South Park Blocks history nomination dropped from agenda
Possible nomination of Portland's South Park Blocks to the National Register of Historic Places flopped Friday, Feb. 19, when the proposal was dropped by a state committee.
Oregon's State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation decided during a virtual meeting to take the park blocks nomination off its agenda because of concerns by members of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. The 12-block, 8.76-acre park stretched between Southwest Salmon Street and Jackson Street was supposed to be considered at the meeting. Two other properties — the Mill City Southern Pacific Railroad Bridge and the Harry and Eleanor Holmes House in Medford — were also on the committee's short agenda.
Officials with Portland's Downtown Neighborhood Association, which hoped to nominate the park blocks to the national history list, said the group could resubmit the nomination later this year.
"DNA is considering its options, including proceeding with the next review, scheduled for June 17," said Association Board Chairman Walt Weyler.
Portland's Historic Landmarks Commission considered the nomination in early February and decided not to support it. Prior to the Feb. 8 meeting, commission members received dozens of letters mostly supporting the proposed nomination. Portland Parks and Recreation Director Adena Long asked the commission to require changes to the nomination so it better reflects contributions to the city's history by minorities and indigenous people. "The current nomination celebrates one story of history, but it is not representative of all stories," Long wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to the commission. "The language in the current version of the nomination glorifies European settlers and depicts the land as previously empty instead of more respectfully acknowledging the many groups who made significant contributions to the landscape before this period for time immemorial and continue to today."
In a five-page Feb. 17 letter to the state advisory committee, the landmarks commission said the nomination lacked information about the park property prior to the land's development by Portland businessmen. City Parks and Recreation officials also criticized the nomination for leaving out information about the property prior to settlement.
"Much excellent scholarship, writing and work has been already done by the team of volunteers and the vast majority of this work can and should be included in a revised document," the landmarks commission wrote. "The city of Portland, especially the Bureau of Parks and Recreation, has an opportunity — and the PHLC believes an obligation — to step in and help with the burden of supplementing the draft nomination as simply adding a few paragraphs regarding the history of this place prior to 1852 will not be sufficient."
'Separate but can coexist'
The South Park Blocks are one of the city's oldest parks. The park was conceived in 1852 by Portland businessman Daniel H. Lownsdale as a promenade through the growing city. Portland officials took action in 1877 to create a landscaping plan for the park.
According to a 99-page nomination written by members of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the park blocks has faced development pressures for decades. The nomination was written by architect Story Swett, historic preservation consultant Brooke Cation, neighborhood association board member Leslie Hutchinson and former Oregonian reporter Fred Leeson.
In a neighborhood association press release, Swett said if the park was named to the national register, it could require the city to take extra steps before making significant changes. "This park is such an obvious landmark for Portland, it is long overdue to correct an obvious oversight," Swett said. "A formal designation may help motivate retention of this valuable public space."
Possible nomination of the park blocks comes nearly two years after the city began working on a masterplan for the greenspace. The plan includes adapting the park to contemporary public uses while respecting its heritage and dealing with nearby development.
Portland's Parks and Recreation began the process in April 2019. The agency is working with consultants MIG Inc., Mayer/Reed, Toole Design Group and Morgan Holen & Associates. A committee working on the process held its most recent meeting in June 2020.
In a January statement, Portland Parks and Recreation said the park master plan and nomination processes "are separate but can coexist."
"Portland Parks and Recreation supports historic designations of our properties that are consistent with plans for those properties, and that do not unduly prohibit the city from meeting other important parks and recreation goals in the design and renovation of parks," according to a statement on the masterplan website. "Related documentation should be complete, accurate and inclusive. Parks and Recreation will submit letters to the Historic Landmarks Commission and State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation outlining opportunities for improvement of the current nomination."
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original story incorrectly characterized the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission Feb. 8 action on the nomination. The commission recommended against the nomination and listed several proposed changes.
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