By Melissa Binder
For about 15 years Susan Lindsay has worried the old Washington High School building would burn down.
The shuttered structure, built in 1924, hasn’t been used as a school since 1981. The co-chair of the Buckman Community Association has worked with the city and interested developers for years. Now, a project is finally moving forward with Monday’s announcement that Venerable Group Inc., led by Craig Kelly, the company’s president, will purchase the building from Portland Public Schools for $2 million. Kelly expects to begin substantial renovations on Oct. 28.
“I think there is no other way to save the building,” said Lindsay, co-chair of the Buckman Community Association. “I think he’s the right man; I think it’s the right project.”
Kelly said his intent is to bring retail – like a restaurant, grocery store and/or clothing boutique — to the bottom floor. The top floors, he said, will ideally be office space for creative workers such as website developers.
Lindsay would have preferred residential development – specifically family-oriented affordable housing – but is thrilled the building will be preserved.
There is a grass area and parking lot on the south side of the Washington High School building. Those areas will be used for parking when development is finished. To the west there is a 4.5-acre field, which will not be affected.
Jason Watkins, a 35-year-old Sunnyside resident, also said affordable housing would have been ideal, but he is happy with anything other than high-priced condos.
The most important thing, he said, is to protect the field next to the building. He visits the field almost daily with his dog, Sal.
“They can put anything they want there as long as they don’t mess with the dog park,” he said.
Development should not affect the 4.5-acre field or public access to it, said Mark Ross, a spokesman for the city parks bureau. The parks bureau purchased the field from the school district in 2004.
Kelly said he expects no impact on the field and that he will do his best to minimize street and sidewalk closures during renovations, though there will be vehicles, trailers and dumpsters in the parking lot area as well as occasional fencing around the building.
There are, of course, minor concerns, said Lindsay. Construction is loud, dirty and busy. Parking might be a problem.
“Maybe saving the building is the greater good here,” she said, “regardless of the impacts on all of us that live here.”
The last time the former Washington High building was used it was filled with artists and performers during the 2012 Time-Based Art Festival, said Christine Miles, a spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools.
Victoria Frey, executive director of The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, said the institute used Washington High School as the main performance and social space for the Time-Based Art festival from 2009 to 2012.
It isn’t the nature of the TBA festival to stay in one place, though, she said. Even if the old high school had remained available the institute would have sought other locales.
“If they retain that theater for public use, we would be a user,” she said. “We would rent the theater. We wouldn’t run a theater, but we would rent it.”
The old school has an auditorium that seats about 600 people, she said.
Venerable Properties expects to keep the auditorium and market it for business and corporate gatherings, as well as community events.
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