Portland’s Parks Are a Cherished Gem. But They Can’t Make Ends Meet.

Portland Parks & Recreation does a lot of things Portlanders love. Over the past five years, it has wanted to do even more.

Gateway Discovery Park is one of six parks built in less-served parts of Portland over the past five years. (Kendra Frankle)

This spring, the Portland City Council passed a record $5.6 billion budget to fund services and projects across the city. It also shut down Kelsey Owens' home away from home.

When Owens moved to the Sellwood neighborhood in 2017, the nearby Portland Parks & Recreation community center was a godsend, providing low-cost preschool for her 3-year-old son.

But in May, at the same time it passed a city budget that is 3 percent larger than last year's, the City Council said it had no money for the center and voted to close the facility and all its programming on Sept. 1.

In 45 days, either the doors of the center will be locked, or Sellwood residents will have to run it themselves, with their own money.

"I was devastated," says Owens, 33, a stay-at-home mom. "It's going to impact every day of our life."

She wasn't alone. On May 23, the City Council voted to close or alter operations at four community centers and a swimming pool in Portland. It shrank the bureau by 50 employees, with up to 37 layoffs. The council said those cuts were needed to cover a projected $6.3 million shortfall in what ended up being the parks bureau's $95 million operating budget.

Sellwood Community Center could close its doors and cease its children’s programs Sept. 1, unless residents find the money to run it. (Laurel Kadas)

Portland parks aren't where you'd expect a mess. They haven't drawn the city's attention like the lack of affordable housing, mental illness on the streets, or political extremists brawling.

Portland Parks & Recreation does a lot of things Portlanders love. Over the past five years, it has wanted to do even more. The bureau has raised money by getting voters to increase taxes—most recently with a 2014 property tax bond that will expire in 2021—to try to serve a larger number of Portlanders.

But it couldn't afford those goals—and Portland's leaders didn't enforce any financial discipline.

"This monster of cost exceeding revenues has been growing beneath the surface of the water for some time," says Randy Gragg, director of the Portland Parks Foundation, the private fundraising wing for the bureau. "In past years, we have seen its eyes and its nose, and we now see the whole beast."

Southwest Community Center and its water slide. (Laurel Kadas)

For five years, the City Council failed to confront a growing gap between the bureau's ambitious agenda and its limited resources. From 2013 to 2018, parks' expenses grew 34 percent, while revenues grew 13 percent.

During that time, the city built six new parks mostly in the poorest and least-served parts of town, even as its existing facilities aged.

The council didn't grapple with the bureau's reliance on user fees to fund operations—a model that made little sense, because the city also wanted to keep those fees low so families could afford swim classes and nature hikes. And it didn't acknowledge the long-term costs of losing a labor battle with its workers.

Many parks bureau goals were noble: more access to the outdoors, and at a low cost. But the council never forced the bureau to find a strategy to balance its checkbook.

It still hasn't.

A WW review of city budget documents, and conversations with key players at City Hall, show that within four years, Portland Parks & Recreation will look to expand its budget again—by $5.4 million—to take care of more new parks, even as it hasn't fixed the dynamic that created the budget hole this year.

A memo from the bureau's own budget advisory committee warned in March that the cuts wouldn't fix the problems that caused the deficit. The memo said that closing the community centers would bridge this year's budget shortfall. "It does not, however, offer solutions for the underlying structural problems," the memo continued.

Columbia Pool (Laurel Kadas)

City Commissioner Nick Fish, who was assigned the parks bureau last fall, says he will find that solution.

"We put together a tough-love budget," Fish says. "In two to three years, we'll be a stronger, more sustainable organization. We've bought a couple of years of breathing room."

At another edge of the city, an aging rock star watches all of this in confusion. Courtney Taylor Taylor, frontman for the Dandy Warhols, lives near the Hillside Community Center, another casualty of this year's budget cuts.

He can't believe the city would budget so badly that it has to throw away its public gathering places.

"Is this a trend, that neighborhoods are going to have to buy their own community center?" asks Taylor Taylor. "The next thing will be parks, until only the rich have parks."

Alberta Park. (Kendra Frankle)

Portland's parks are in hot demand.

Parents wake at 5 am to sign up their kids for swim lessons the day they go online. The most popular program the bureau provides is "Penguin" level classes for preschool-age children who have learned to blow bubbles but not swim. Penguin classes can be snatched up within minutes. They cost $57 per child.

Portland Parks & Recreation keeps its programs reasonably priced. A month of city-run, three-days-a-week morning preschool costs $207 at Mt. Scott Community Center, for example—a fraction of the cost of private preschool.

But the parks bureau depends on those fees. City Hall required the bureau to generate at least 25 percent of its budget from the fees it charges people to take classes and use facilities.

