About this series
Metro has invested in community nature projects for more than 25 years. Through this occasional series in 2017-18, we’ll revisit projects that previously received Nature in Neighborhoods grants or local share money to find out where the projects are now and what difference Metro’s investments made.
As of early 2017, Metro is not accepting Nature in Neighborhoods grants applications. Grants paid for with money from the 2006 bond measure and 2013 parks and natural areas levy have all been awarded.
In November 2016, voters renewed the Metro parks and natural areas levy. Money from the levy renewal will be available starting in July 2018, and more Nature in Neighborhoods grants will be available then.
The construction fences came down last month at Francis and Clare Commons in Southeast Portland. At lunchtime recently, people walked the one-block corridor that connects the warehouses of the commercial district to the homes of the Buckman neighborhood. A woman stopped to look at the labyrinth patterned in bricks beneath her feet. A man sitting at the fountain read a book, his possessions in a shopping cart nearby.
This new natural space was once part of privately-owned St. Francis Park, where trees and rolling green lawns occupied the block between Southeast 11th and 12th avenues and Southeast Oak and Stark streets. Now the park and many of the trees are gone, replaced by a gleaming apartment block containing 106 units of much-needed affordable housing that opened in May.
Some residents worried about the loss of increasingly rare greenery in the neighborhood when St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church sold the adjacent park in 2014. Thanks in part to a Nature in Neighborhoods grant from Metro, the new Francis and Clare Commons creates a slice of prairie habitat preserving access to nature in the heart of a bustling, urban neighborhood.
It is “important to connect to nature close to where we live, to create places to relax and be tranquil in the city,” Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, who represents the area, said at the opening ceremony for the commons in October.
Metro supported the project with a $261,250 Nature in Neighborhoods capital grant, paid for with money from the 2006 natural areas bond measure. The grants provide matching money to community organizations, nonprofits and other groups to support nature projects that allow people from diverse backgrounds to access nature close to home.
The commons occupies a long-vacated section of Southeast Oak Street. It is jointly owned and maintained by the church, Catholic Charities and Home Forward, formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland.
Preserving open space and nature
The new space preserves a grove of Douglas firs and a huge red oak tree and has a large central open plaza. The plan is for community groups, local elementary schools and others to use the commons for events or field trips.
Native prairie plants such as camas, Douglas iris and blue wildrye, fill the beds. A newly planted native white oak sapling stands out. Before white settlement, Oregon white oak prairie and woodland habitats dominated the Willamette Valley.
“The plantings will grow and soften the space,” said Steve Stevens, who sat on the parish’s committee for St. Francis Park. Some bricks from the old fountain are incorporated into the surround of the new fountain, he said, adding that “the presence and sound of water is a therapeutic experience.”
Landscape designer Jane Hansen said she envisioned a series of open spaces within a meadow, a place of respite where people could stop and eat lunch or have a quiet moment. The bricks in the open plaza are patterned as a labyrinth.
People walking the labyrinth can “find the same things they look for when going to a natural area: a quiet contemplative space,” said Trell Anderson, director of community development and housing at Catholic Charities.
There are permeable pavement stones and a rain garden complete with a streambed made of river rock and local boulders. Stormwater from the plaza and adjacent streets is treated on-site.
A public space with a focus on equity
The commons is at the center of two blocks with strong social justice missions.
The new Saint Francis Park Apartments, to the south, have 20 units for people transitioning out of homelessness and five for women escaping from domestic violence. The rest of the units are occupied by people earning less than 60 percent of the median income. The courtyard and raised beds behind the apartments open onto the shared space of the commons.
The church, which has a mission of hospitality and special outreach to the poor, is directly north of the commons. Its dining hall serves meals to up to 300 people six days a week. During the design process for the commons, dining hall patrons and parishioners were surveyed about what features were important to them.
Parishioners wanted to preserve elements from the old St. Francis Park and a space to hold outdoor mass. Dining hall clients asked for a toilet, a way to fill water bottles, and a place to wash hands and feet. The site now features a Portland Loo toilet kiosk with a faucet suitable for washing hands and feet. The fountain includes a water-bottle-filling station.
“We wanted to make sure that this was a place where all kinds of folks could connect,” said Valerie Chapman, who recently retired as pastoral administrator after 29 years at the church.
On a recent morning, dining hall patrons greeted her as they checked out the newly opened commons.
“I like the benches. I can lay down on them,” one man called out.
Kristarae Barton and Douglas Scott were sitting at the fountain taking in the new space on a recent sunny afternoon.
“I like the maze, but I miss the trees,” said Barton, who is unhoused again after 10 years of living inside.
Wood from the trees lost to construction was used to make furniture for the common spaces in the apartments.
Scott, who spent many years in and around the old park, fondly recalls having a squirrel climb right into his lap while he was sitting under a tree one morning.
“I’m glad that there is a place for people to live, but that don’t change the fact that we’re going to have feelings, an attachment to the old park,” Scott said.
A long history in a changing neighborhood
Chapman understands that sentiment. When the church sold the park, leaders looked for a buyer who would honor the site’s history and preserve open space between the church and the apartments – “a way to continue what the hope of the park had been,” Chapman said.
The parish opened a boarding school on the site in 1886, the first on the east side of the Willamette River. In 1969, students and families got together with community members to build a “vest-pocket park” on what had been an open field used for parking. When the school closed in 1987, the park lost vitality.
In the intervening years, growing numbers of unhoused people used the park. Complaints about crime and livability increased. Some felt that the park was a no-go area.
The church had been in discussions since 2003 about the best way to use the land. The fountain was leaking and needed an expensive fix, the neighborhood had changed, and there was an urgent need for affordable housing.
But when news came that the park would be replaced by affordable housing, neighbors mourned the loss of trees and open space.
“This new mini-park is small, but it fulfils people’s deep need to have a space where they can gather in nature, a place where there is peace and beauty,” Chapman told the crowd at the opening ceremony.