After hours of testimony from residents fiercely opposing a plan to renovate a historic 12-block park in downtown Portland, the City Council delayed a vote on a master plan to makeover the South Park Blocks. The vote will take place next Wednesday.
The plan describes a decades-long remodel of the park that connects the Portland State University campus with some of the city’s biggest cultural attractions. The 132-page plan, two years in the making, would add new seating, art, plants and a bike path to the leafy strip in the city’s core and redesign the linear pathways.
The overhaul comes with a steep price tag: The city estimates it would cost anywhere between $22.9 million to $46.6 million to build. That does not include the price to make the area part of the “Green Loop,” a connected six-mile park through Portland’s central city area for joggers, walkers and bikers. That pathway is estimated to cost an additional $7.4 million.
City officials describe the plan as “an unfunded vision” and say they have not allocated funding for most of the features.
Nevertheless, the plan has generated a strong backlash among Portlanders who believe it will lead to the decimation of the treasured elms that line the park and ruin one of the few green spaces downtown. Dozens of Portlanders testified in opposition to the council on Thursday, decrying the plan as an unwanted makeover that would replace the rows of trees with unwanted asphalt and bring a flood of bikers, scooters, and pedestrians into the residential area.
The opposition was near-unanimous.
“Listen to the people,” said Stephen Kafoury, a former lobbyist and state legislator. “No one - and I’m going to repeat that - no one wants to change or update the park.”
Kafoury, like many of the opponents who spoke on Thursday, said he felt the city officials were being disingenuous when they pledged to preserve the vast majority of elms in the park. While the plan does not call for specific trees to be removed, he noted the plan allows for trees that are dead, dying, or damaged to be cut down.
City officials have been adamant that the plan will not pave the way for a mass decimation of trees. Instead, they say the city will remove about one tree per year over the course of the next two decades in order to space them out and allow the younger trees, which they say are currently struggling to survive under the canopy, to mature.
“If we don’t do this and continue to replace trees in exactly the same locations, their future health and the fullness of their canopy will suffer,” Tate White, senior planner with the parks bureau, told the council.
Currently, there are about 330 trees in the South Park Blocks, according to White.
“If the complete long-term vision is achieved fully, there will be fewer than 20% less trees in the South Park Blocks,” she wrote in an email. “But importantly, the tree canopy coverage will remain. And the trees will be healthier and more resilient for future generations.”
Supporters and city officials maintain that opponent’s claims are wildly overstated.
“No trees will be proactively removed. Zero. Nada. None.” wrote Will Howell, communications director for Carmen Rubio, the city commissioner in charge of the parks bureau. “Rather, the plan prescribes a tree succession plan to direct the replacement of trees whenever they reach the end of their life cycles.”
Portland Parks Board member Paddy Tillett said he believes the plan is a critical step to keeping the trees healthy and preserving the park. But the most extraordinary thing about the document, he said, is how many “conspiracy theories” have sprung up around it.
“I expected people to read the master plan and respond to that — not what they read on social media,” Tillett said. “It’s sort of a gathering snowball of misinformation that is rumbling across the South Park Blocks.”
An online petition pushing for City Council to oppose the plan has gathered nearly 800 signatures, erroneously claiming the rows of trees will be cut down to form a bike path. In a post titled “Assault on the South Park Blocks,” the author of a local architectural blog wrote that the park would be shrunk by 17,400 square feet. The city says that’s not accurate, and the bike lane will be adjacent to the park rather than cut through it. Former city commissioner Mike Lindberg posted a photo on social media showing a row of park trees tagged with caution tape and wrote that the city had marked the trees “for the woodpile”. The post drew more than 300 outraged comments. The city said there’s no truth to it.
The assurances have done little to sway the opposition. Wendy Rahm, a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and vocal opponent of the plan, said she read the plan herself and does not trust the city officials who insist that most of the trees will remain. According to her, the high-level statements made in the plan do not align with what the maps show.
“They’re accusing a lot of the opponents of misinformation, but in fact, those people have dug into the master plan,” she said.
Many who testified to the council on Thursday said they’d poured through the plan’s pages and found it misguided and excessively expensive. Others said they weren’t clear why the city was pushing the multimillion-dollar fix for a park that didn’t appear to be broken.
“‘Commissioners, you have many problems to solve and things that need fixing,” LaJune Thorson, a downtown resident for a decade, said. “This park is not one of them.”