Oregon City supports new model for public-safety building
Memory runs long in Oregon City.
Community residents remember, for example, their years spent as students at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School on Linn Avenue.
They also remember when reserve police officer Robert Libke lost his life in November 2013 as a result of being shot while responding to a call about a house fire.
The city's residents, it turns out, also are adept at using memories of the past as a foundation on which to build a better future. Case in point: the new public safety building that broke ground late last month.
The building, to be named in honor of Libke, will replace the elementary school, a nearly 90-year-old building that had outlived its usefulness. When completed in late 2020, the Robert Libke Public Safety Building will represent the latest in building technology and reflect a modern-day approach to how public safety facilities are being integrated into the neighborhoods where they're located.
"We're helping change the way people think of police stations," Richard Grace, a partner with project architect FFA Architecture, said. "We're looking at a building type that can be open and inviting and warm.
"It's about more than just safety. It's about the (officers) in their community. It's about a positive interaction with them, not just when you're in trouble."
Focus on transparency
The days of police stations as foreboding concrete fortresses offering maximum security and minimum public appeal are fast disappearing, according to Grace.
Modern-day police departments are looking to create facilities that not only welcome people but also help represent public safety officers as members of the community.
It's an approach that Jim Band, Oregon City's chief of police, was more than ready to embrace in a new facility, which also will house the municipal court system.
"Transparency was crucial," Band said. "We did not want our police department to look like a police department. History is important to the city ... but we (also) wanted the building to be forward-thinking."
With an eye toward the goal of transparency, FFA's design for the public safety building features 13-foot-tall walls of glass on the front side that offer views into a 100-foot-long lobby and beyond.
"You can see all the way through," Grace said. "There's a sense of welcome that draws you into the building."
The effect is further enhanced by the generous use of wood, in the form of a material called cross-laminated timber, that creates a sense of warmth inside the building. Using the material, which is commonly referred to as CLT, also helped the design team hit the mark in regard to resiliency, sustainability and cost-effectiveness, areas Band had stressed as high on his list of important features for the project.
Because CLT is made by gluing pieces of wood at 90-degree angles and then compressing them together, the resulting panels are lightweight but also extremely strong and durable. The panels are fabricated off-site and then set in place, which requires less time and on-location manpower. The material also comes already finished, which further cuts time and cost.
On the exterior of the building, textures and patterns of materials were selected to create a sense of carving a future for the facility out of the earth, according to Grace.
"We decided on patterns and textures that almost resemble the rough edges of a rock with carved out areas for wellness and community and security," Grace said.
The layout of the building further enhances that "carved out" concept, creating spaces for a fitness area, the backside of the courtroom and the main entry for the building.
"The main goal of (Police Chief Band) was for it to be a civic building, a community asset, a resource," Grace said. "Our challenge was to make it a building that really balanced the safety and security of the officers ... with a public face of the building that is very transparent.
"The materials, the way the space feels, I think it will be a good space for them for the next 100 years."
The new public safety building has been a long time coming. When Band joined the Oregon City Police Department 20 years ago, he was told the department's current location was just temporary. When the Mt. Pleasant Elementary School building became available, Band knew it was time to make the new facility a reality.
"Our goal was to move the ball down the field," he said.
But turning that long-time plan into reality was easier said than done. In order to find enough money to cover the project, Band and his department had to get creative. In 2014, when the city began a new goal-setting session, he approached the councilors with a proposal to create a utility fee to generate revenue that would pay for constructing the new public safety building. The council gave Band approval to shop the idea around to see if there was enough public support.
"Overwhelmingly, people thought it was a good idea," Band said.
Supporters also made suggestions for the fees that were written into the plan. In May 2015, the city gave approval for Band and the department to move forward with putting the Community Safety Advancement Fee in front of voters.
Band and his team ramped up their efforts to rally the community behind the cause.
"Everything that took place up to that point had been done while on duty," Band said. "But now I needed help from people in the community."
By the time the election with the fee on the ballot rolled around, Band and community volunteers felt sure the fee would pass. When it didn't, they set out to find out what went wrong. The feedback indicated the language had been too vague. Band was disheartened, but he also wasn't willing to give up. He turned to his volunteers.
"I could not believe the enthusiasm when I asked, "Hey, are you guys up for another round," Band said.
With tightened up language and the fee on the ballot again, the volunteers redoubled their efforts to drum up support for its passage. In September 2017, voters approved the fee. Band attributes the success in large part to the way community members rallied around the effort.
"If you ever questioned whether citizens in a community can make a difference, we would not be here if not for their help," Band said during the public safety building groundbreaking.
Back and forth
The arrival of a new day in public safety in Oregon City doesn't come without a tinge of regret for the passage of time.
In order for the new structure to rise, the Mt. Pleasant Elementary School — a long-time presence in the community — will have to come down. Abatement of the building was set to begin July 1, with site work expected to be completed by the end of the summer so that construction can begin in September and wrap up approximately 14 months later.
The blend of nostalgia and anticipation was palpable during the groundbreaking ceremony held on the school grounds.
Signs of the building's former life as a school were still apparent during the ceremony. A covered patio area held stacks of plastic chairs, a couple of desks, and a dresser with drawers embellished with painted words of former contents: from "hats and jackets" to "shoes and masks." A fenced-in playground area featured weathered plastic playhouses and an empty bicycle rack.
After Band and city leaders tossed shovels of dirt — a groundbreaking tradition that included a miniature shovel and pink hard hat for Libke's daughter, Ziva — former Mt. Pleasant students and faculty members had a chance to wander through the school.
In the gymnasium, some attendees studied a three-dimensional model of the public safety building. Others examined renderings on a wall. At a nearby table, visitors were invited to take time to write their favorite memories of attending the school on index cards. The comments on the cards, along with photos and other memorabilia, will be included in an online version of a scrapbook for the school.
Others decided to embark on trips down memory lane as they wandered down hallways and into classrooms, including one room where sets of wooden seats sat under rows of colorful handprints on a wall.
One couple wandered outside to take a picture of the main entry. The arched window over the door is slated to be spared the wrecking ball. The window will be incorporated in a display that will become part of a public plaza that will be located at the entry of the new building.
Back inside, a group standing in the former gym studied a basketball backboard and debated when two pieces of crossed tape were place there. Bob Light, a 50-year resident of Oregon City, said the tape already had been in place when he arrived at the school to serve as principal in 1974. He remained in that position until 1984.
"This brings back a lot of memories," Light said of the opportunity to visit the school building one last time.
One of those fondest memories of his decade at the school, he said, was working with the "world's greatest staff," including his secretary, Lois Miles.
While he admitted to a twinge of sadness about the demolition of the school, he also welcomed the future public safety building and said he'd be watching the project's progress.
"I think it's wonderful that it's still going to be a place of use for our community," Light said.