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Inspired by reading 'The Outsiders,' middle school students invite creative solutions

A book that features scenes of violence occurring in an empty lot has inspired teenagers to press Oregon City officials for creative solutions to the long-vacant corner at 12th/Main streets.COURTESY PHOTO: TUMWATA MIDDLE SCHOOL - Oregon City students visit the empty lot where officials have been advertising the 12th/Main 'opportunity' site, but potential developers have repeatedly fallen through.

Evan Howells, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at Tumwata Middle School in Oregon City, has been teaching "The Outsiders"by S.E. Hinton, a 1967 coming-of-age novel describing how strained teenage relationships can lead to gang warfare.

"I've always wanted to do a vacant-lot project, where kids come up with creative uses for a currently vacant lot in their community," Howells said. "As we began reading the book, a lot of the violence occurs in a vacant lot, and it just seemed like a great fit."

Working with the city of Oregon City's planning division, the class found an empty lot in downtown Oregon City, and the kids are going to come up with creative uses for that space in the hopes of bringing teens in the community together in positive ways.

"This could be a business (low-cost movie theater, putt-putt course, etc.) a community space (park, community center, memorial), a public art space, or anything else they can come up with in the hopes of bringing young people from all walks of life together," Howells said.

Over the past decade, Oregon City officials have been advertising the 12th/Main "opportunity" site, but potential developers have repeatedly fallen through. Next to the KFC Restaurant, a storm line runs through the vacant property diagonally and heads to a manhole in the building across the street, Isa's Auto Repair. There's also a sewer line on the west side of the city-owned empty lot that might make it difficult for McLoughlin Boulevard traffic to access any potential new building.

Howells' students will be creating "pitches" for this idea and presenting them to various departments in the Oregon City government on Wednesday, Jan. 26. They have invited representatives from Oregon City's library, economic development, code enforcement and finance departments.

Howells said that he has received tentative confirmation of planned attendance to the student presentations from City Manager Tony Konkol, as well as Downtown Oregon City Association leaders, a representative from the Clackamas County Homeless Coalition and an Oregon City School District administrator.

The Jan. 26 event at Tumwata Middle School will be closed to the public. Only those who have been invited and can show proof of vaccination may enter the building.

Howells said the presentations will look much like a science fair, with project boards set up. Kids will make 90-second pitches for their idea for how the lot should be used.

"Hopefully, barring schools shutting down due to omicron, or tightening visitor restrictions, the event will take place," Howells said.

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