Here we have a conundrum, a complex issue regarding public spaces and community needs. On one hand we have an existing private park built in 1969, previously owned by the adjacent St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, and on the other hand we have a much needed low-income housing project, one that will provide a home for some of Portland’s most vulnerable citizens. This is a passionate issue for some, and the loss of parkland within the surrounding inner southeast neighborhood is at the root of that response. The park is not what it once was however, after the nearby Washington High School closed in 1981, the kids left and a destitute homeless population moved in. The church did what it could, but the park quickly became a nuisance for the surrounding Buckman neighborhood and Central Eastside businesses. Now, after a $6.5 million grant from the city’s housing bureau, Catholic Charities has joined forces with Home Forward to build 102 low-income units in its stead.
The program is simple: 77 workforce housing units at 60% area median income, 10 units at 30% AMI, 10 homeless transitional housing units, and 5 survivors of domestic abuse units. In addition, the project will also include an indoor community space, a courtyard with raised garden beds, and 33 parking spaces tucked under the southern half of the building. The biggest hurdles the development has to overcome are an incredibly tight budget, a topographically irregular site, and issues relating to security and openness. The design team has responded by creating two perpendicular forms along SE 12th and Stark streets, with a main entrance at the southeast apex of the two heterogeneous masses. A staircase is proposed to split the two volumes, which lead up to a central courtyard comprised of outdoor seating spaces, a community garden, and terraced stormwater planters. At the base of the stairs, a community porch overlooks SE Stark Street in-between the lobby and the southwest corner community room.
The courtyard is proposed as both an extension of the existing vacated Oak Street plaza, and as reverence to the park the project will replace. The goal is to maintain as many of the existing trees close to the plaza as possible, while allowing the gradient of the site to naturally enclose the underground parking that has only recently been required by the city’s new multifamily-housing code. Unfortunately, the current design of the proposed courtyard will only have three small gated entrances due to security concerns regarding the program’s most vulnerable residents. Hopefully, a more open and welcoming design can be accomplished without the need for security fencing.
The lowest point of the grade occurs at the corner of SE 11th and Stark where a double-height community room is proposed to face the city center. The unusually steep slope of the site makes the building appear five-stories at the street corner, but only three-stories from the courtyard side’s vantage point. As noted in design review, the irregular gradient is a blessing and a curse, as it necessitates creative responses and unorthodox solutions to three sides of the full-block property, responses and solutions that still need a lot of work as the design process continues.
The materiality choices thus far have not boded well with the city’s advisory board, and I expect the facade will change directions with the next iteration. Right now the design team is proposing a painted Hardie board and batten system for the street side, Resysta composite siding surrounding the entrances, and hidden-fastener Nichiha panels facing the courtyard. With budgetary concerns, I doubt we will see a great improvement in overall materiality and detailing, but the Resysta and Hardie panels come with known maintenance issues and are no longer recommended by the city for longevity reasons.
The thriving village feel has returned to the once boarded-up ‘main street’ along lower SE Stark. The repurposed Washington High School is almost finished and local favorites Food Fight, Sweetpea Baking, and Meat Cheese Bread continue to lead the revitalization effort. The St. Francis Park Apartments are therefore key to expanding this much-loved urban experience toward the central city, which makes the project’s Stark Street presence all that more important to get right. As for the loss of parkland, I take comfort in knowing that the city plans on renovating the old high school’s sports fields into a neighborhood park in the near future.