Sellwood Community Center. (Laurel Kadas)

Not making enough money from ticket sales is an odd problem for government. Spending tax dollars to provide essential services is what government does. Portland Fire & Rescue doesn't charge homeowners to put out blazes. Its budget comes from the city's general fund.

But in many cities across the nation, parks departments are expected to fund their operating costs partly through fees.

Parks budget advisory committee chairwoman Patricia Frobes says this year's shortfall helped the City Council "achieve clarity" about the parks budget crunch.

"I hope what comes out of this is a real examination of how we fund and invest in the parks system," Frobes says. "This an existential threat to that system. If we keep going down this path, we'll have cuts every year. It's not a pretty picture."

Southwest Community Center pool. (Laurel Kadas)

But the parks bureau's community centers aren't succeeding in this task. In the affluent Multnomah Village neighborhood, the Southwest Community Center is known for its indoor pool, accompanied by a bright blue, 117-foot-long water slide. The cost of entry is $7 for an adult and $4.25 for a child.

The bureau projected a nearly $1 million loss this year for the facility, unless the center cut services. (It did.)

Across the bureau, costs keep rising. A big part of that is worker pay and benefits.

In 2015, the city lost a fight with Laborers' Local 483, when an arbitrator ruled the city had failed to treat workers performing full-time union work as union employees. The City Council agreed to hire 100 additional staff employees.

Employee retirement benefits, health care, and wages further increased costs. Depending on whom you ask, that arbitration laid the groundwork for this year's crisis. "It did not contribute greatly," Fish says.

But the bureau's own analysis earlier this yearmade clear that providing more employees with full benefits created new stresses on the parks budget. "It brought things to a head," Frobes says. "Parks isn't like LA Fitness. We don't have the ability to charge more and more and more—and it's not consistent with the mission of parks."

Southwest Community Center (Laurel Kadas)

Meanwhile, the parks bureau has been on a mission to make access to the outdoors more equitable by opening parks in underserved areas, notably East Portland.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the previous parks commissioner, championed a goal that every Portlander have access to a park within a half-mile of home.

"Only 2 of 5 residents enjoy easy access to a park in this area of East Portland," Fritz said in 2017, at the grand opening of Luuwit View Park in the Argay neighborhood. "We will continue to work to close this play gap."

The bureau opened three new parks in East Portland between 2013 and 2018 (see map, page 15). But the operation and maintenance of new parks added $3.5 million a year to the operating budget—$2 million of it for parks in East Portland. (Fritz, who oversaw much of this expansion, could not be reached for comment.)

The City Budget Office this year expressed "concerns about continuing to invest" in new parks, "particularly in consideration of the existing funding gap."

But at the same time, properties already owned by the bureau fell into disrepair. If the city were to replace every rotting bench or roof near collapse, it would cost $450 million over the next decade.

Columbia Pool (Laurel Kadas)

The city has no plan to pay for $370 million of that figure, according to a City Budget Office analysis earlier this year.

If that figure seems massive, it is—much larger than the bureau's current budget crunch. The bureau is like a homeowner with an aging house who doesn't know when the boiler or roof will fail.

That problem, says Fish, is "what keeps me up at night."

But Fish says the bureau should keep expanding eastward. "We have a moral obligation," he says, "to provide Parks & Recreation services, particularly to low-income families in East Portland who haven't historically enjoyed the same robust level of services."

Linda Robinson, an East Portland parks advocate, agrees. "They need to take care of what we have," she says, "but they can't just leave us out."

Gateway Discovery Park. (Kendra Frankle)

This is Fish's second time overseeing Portland Parks & Recreation. He began it with cuts.

"The last thing I wanted in my second tour of duty was to be the person who had to come forward with this bad news about a structural deficit—one that was going to get worse," he says. "And we made a number of recommendations that were deeply unpopular. But we felt we had to address the problem head on."

That May 23 decision was the ugliest city budget fight in recent memory. The newest city commissioner,  Jo Ann Hardesty, voted against the entire city budget, saying the parks cuts were unjust and unwarranted.

"I'm disappointed that my colleagues did not join me in finding solutions to fund our parks—but that was the choice they made," she says.

Those cuts will not solve the bureau's long-term shortfall. Fish says they will buy him time to come up with a plan.

Southwest Community Center pool. (Laurel Kadas)

Fish says he'll return to the council this fall with a series of options: more bonds and levies or a parks district.

Fritz and Mayor Ted Wheeler have floated the idea of setting up a taxing district exclusively for parks. Voters approved such a district for the Multnomah County Library in 2012. Seattle passed a parks district in recent years.

"Portlanders value their parks system," says Zari Santner, who served as parks director from 2003 to 2011. "I think people would embrace it. I have no doubt about it."

But the first step the city has taken—closing community centers—has alienated some of the Portlanders who most cherished the parks system.

