Paul Agrimis, Paddy Tillett and Rachel Edmonds
Agrimis is the chair of the Portland Parks Board. Tillett leads the Land Use and Infrastructure working group for the Portland Parks Board. Edmonds is the consultant project manager for the South Park Blocks Master Plan. All three live in Portland.
The South Park Blocks are a critical part of Portland’s urban DNA forming a green spine through our downtown. We agree with op-ed authors Mike Lindberg and Stephen Kafoury that the South Park Blocks are one of the “gems of nature” in the Central City (“City’s South Park Blocks plan a threat to its unique character,” June 20). However, their portrayal of the master plan is misleading; this plan is needed and will protect this cherished park.
The South Park Blocks master plan was shaped by a team: the Portland Parks and Recreation bureau, consultants and an experienced technical advisory group, including one of the nation’s foremost experts in the field of cultural landscape preservation. The plan was overseen by a community advisory committee composed of more than 20 stakeholders from the Indigenous community, adjacent cultural institutions, the Friends of the South Park Blocks, the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Portland State University, Portland Farmers Market, and at-large members of the public. The parks bureau conducted wide public outreach not only to downtown residents, but also to other communities of the city.
The treasured historic elms that shape so much of the Park Blocks’ tree canopy will inevitably age and die. The master plan offers a succession strategy for the how the canopy can be maintained over the next 100 to 200 years with both American elms as well as native species more resilient to disease and impacts of climate change. Contrary to misinformation being circulated, Portland Parks will only remove elms when they either become a hazard, are beyond saving, or in exceptional circumstances when there’s no alternative.
The city’s current practice – replanting new trees in every location where a mature tree has died or been removed – isn’t working. Young trees need space and sunlight to grow properly. The master plan demonstrates how this can be achieved over many decades.
The proposed succession strategy will improve conditions for new trees by widening the tree spacing in rows set aside for elms and elm-like trees, which will provide more solar exposure and growing space. Yes, there eventually will be fewer trees – on some blocks – but the new spacing standards reflect best contemporary arboricultural practices known to produce healthier, structurally balanced and more resilient urban trees. The master plan is hardly “a self-fulfilling prophesy of injury and death;” rather, it is a wide-eyed effort to deal with the facts of how a historic tree canopy can be preserved in an increasingly dense urban setting, with a generally hotter and drier climate paired with more frequent and destructive storms.
There is considerable fear being stoked that the Green Loop -– a paved shared-use path running along the park’s perimeter -– will diminish the Park Blocks’ serenity. But this interpretation is based on a gross misunderstanding of how these proposed elements will be integrated. Outlined in the Central City 2035 Plan and adopted by City Council, the Green Loop will be a six-mile, leisurely, all-abilities connection to parks and neighborhoods throughout central Portland. The Green Loop will use existing paved areas on Park Avenue West and will neither narrow the Park Blocks, nor result in the removal or endangerment of any trees. Foremost in the design is the goal of retaining the mature trees. The plan envisions that high-speed bicyclists traveling through the city will use bike lanes on Southwest Broadway Drive and Southwest Fifth Avenue.
Finally, Lindberg and Kafoury contend that up-to-$46 million estimated to implement the master plan would be better redirected to parks-deficient areas in east Portland. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how such projects get done. Funding for improvements, particularly in dense, urban areas, often comes through private/public partnerships and incremental add-ons to adjacent infrastructure projects. For instance, the first fully developed one block stretch of the Green Loop downtown is being paid for by the developers of the Ritz Carlton project. As with legendary projects such as the Transit Mall, Portland Streetcar, and Airport MAX, the Master Plan offers a well-used Portland roadmap for guiding how private development and city expenditures can leverage one another to improve our city.
We believe that when Portlanders and our City Council weigh the facts against the urban legends of the South Park Blocks Master Plan, they will support it. The plan is an important, highly researched, community-based, visionary effort to advance our city policies to preserve and protect our urban tree canopy for the long-term and to make our downtown a more accessible, inviting place to live and visit.
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