Notice of the planned sale of Mt. Tabor land came to me in several different ways. In August of 2006, when Warner Pacific announced in their newsletter that they had signed a memorandum of understanding with the City to explore the purchase of the yard, I was President of the South Tabor Neighborhood Association (STNA). The college contacted me to request a meeting with neighbors to discuss their campus expansion. Unfortunately, that conversation wasn’t able to take place, for reasons I will explain below. Details of the purchase weren’t shared with me, and campus expansion plans were kept broad. Conversations were limited to a handful of phone calls and emails, but were always pleasant, and the college seemed genuinely interested in meeting with neighbors to win their approval and map out the future.

Shortly after the college contacted me, murmurs of discontent over its agreement with the City emanated from community members. Emails, phone calls and listserv postings questioning the integrity of the deal reached me, and neighbors seemed genuinely frantic that they were being purposely shut out of the process. For the most part, however, my South Tabor neighbors – those that live between southeast 82nd and 52nd to the east and west and S.E. Division and S.E. Powell to the north and south, were silent on the issue.

Perspectives that differed from the college’s came from members of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA) and Friends of the Reservoirs, people who had a history of challenging the City on issues relating to the park, and they were rallying the broader community to get involved. I was eager to research the issue and discuss options with the City, but I was also aware of the dysfunctional history. In addition, my neighborhood association had very few active members, and I found during my tenure that interest in community visioning was a low priority. Sifting through the information flow and establishing a position that the neighborhood could take would be complicated.

Finding my place

I became involved in neighborhood issues in the spring of 2004. The war in Iraq had reached its one-year anniversary, and I had become extremely invested in the fall presidential election. I was neck deep in information on foreign policy, energy issues and climate change, yet I found that solutions to these predicaments were few and far between. I campaigned hard for the Democratic Party of Oregon, volunteering my time and expertise in mass communication to help distribute a united message that change was needed to a large audience. At the same time, I made the attempt to communicate with an audience that was closer to home.

Searching for a way to become an involved Portland citizen, joining my neighborhood association seemed like the ideal opportunity to connect with my neighbors and become acquainted with local affairs. Though I was attracted to global issues and believed that global solutions were needed, I had an inherent understanding that change happened at the local level by dedicated people who understand their place.

Understanding my place had become essential for me. Though I am not originally from Portland, I was becoming increasing comfortable with its uniqueness and was routinely calling it home. Having grown up in sparsely populated western Montana and southeastern Idaho, the urban environment took much to get used to, but spending the better part of 10 years here had rooted me. I had acclimated to the onslaught of gray that permeates the region – and my soul – each winter, chasing it off in the quintessential Portland way of immersing myself in books while sipping fresh roasted coffee, and/or conversing lively on a plethora of issues while sipping a pint of craft beer.

Media coverage of the upcoming elections was continually painting states and regions either red or blue, and I was proud that Portland was quickly becoming an icon for taking progressive stances on issues. I reveled in the fact that Portlanders were challenging traditional values and were forging a new era of citizenry, all while “keeping Portland weird,” a distinction that has been aptly earned by citizens who communicate in a variety of ways. Whether through demonstrations, lectures, art, local radio, petitions, music, cinema, religion, editorials, blogs or simply lively dialogue over good beer, Portlanders weigh all sides of each issue and are better citizens because of it. I hoped that my involvement in the STNA would contribute to that creativity and that a collective neighborhood voice would offer a unique perspective for the city.

Additionally, I had recently started a family and felt that investing in community was investing in their future. My oldest was entering kindergarten, beginning us on what will turn out to be a 15-year journey through the public education system, so my understanding that it takes a village to raise a child had never been stronger. I wanted to contribute my energy into seeing that the City of Portland kept the needs of future generations in mind when mapping out their vision of growth.

