Published: Monday, August 06, 2012, 5:44 PM Updated: Monday, August 06, 2012, 6:37 PM
The grass at downtown Portland’s Pettygrove Park is green for the first time in years thanks to an unusual partnership.
After years of lobbying, a group of developers persuaded the Portland City Council to let their nonprofit tend to a string of park spaces created by the late renowned architect Lawrence Halprin: Pettygrove, Keller Fountain Park and Lovejoy Fountain Park, plus Source Fountain.
Normally, city-employed union workers must do parks maintenance. But the developers — John Russell and Bob Naito among them — argued that the Halprin parks are works of art in need of specialized care that regular maintenance workers can’t provide.
The City Council finally agreed, signing a contract with the nonprofit Halprin Landscape Conservancy last year. Now Russell and the conservancy, in addition to working to revive public interest in the Halprin parks, can raise money and hire outside contractors to help maintain the parks. Work got under way at Pettygrove a few weeks ago and will begin at Lovejoy Fountain Park next spring.
In coming years, the conservancy plans to establish an endowment to take care of the sites. It has raised $200,000 so far. The group’s contract with the city runs indefinitely, but city officials can cancel it any time.
Last spring, the conservancy drew up detailed plans for $1.5 million to $2 million in repairs at the four sites. Repairs — ranked from urgent to low priority — include everything from fixing cracked concrete to replacing lighting.
“We’ll help to maintain them above and beyond what the city is able to provide,” said Marcy McInelly, the conservancy’s chairwoman. “These parks are a modernist legacy.”
The parks, plazas and fountains span eight blocks of downtown and are connected by shaded promenades. They are quiet yet urban, similar to Halprin’s other work, including the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Not everyone likes the agreement to fix the parks. Richard Beetle, business manager of Laborers Local 483, which represents parks maintenance workers, filed an unsuccessful grievance over a 2009 deal that allowed Russell to hire outside contractors to prune trees at Pettygrove Park. He recently filed a grievance protesting the new outside hiring at Pettygrove, too.
“That’s our work,” he said.
But city Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Parks Bureau, said union work isn’t being taken away. Given his bureau’s shrinking budget, he said, the work at Pettygrove, Keller Fountain and the other sites wouldn’t happen without the conservancy. He added that such partnerships are part of a national trend.
“We could not maintain the gold-medal system we do without these private-public partnerships,” Fish said. “We just haven’t had the money to make the investment of maintenance we wanted to” for the Halprin parks.
Portland parks receive volunteer hours and money from about 120 friend and nonprofit groups. The Halprin Landscape Conservancy, though, is among the few groups authorized to draw up plans and pay for its own contractors semi-independently. The Portland Japanese Garden and Pioneer Courthouse Square are maintained under a similar structure.
Reaching agreement wasn’t easy, though. Russell said it took him 18 months to persuade the city to let him bring in workers to prune the trees at Pettygrove, which is next to his 200 Market St. building.
He sees maintaining the Halprin parks, built in the 1960s and early ’70s, as a way to keep up his own property values — and protect what he sees as high art. On a recent walk though Pettygrove, he pointed to broken concrete, trees that need pruning or removal, and berms abused by dirt bikers.
“In desperation, I said I’d fix Pettygrove myself,” he said. “But the city wouldn’t accept my free gifts.”
Naito, who walks through Lovejoy Fountain Park to his office on Southwest Harrison Street every day, had a similar experience. In 2009, he found 3 feet of water in a basement vault at his building because of a clogged storm drain system at the park. After initial resistance, he persuaded the city to let him hire contractors to fix the drains.
The value of the parks can’t be overstated, said Randy Gragg, a board member with the Halprin conservancy and editor of the 2009 book “Where the Revolution Began: Lawrence and Anna Halprin and the Reinvention of Public Space.”
“Halprin changed the game for urban landscape architecture here,” said Gragg, also the former architecture critic for The Oregonian. “A park and a plaza and a sculpture were three different things in the history of American design — until he built this.”
Now, the conservancy’s agreement with the city will enable it to help protect the legacy of Halprin, who died in 2009.
“We’re taking a longer and wider view of the whole thing,” Gragg said. “The conservancy enables Halprin’s vision to take a big step forward.”