'We're building the park for Isaac'

'We're building the park for Isaac'
15-month-old Isaac walks with his mother, Julie Skarphol, at Parklane City Park on Tuesday, August 2, 2011. (KATU photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. - At just 15 months, little Isaac isn't old enough to understand the impact of future plans for his neighborhood park but for those who are working hard to make a positive change in their community, he's their inspiration.

"He's our - for lack of a better term - poster child," said Tom Lewis, Chair of the Centennial Community Association and one of the advocates for a new and improved park in his neighborhood. "We thought if we were going to be on board and ready for improvements before Isaac got old enough to get on the equipment, then we'd better get started."

Every Friday we put the spotlight on a local park and this week we visited Parklane Park in East Portland - a 25-acre greenspace at Southeast 155th Avenue and Main Street that has been getting a lot of attention lately.

That's because the park, which is affectionately known as Candy Cane Park by those who know it well, is one of several East Portland parks that are part of the city's new E-205 Initiative.

The idea behind the initiative is to make small improvements at East Portland parks that are affordable for the city amid the down economy, but which can make a huge difference to the communities they serve.

By focusing on smaller projects rather than launching big ones, the city can go ahead and make improvements without seeking a bond measure from taxpayers. Part of the funding will come from the city and the Portland Parks Foundation is working on raising money as well to add to the pot.

Why Is It Nicknamed Candy Cane Park?

Before the city took over the park, local residents had installed playground equipment with red and white stripes and folks started calling it Candy Cane Park. The red and white playground equipment is no longer there but the name stuck.

"Many Portlanders love our city for its beautiful parks but few people recognize how many citizens don't have access to them," Nick Hardigg, Executive Director of the Portland Parks Foundation, said. "That is especially true in East Portland where the population has been rising for decades with very few parks being created. We see the projects of E-205 as both extremely necessary and also having a remarkable return on investment. Nowhere can so little money have a greater impact than with E-205."

Parklane Park is split into two parts - a 5-acre piece of land (acquired from the county in 1993) that is a defined park area and a 20-acre field (acquired from a paving company about 10 years ago) that is undeveloped. A fence surrounds the field, which is actually an old quarry, blocking off access to the public.

It's the field that some of the local residents, like Lewis, are most interested in. You see they'd like to see it transformed into a vibrant part of the park that will serve their neighborhood well. They've been working with the city on their ideas and in 2008 a plan was developed - one that includes the addition of a skate park, community garden, education center and outdoor aquatic center.

"We had neighborhood input and we had four different meetings where the community came and told us 'no, we don't like this' or 'yes, we do like that' or 'why don't you put this here instead.' And then we came up with what's called the Master Plan," explained Julie Skarphol, a neighborhood resident and Friends of Parklane Park member who has been actively involved in the planning stages. She is also Isaac's mother.

The new additions would serve not only the surrounding community but nearby schools as well. And of course a new and improved park would be something that future generations, like little Isaac, would be able to enjoy while growing up. "We're building the park for Isaac (and others like him)," said Mike Vander Veen, a local church pastor who is also a member of Friends of Parklane Park.

Now although the idea is generally accepted in the neighborhood, there are those who are throwing up some red flags.

"There are a lot of neighbors who walk the park regularly and they really enjoy the current status," said Vander Veen. "Because what's interesting about the filled-in quarry is that it's packed so well that it doesn't drain. So water sits there and you'll see geese and other waterfowl. So there's a little bit of tension there, but not a lot."

Lewis and Vander Veen said there is also some concern from those who live in homes that border the field - like how much foot traffic there might be so close to their backyards. The two said it is something that is being discussed and considered.

"There will be increased foot traffic, increased use and attraction to the area," said Vander Veen. "And so in terms of security and the change for the residents along the perimeter of the park, there will all of a sudden be a lot more activity right in their backyard. So we really want to keep people in the loop and connected and do things right."

The ultimate goal is to make Parklane Park a 'signature park' for East Portland residents - something along the lines of Mt. Tabor Park or Laurelhurst Park.

Skarphol likes the idea and believes the design plan will meet the needs of her community.

"There's a lot of people here that can't afford gym memberships and so we use parks actually for recreation, whereas I think other pockets of the city may use them more for relaxation or meeting places. And they'll be used that way as well but recreation is really big here," she said.

There are also plans to put in what's being called a Centennial feature to honor the history of the neighborhood. For example, did you know that the land that Parklane Park sits on actually used to be an airstrip back in the 1940s and 1950s? It was called Troh's Skypark Airport.

The plan to convert an undeveloped field into a park setting is an ambitious one and unfortunately when the economy took a tumble the plan got sidelined. Those with a vested interested in the project are now hoping that the E-205 Initiative will at least help them get the ball rolling in the right direction and remind the city that they're still hoping to see something done with the vacant field.

City officials are definitely interested in seeing how the E-205 Initiative unfolds at Parklane Park. Coming up on August 25, City Commissioner Nick Fish, who heads up Portland Parks & Recreation, will be at the park for the Parklane Neighborhood Fair. Mayor Sam Adams and City Commissioner Amanda Fritz are tentatively scheduled to make an appearance as well.

"They want to see the park and that way we can walk them through it and explain what we've done and what the needs are," said Skarphol (pictured at right with Isaac).

The fair will also give folks who live in the area a chance to see the plans for their local park and talk to those in the know about what's coming around the corner.

"While they're out here we'll have things posted about the park and the future park," said Skarphol. "Because no matter how many meetings we have, there are still people who don't know about it."

Of course there will also be fun stuff at the fair - activities like crafts, face painting, a skate jam and free soccer drills for the kids. And later that night folks can catch a free movie at the park - The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

Some changes are beginning to get under way in the existing 5-acre park area. City crews were there this week to begin work on what will be a series of small projects as part of the E-205 Initiative. For the next few months, park staff will be working on installing benches, painting, refurbishing and installing new play structures, adding a path and putting in new water fountains. The irrigation system is being refurbished as well. Crews hope to have the projects completed by Oct. 1.

Parklane Park is actually the first park that is getting some work done under the E-205 Initiative. The city is working with a budget estimate of between $125,000 and $150,000 to complete the upgrades. Other East Portland parks that will soon be benefiting from the program are:

There are also several other parks that are being considered for minor improvements. They include Argay Park, Cherry Park, Midland Park, West Powellhurst Park and the city's Columbia Slough property at 11140 N.E. Simpson. The working estimated budget for this part of the E-205 Initiative is $100,000 (for all of the above-listed parks combined).

And of course the city is keeping in touch with the community to see if there is a need for improvements at other East Portland parks. So even if the one in your neighborhood isn't on the city's radar, it could be in the near future.

Lewis said there is also talk of including Parklane Park in a bicycle plan that would connect East Portland and Gresham, an idea he admitted would likely be controversial. He said even if a bike route is brought to the area, he's not so sure it would get used as much as inner-city bike routes do. He said East Portland is just so spread out that most people use cars as their main mode of transportation.

"The first instinct is to get in the car and go shopping or tend to your needs out of a car, not necessarily on a bike," he said. "To change that thinking will be more of a challenge and a process than they've had in inner Portland, where things are relatively close or you don't work too far away."

Still, Lewis isn't opposed to the idea, especially if the project is bundled in a way that provides other benefits to the neighborhood, like street improvements. And he's not even worried about folks from outside his neighborhood passing through.

"Even if folks in Gresham will need to pass through and do the east/west thing, there's no good reason why we should obstruct that even though we, ourselves, might not use it," he said.

All photos by KATU.com Producer/Reporter Shannon L. Cheesman, unless otherwise noted.