Becoming a steward of Mt. Tabor became a focus of mine, as the park had worked its way into my life in interesting ways. I stumbled upon the park almost by accident back in 1997, having recently moved to the area. I remember driving through neighborhoods one evening, exploring the city, and happening upon a road that was all of a sudden lined with towering forest rather than elegant homes that were there only moments ago. The road kept switching back, climbing higher into the darkness, and most of the park was kept hidden from me except for what could be seen through my headlights. The view from the top however, was sweeping, and I could see all of Portland. I was enamored with the lights of the city that stretched in all directions. Downtown’s cityscape, specifically, drew my eye with its energy and seemingly pulsing activity.

Today, 11 years later, those same feelings are conjured up as I stand on top of Mt. Tabor, though I now realize how limited my “sweeping” view of Portland was at the time. It is telling that as a newcomer, especially one that was fresh out of college and ready to conquer the world, I looked at the grandness of Portland without paying attention to the details. I never looked down at the ground I was standing (and driving) upon. I never turned my gaze from the lights to look at the habitat around me. I’ll never forget that it was peacefully silent, but that only added to the intensity of the city lights rather than draw me into the voice of Mt. Tabor. I vaguely recall seeing the reservoirs that hold the city’s drinking water on that first trip, but wonder if I am projecting the details I now know about the park onto my memories?

Slowly I began familiarizing myself with the details of this geographical formation in the center of east Portland and the community surrounding it as the park drew more and more of my attention. Physically moving closer to the mountain as the 11 years passed, my interaction with the mountain increased and gained more meaning. Also, my children were becoming attached to the park, its natural beauty and countless activities, making it an ideal retreat that was only blocks from our house.

South Tabor Neighborhood Association

Sponsored by the City, neighborhood associations (NAs) have been set up geographically to provide neighbors a forum to discuss issues relevant to their neighborhood, most notably land use decisions. Increasingly, neighborhood associations have become prominent at establishing social capital through different organized events, such as block parties, neighborhood watches, tree plantings to name a few (City of Portland, 2006).

Access to my NA was easy, as a quick Internet search revealed meeting dates, times and locations. To be a member, one has to live, work or own a business in the neighborhood, so I simply showed up at one of their monthly meetings in September of 2004. Having little knowledge of how government is formally run, I initially struggled to comprehend the nature of issues and conversations that were taking place. Meetings were run formal/semi-formal – which unfortunately is the best way to describe it. Neighbors knew that participation was voluntary and procedures were set up to provide guidance, but votes and discussion had a formal structure. It was my first time experiencing “Robert’s Rules”, and though I felt it hindered discussion rather than helped, I pushed through it and offered to be the neighborhood’s delegate to Southeast Uplift (SEUL), a coalition of southeast Portland neighborhoods.

A non-profit organization, SEUL contracts with the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) to assist citizen participation in neighborhood and city issues. Schwinn, Kesler and Schwinn (2005) call such organizations learning democracy centers, where a trusted, neutral, third-party convener engages diverse community members to solve social, economic, and environmental problems.

Appointed or elected delegates represent 20 neighborhoods and make up the board of directors that governs the organization. Again, the formal structure was overwhelming and took some time to get used to; it took me months to make sense of the numerous acronyms that accompanied every conversation, but I met amazing people dedicated to partnering with city government.

Through SEUL, I was invited to participate in a number of leadership and community engagement workshops sponsored by local organizations, such as: Coalition for a Livable Future, Office of Mayor Potter, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and ONI. The meetings opened me up to the diverse needs of Portland’s citizens and the desire of the people and the City to find ways to collaborate and plan the City’s future.

One of SEUL’s objectives is to train neighborhood leaders, and when the President of the STNA unexpectedly stepped down from the position in the spring of 2005, I took over with the intention of opening up lines of communication with my neighbors.

Moving Forward, Slowly

When I began my involvement with the STNA, attendance at the monthly meetings was never in the double digits. It became a goal of mine to increase turnout, but outreach attempts were slow to appeal to a large audience, and it was rare to get more than a handful of members to attend our general meetings.

