A well-trodden path nestled near the edge of Portland’s Japanese Garden winds into Forest Park, the city’s 5,167-acre urban green space. A sign reads, “Path to Wildwood Trail,” marking one of the most popular access points to the park for hikers and joggers.
But the leafy, ivy-lined path is stirring discord in the West Hills. On Aug. 28, the Japanese Garden and residents of one of Portland’s most affluent neighborhoods will argue before the City Council over what constitutes an official walking trail.
Their disagreement, however, is much broader.
The dispute is also about what happens when parties try to decide who should control park land within the city—a well-connected, private nonprofit or taxpayers.
The Japanese Garden and the city’s Bureau of Development Services say the path leading to Wildwood Trail is unofficial—it doesn’t really exist because it’s not on any map.
In June, the bureau approved development plans for the garden that would block access to the path. The Arlington Heights Neighborhood Association and neighborhood resident Hilary Mackenzie separately appealed that decision.
The bureau says the path wasn’t shown in the garden’s application.
“If it’s not official, then it’s not a map trail,” says Kathleen Stokes, a representative for the bureau. “How can we review something that doesn’t exist?”
Mackenzie says that argument is ridiculous.
“My goal is to get this back in the public realm,” she says. “This is a complicated issue, and there needs to be a full discussion about it.”
Founded in 1963 and built to accommodate 30,000 visitors annually, the Japanese Garden now attracts 300,000 visitors a year, making it one of the city’s top tourist attractions.
Garden officials want to construct new buildings beyond the 9.1 acres leased from Portland Parks & Recreation, increasing the garden’s footprint to 12.5 acres. They plan to add new gardens and build a “cultural village,” with an administration building, learning centers, a gallery, a gift store, a garden house, and a tea cafe, more than doubling the square footage of buildings on the property from 10,800 to 22,400 square feet.
Right now, the “unofficial” trail entrance lies outside the garden. But under the new design, it would give visitors a back-door entry into the Japanese Garden—without paying admission.
To prevent this, garden officials have proposed just one option: fencing off the path entrance as part of the 16-month construction project.
Mackenzie is torn because she loves the Japanese Garden but resents the influence it appears to have with its landlord, the city.
“This shouldn’t be about who’s got power and money in Portland,” she says.
Other Arlington neighborhood residents agree. Rather than focusing on the fact that there’s another entrance to the Wildwood Trail just four-tenths of a mile from the disputed path, they’ve retained Steve Janik, one of Oregon’s top land-use lawyers.
“This is a public park and should stay a public park,” Arlington Neighborhood Association president Susan Siegel says.
Over the past two years, representatives of the garden held meetings with the neighborhood to explain its expansion plans. But critics say they only showed conceptual designs at those meetings.
“When we first got news of expansion, everybody thought it was more like cherry trees and bushes and water,” Mackenzie says. “We thought, this is great!”
The neighborhood association OK’d the garden’s plans in March.
“We were told in March that the neighborhood fully supported the plan,” says Cynthia Haruyama, deputy director of the Japanese Garden Society. “Now they’ve objected to a whole number of things.”
Haruyama says it’s the right plan.
“Sure, [Arlington residents] have ideas, but they are not necessarily viable,” she says.
The City Council can uphold, overturn or amend the garden’s expansion plans after Thursday's hearing.
Mackenzie holds out hope that the City Council will decide parks belong to the people rather than private nonprofits.
“It’s not free real estate that people can develop if they have the right connections,” Mackenzie says. “If you want development in parks, it should be a big, public process.”