Site of Former Whitaker School Shot Down by Portland Public Schools Board Members for Safe Rest Village

Ryan responded to the news in an email to board members Wednesday afternoon: “Although disappointed, the pending relocation of Harriet Tubman is a clear and obvious rationale for such a decision, based on ODOT’s vision for the Rose Quarter section of I-5.”

City officials are seeking more humane alternatives to camping in places like Delta Park. (Sam Gehrke)

The proposal for placing one of Portland’s “safe rest villages” at the former Whitaker School site in Northeast Portland is off the table, as two members of the Portland School Board who sit on the facilities committee for Portland Public Schools plan to vote against the proposal.

The two members—Julia Brim Edwards and Gary Hollands—plan to vote no on the Whitaker site at a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the facilities and operations committee, which consists of three members: Hollands, Brim Edwards and Amy Kohnstamm. That means a majority of the committee will recommend the district not go forward with the proposal.

“There’s a number of reasons why I’m not going to be supportive of it. First, we have a fiduciary responsibility to use our land and properties to support PPS on our mission on educating students, and this proposal doesn’t hit that mark,” Brim Edwards tells WW. “There was also a board resolution from the early 2000s when Whitaker School was removed from the site for environmental issues that the site be used for a future middle school site.”

Brim Edwards also cited what she perceives as a lack of community engagement in the surrounding neighborhoods as part of her decision to vote against the proposal.

Hollands confirmed to WW he plans to vote against the proposal.

The city has so far announced three out of the six rest sites, which will have 30 to 60 sleeping pods apiece, sanitary and hygiene services, and behavioral and mental health services available for residents. None is yet up and running.

An email from Dan Ryan to board members just after noon on Wednesday responded to a call from Gary Hollands on Tuesday delivering the news that the committee would be recommending against the use of the site.

“Thank you for yesterday’s call to let me know that the former Whitaker Middle School/Adams High School site’s potential use as a Safe Rest Village will be voted down today,” Ryan wrote. “Although disappointed, the pending relocation of Harriet Tubman is a clear and obvious rationale for such a decision, based on ODOT’s vision for the Rose Quarter section of I-5.”

Ryan added: “Although today’s vote is unfortunate in terms of the Safe Rest Villages program, it is understandable.…To that end, if there are any other potential sites in PPS’s portfolio that could be considered, the Portland City Commission and (despite what some detractors will always say in any neighborhood) the people of our city would be extremely grateful.”

Ryan first shopped around the idea of using the site, which is sandwiched between the Cully and Concordia neighborhoods, with PPS board members in October. The city proposed using just a 2-acre strip of the lot along Northeast 42nd Avenue, amounting to about one-fifth of the total site, according to documents on the proposal shared with WW in October.

The school was shut down in 2001 after Willamette Week published an article about the presence of high levels of toxic chemicals inside the building and in the ground.

Health officials at Portland Public Schools knew about the dangers, WW learned, but failed to disclose them to the School Board, district administration, school faculty or the families of students for 10 years. Though the district did take some measures to reduce radon and increase ventilation in the school, it failed to make a difference.

The school was shut down the week WW’s story ran, the building was demolished, and the plot of land has lain unused ever since.

Two jumbo sports facilities are other potential uses for the land.

Two safe rest sites announced so far are in Southwest Portland; one is in deep Southeast. A fourth, which was to be placed near Errol Heights Park in Southeast, was revoked after the city learned it was in a flood zone.

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”

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