Though the meetings were open to all and designed to give neighbors a voice, our adherence to agendas discouraged the opportunity to expand conversations to discuss neighbors’ deeper concerns. We stuck to them partly because outside agencies, such as businesses, non-profits, and political candidates, often expressed the desire to use the NA meetings to inform the public on their perspective, and time for them needed to be scheduled in. Additionally, government agencies required the NA’s time to distribute information, the most common being crime reports and land use notices. Meeting the needs of these groups left little room for expansion into other areas.

Besides the problem of not being able to hold space for other organizations, attempts at shifting away from formal meetings was met with resistance by some STNA board members. Long time members preferred that traditional procedures be followed and were not open to new methods of communication.

Though the differing views caused tension, it was ultimately overcome by our ability to compromise. General meetings continued to maintain a formal structure, meeting the needs of our partners and serving as a “check in” for various committees that had been formed. The committees, set up around the interests of neighbors, were less formal and members set procedures according to their needs. The addition of smaller committees to our NA greatly expanded our creativity. For example, neighbors formed a Community Garden Committee and successfully obtained a grant from the City to explore possible locations in the neighborhood.

A Need to Reschedule

The expansion of our governing system to incorporate smaller groups of activity broadened our recognition in the neighborhood. Neighbors began to understand that the NA was an avenue to voice their concerns and embrace their interests. They were also beginning to see the NA in a new way as we began to incorporate celebration into our outreach, hosting community events like Neighborhood Night Out, an annual event ONI helps organize that promotes neighbors watching out for neighbors.

Participation was growing, and it was progressing at a time when Warner Pacific was searching for input from neighbors on their expansion. In September of 2006, the college contacted me to request time at our monthly meeting to discuss their campus expansion with neighbors. Under peculiar circumstances, I declined their invitation and asked them to reschedule at a later date. Our upcoming meeting was the first one from our summer hiatus (the association doesn’t meet formally in June, July and August), and typically draws a small crowd. I felt this discussion was too important to have without adequate preparation and wanted time to disperse the information to the neighbors so they could be educated.

As I mentioned above, Warner Pacific was forthcoming in wanting to meet with neighbors, but we were unable to reschedule a face-to-face. I invited them to instead write up an article for our newsletter, distributed each month before our general meeting. They complied and sent the following correspondence:

Warner Pacific College has approached the City of Portland to inquire about the possibility of purchasing land immediately adjacent to campus that currently serves as the Portland Parks Department’s central maintenance yard. The land in question is a parcel that has languished in disrepair, is unable to meet the City’s needs for the maintenance of their many parks and provides poor working conditions for park employees. Although it is included in Mt. Tabor Park, it has always served as the maintenance facility and has been inaccessible to the general public. Warner Pacific College’s intention for the use of the property is to create a state of the art recreational space with multi-purpose athletic fields and facilities. This space and its proposed amenities would be made available to the community and our neighbors, as is our policy with all our facilities. Currently, six of our nine intercollegiate athletic teams must practice and play home contests off-campus. Our more than 50 year-old CC Perry Gymnasium is not adequate to fully serve our students’ recreational, athletic and academic needs, or the requests for use by our neighbors.

In order to move forward, there are many steps in the process that require public involvement. Zoning and Historic Designation issues, Master Plan and Conditional Use Permits all require extensive public input which we welcome. This public process is very important to Warner Pacific because we value our relationship with our neighborhood as demonstrated by our actions over the past years. We welcome the community’s support and involvement as we move forward for we understand it will make for a better project and a stronger community.

The college’s desire is to create a public benefit that makes the outcome of this proposal a win for our Mt. Tabor neighbors, Portland Parks, the City of Portland and for Warner Pacific College (South Tabor Neighborhood Association, 2006).

Between the Lines

At the time Warner Pacific submitted its article to the STNA, they were meeting in person with the MTNA and met resistance. Neighbors understood that the college was looking forward to an extended public process to work out the details of the sale, but couldn’t understand how an agreement with the City could have been signed without the community involvement that they touted.

