here, a few men playing basketball and people enjoying the shade of the trees. "There is a lot of community support for this park," Ehlers said. She explained that two neighborhood volunteers come to the park every morning with "grabbers" and pick up trash and any needles or other debris. "I'm grateful they come out and do that," she said
Time for a new plan
A lot of these park improvements were based on findings of the last long-term strategy sessions PP&R did in 1999 that created the Parks 2020 vision document. "It's time to start thinking of the next long-range plan. We're going to be going out to the public and asking what the needs are," Abbaté said.
Abbaté and others have discussed working with other cities such as Gresham or Troutdale in cooperative arrangments to close the play gap.
"At this point neither Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village or Gresham has the kind of infrastructure to support parks, and yet, the children exist," Kimura said.
Jenny Glass, the founding executive director of nonprofit community organization Rosewood Initiative at 16126 S.E. Stark St. and member of the PP&R Advisory Board said advocating for more and better parks and services in East Multnomah County is "definitely a reason I'm sitting on the board."
Like Stegmann, she'd like to see a community center in the area.
It's important to "include the needs of the community now. It's different from the past. There are tons of young families."
Glass notes many of families in East Multnomah County live in apartments with no play areas and depend on public transportation, so she wants "small, neighborhood parks that need to be easy to get to."
Parks should have "open space for kids to play and playgrounds. There should be outdoor gathering spaces for families to celebrate," she said.
Nonetheless, she is encouraged by PP&R's dedication to closing the play gap in East Multnomah County.
"I feel the energy on the parks board to support East County," she said. "I think there is progress."
Abbaté agreed there is "a lot of energy and investment is being made in east Portland."
And Lynchview? PP&R is in the early stages of a plan to develop Lynchview into a more inviting and useful park. They plan a playground, pathways, benches, irrigation and other park amenitites.
The funds are already available from a parks bond and developer fees.
Portland parks is seeking advisory board members for the Lynchview project and will host events to get input from the community. They plan to start building in 2019. For Thomas Thompson's daughters and their neighborhood friends, that moment can't come soon enough.
What should Lynchview look like?
Portland Parks & Recreation will hold the first community gathering to get input on what people would like to see at Lynchview Park from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7, at Lynchview Park, Southeast 165th Avenue and Market Street, next to Lynchview School. More information will be posted at parksreplacementbond.org as the event gets closer.