"Why isn't this a conversation that was had five years ago?" asks Sellwood resident Kim Borcherding. "You need to charge more? Let's do that. Here we are limping along—and we had four months' notice."

Sellwood Community Center could close its doors and cease its children’s programs Sept. 1, unless residents find the money to run it. (Laurel Kadas)

Opening and Closing

Over the past five years, Portland Parks & Recreation has opened six new parks in some of the least-served parts of the city. At the same time, the parks bureau experienced a budget shortfall. This spring, the City Council voted to close or fundamentally change four community centers and a pool.

The bureau's decisions amount to a redistribution of resources across the city. Places long without parks get new facilities, while neighborhoods with longtime gathering places face shutdowns.

The losers of that process say the lurch eastward while making cuts elsewhere wasn't the right approach. "That pits communities against each other," says Emily Golden-Fields, a Sellwood mom who is also co-chair of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

City Commissioner Nick Fish says the City Council isn't trying to do that.

"There's no class warfare in our thinking or in our budget assumptions," says Fish. "I want to be in a position some day where we can meet the long-term expectations of everybody in our community about our system. The problem is, right now, we don't have a way to pay for that."

Here's where residents won and lost.

Laurelhurst Dance Studio

The parks bureau offered ballet classes and tap-dancing lessons for children as young as toddlers. All the studio's programming was shut down July 1. The building is available for private rentals.

Multnomah Arts Center

This summer, it's offering piano lessons, theater camps and letterpress classes. Next summer, it will need to overhaul its operations or close.

Khunamokwst Park

When it opened in 2015, it became noteworthy for its indigenous name—the word is Chinook wawa for "together."

Gateway Green

These 25 acres of mountain-bike trails opened in 2017, wedged between Interstates 84 and 205.

Luuwit View Park

Its picnic pavilion, sheltered by steel triangles, was designed by the same architects behind the Doug Fir nightclub. The park opened in 2017.

Gateway Discovery Park is one of six parks built in less-served parts of Portland over the past five years. (Kendra Frankle)

Gateway Discovery Park

Built on the former site of a bowling alley and opened in 2018, it includes a skate bowl and a tiny water park called a  "splash pad."

Thomas Cully Park

On the former site of a landfill, this 2018 park features a Native American gathering garden with views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens.

Spring Garden Park

Another splash pad, twin slides, and an enormous wooden globe fashioned to look like a bird's nest. It opened in 2018.

(Laurel Kadas)

Hillside Community Center

In one of the most upscale neighborhoods in the city, residents gave the city the community center as a gift.

In the early 1970s, 13 residents of Hillside took out second mortgages to buy an option on the former grounds of the private Catlin Hillside School and turn it into a park. (The neighbors called themselves the "Trembling 13" over their sense of uncertainty about repaying the mortgages.)

"The city over the years has put an awful lot of money into it," says Phil Brown, 84, one of the 13, and a retired accountant.

On Sept. 1, the center is scheduled to be transferred to a private operator or be shuttered.

Fish's office has met with neighborhood residents to discuss their options. But neighbors don't yet have a plan for what they'd do to keep the center open. They would need to pay a private contractor to run it.

"It's very difficult to get a proposal together if you don't know what the requirements are," says Gary Berger, president of Hillside Neighborhood Association.

Columbia Pool. (Laurel Kadas)

Columbia Pool

City Hall plans to close this swimming pool in North Portland by July 2020. The pool serves a neighborhood with some of the largest concentrations of publicly funded housing in the city.

Unlike in more affluent neighborhoods, the parks bureau plans to replace what it's closing. It intends to build a new indoor pool less than a mile away, at the Charles Jordan Community Center. Officials say that's a more cost-efficient plan than making the more than $4 million in repairs needed at the Columbia Pool.

But there's no time frame for building a new aquatic center, and the Columbia Pool will probably close before construction begins on its replacement.

Sellwood Community Center. (Laurel Kadas)

Sellwood Community Center

Sellwood residents have until Sept. 1 to find a way to keep their community center open. They will need to find private funding for the programs at the center, which include preschool and summer camps.

So they're making tough choices.

They will charge more for the classes, which the city once kept affordable. They won't offer full city benefits to the workers they employ.

And unlike City Hall, they won't accept defeat. "We don't care; we'll fundraise," says Sellwood resident Kim Borcherding. "I have no doubt. We're going to make this amazing."

Gail Hoffnagle, a former parks employee, is running Sellwood's effort to privatize the community center.

"If this doesn't go through, I'm going to have to leave the neighborhood under cover of darkness," says Hoffnagle. "I'll be run out on a rail."

Children await an adventure outside Sellwood Community Center. (Laurel Kadas)

Correction: Due to an editor's error, this story incorrectly credited Skylab Architecture with the design of Luuwit View Park. Skylab only designed the picnic shelter and public restrooms.

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