For decades, the Forest Park Neighborhood Association has held its meetings inside the Willis Building, an old structure on Greenleaf Road in northwest Portland owned by the Portland Water Bureau (PWB).

The group’s arrangement with the bureau was always unusual. It came into being in 1986, when the Sylvan Water District was dissolved, and its holdings were absorbed by PWB.

As part of the transition, a now-retired attorney crafted a piece of contract language intended to guarantee the wary residents’ continued access to the facility:

City agrees to continue the use of the Willis bldg. at 360 NW Greenleaf Road as a “public” building available for use for neighborhood activities, for so long as the property and improvements are used for water storage and transmission purposes… the Water Bureau administrators shall coordinate such usage.

Since that time, FPNA members have had unfettered access to the building, which is used at least once a month, generally for association meetings of about 20-50 residents.
However, due to the Portland Water Bureau’s plans to demolish the building, it won’t be long before the FPNA will need to find new stomping grounds.

In a meeting with the neighborhood association last June, Tim Hall, Public Outreach Coordinator for the bureau, outlined the city’s plans to demolish the building and replace it with a larger pump station and reminded residents that “the building was never intended to be permanent.”

While the FPNA understood the water bureau’s need to upgrade the pump station, they expressed dismay that they would no longer have a place to meet and proposed that the bureau build a small meeting space into the new facility.

“Our folks actually explored the idea of a new building,” says Hall, “but it lacks practical applicability.”

According to bureau officials, there are numerous reasons why building a new space would not be practical. The main concern is a lack of sanitary facilities. Due to the space limitations at the site, a county inspector recommended that the bureau build a small holding tank, suitable only for occasional use, rather than the septic system required to accommodate larger groups.

Following that meeting, the FPNA designated a committee to find a new space. In the forested hills of Northwest Portland, however, public facilities are scarce, and the search has not been very successful according to Les Blaize, a member of the committee.

“We actually went through a list of places: Cowboy Cemetery? We don’t have unfettered use. Audobon Society? Out of the way, hard to get in. Skyline Tavern? No kids… We don’t have any other community meeting place in our neighborhood.”

Although water bureau officials assure residents that they are “absolutely free to use the facility” until construction begins, probably in late 2013, and have expressed their willingness to “work with them to find them a new home,” stating that they would consider “a financial subsidy… if that’s what it took,” residents are hoping for a more concrete commitment from the bureau.

“The water bureau has been willing to help us with some of the details, but they haven’t been specific.” Says Jerry Grossnickle, president of the FPNA.

“What we want is a meeting hall that is suitable for our needs—a place to meet once a month free of charge… I would say that the obligation to help us isn’t legal, it’s more moral.”