Outreach efforts by the MTNA and Friends of the Reservoirs quickly reached South Tabor neighbors, and within the month, detailed information on the behind-the-scenes happenings were disseminated community wide. Attendance at our general meeting skyrocketed, mirroring the pattern that Leighninger cites as the primary reason citizens get involved, to stop or reverse a decision that affects them in their own backyard (2006).

Sometimes the relationship between citizens and the city government is such that people feel they must shout to stop a fast moving process. Neighbors made all sorts of noise, submitting articles to the local media, interviewing on KBOO – a listener supported, community-owned radio station – and soliciting signatures for petitions.

Although led by the Mt. Tabor neighbors, the involvement of South Tabor neighbors gave weight to MTNA’s objections. The tipping point came when employees of the maintenance yard, specifically members of Laborer’s Local 483, became involved. Working conditions at the maintenance yard were in a drastic state of disrepair, and promises of updated facilities never materialized. The City was under tremendous pressure to respond.

With encouragement from PPR, both neighborhood associations met with the City’s Ombudsman to explain our perspective and understand the City’s thoughts on the land. Though tempers ran high and some citizens threw around threats of lawsuits and investigations, using the City’s grievance process cooled tempers and ultimately brought the community and PPR together.

Mediation

Concluding that the City’s “decide and defend” approach concerning the sale of the maintenance yard would be met only with hostility, PPR approached neighbors through the Ombudsman asking to deliberate through mediation using a third party. After stating explicitly that 1) any sale, lease, or transfer of the land in question would be completely off the table until mediation ended, and 2) that the community had a say in choosing the mediator, neighbors agreed (STNA, 2006, January).

Pending mediation, PPR suspended all actions concerning the sale, lease, or transfer of the land, and a dedicated group of over 20 community members, city staff and yard employee’s met over four months to rebuild trust. Though issues were often contentious – neighbors distributed three-ringed notebooks containing the documentation of 108 related disputes they had with PPR – discussing concerns face-to-face had a profound effect in re-establishing partnerships. Commenting on the process, PPR Director, Zari Santner, whose leadership brought the initial offer of mediation to the neighbors, said “by sitting down together, we all came to realize that we really share the same core values about our park system” (B. Sorensen, personal communication, May 30, 2007).

The agreement that resulted from the mediation called for developing a public process to update the 2000 Mt. Tabor Master Plan to include the maintenance yard and nursery. The public process would consider, from all points of view, the pros and cons of maintaining, refurbishing, enhancing, or relocating the facilities. All parties agreed that the values articulated in the original master plan should be honored on all decisions concerning Mt. Tabor.

The agreement also assumed that all the land at the Mt. Tabor Central Yard and Nursery would remain in public ownership and under public management. To solidify this, the group would put in an additional four months strengthening a resolution to take to city council to gain their commitment to the effort.

Moving On

The closing of the mediation in the spring of 2007 coincided with my departure from the STNA board, as my tenure as president ended. I would, however, participate throughout the summer as a South Tabor representative in building the public involvement plan to be taken to council. I had participated in each of the mediation meetings, and not only had I become acquainted with both the issues and the process, I had established myself among the group as an advocate for sustainability and was respected for my opinion affirming the need for public places.

On September 26, 2007, following a joint report from citizens and PPR, Portland City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for an update of the Mt. Tabor Park Master Plan. The agreement would clear the way and provide funding for a year-long, collaborative partnership starting in January 2008 to establish the best use of the land.

A week later, I moved out of the neighborhood and, sadly, withdrew myself completely from the STNA, no longer able to meet the requirements of membership. The extinct volcano sitting in the heart of east Portland, however, still called to me, and I reestablished myself even closer to the mountain. I ended up, serendipitously, in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood, and chose to continue my work with neighbors and the City. I applied, and was accepted, to become a member of the Mt. Tabor Central Yard and Nursery Planning Group (MTCY&NPG), charged with updating the master plan. My intense interest in the situation and my increasing enthusiasm in the ability of equitable partnerships creating a sustainable future, laid the foundation for my research project. My interest would be as a neighbor and as a citizen, but I would also wear my researcher’s hat in the process, looking for common themes and insight into successful relationships between government and community.

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