If you can ignore the roar of jet engines above and auto traffic on nearby Columbia Boulevard, Northeast Portland's Whitaker Ponds is a pleasant place.
Ducks paddle among broadleaf cattail and skunk cabbage. And beyond the yellow-blooming Oregon grape and bursting pink salal blossoms, children play Little League baseball, as they have every year since 1958.
But this balance will soon be upset irrevocably, according to the parents of those Little Leaguers.
Last Wednesday, March 21, Portland City Council voted 4-0 (absent Commissioner Sam Adams, who was attending a conference in Montreal) to adopt a master plan for the park. Some of those parents and Little League enthusiasts frame the decision between two Portland priorities—kids and nature—with the kids the losers.
The plan would try to return the park's entire 25 acres back to nature. That includes removing most artificial structures, non-native plants and anything else that smacks of humanity, such as the two baseball fields used by Lakeside Little League. Eventually, the city wants to see a wetland prairie instead of a pitcher's mound.
To accomplish such a feat, the city has to raise $4 million as part of a future parks levy. (See page 8 for a related story.)
"My dad built this field in '68," said Curtis Falbo, a longtime Cully-neighborhood resident who grew up on the Falbo Field diamond with his brother, Mark. Together, they watched their kids play there, too.
Falbo Field and Field 5 are between the two main freshwater ponds at Whitaker. According to the master plan, Portland Parks and Recreation will acquire 11 acres of land between the ponds, where the fields are, from Portland Public Schools for $1. Then the process of converting the infields and outfields to prairie land will begin.
"The fact that the ball fields are there is an accident of history," said Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute and a member of the master plan's advisory committee. "You wouldn't put a ball field in the middle of Oaks Bottom."
Until the early 1990s, nobody really gave the ponds a second thought. The area, excluding the ball fields, was trashed with scrap metal, concrete, junked cars and over 2,000 tires. In 1995, Metro acquired the ponds for $175,000, along with some adjacent land, using money from a $135 million bond measure.
With 500 Dumpsters of garbage removed, Metro and the city Bureau of Environmental Services converted a house to an environmental center and embarked on native plant restoration.
"This is really one of the only sites of its kind in our system," said Whitaker Ponds project manager David Yamashita. "The two intact freshwater ponds make it unique. So does its proximity to a lot of schools and a lot of kids."
Jeff Ley, who represented Lakeside Little League on the plan's advisory committee, disagrees.
"I'm not exactly sure how it benefits the kids," Ley says. "What do we say to them? Go lay out there and look at all the pretty flowers, but don't touch them, don't pick them?"
The council vote last week did include an amendment by Commissioner Dan Saltzman requiring that the ball fields not be removed until a "better than or equal to" site has been located and built. Cully Community Park, the former Killingsworth landfill, is under consideration for development as a regional athletic facility. Most assume this is where Lakeside will end up.
But a skeptical Falbo says "every 50 or 75 feet there's a manhole cover with skull-and-crossbones on" the proposed site. Yamashita says the landfill has been out of commission for over 20 years, and that the site is ready for development after "you grade it out and make some improvements."
With the council's vote, however, the ball field's relocation appears inevitable.
"Things change over time," said Houck. "The time has come for the ball fields to move from that site."