By Lee Perlman/The Portland Observer
The former Washington High School in southeast Portland is on course to come alive once more, but this time as a center for urban living.
A local company known for preserving historic buildings has purchased the abandoned school from the Portland School District and plans to keep the four-story building standing by renovating the structure into housing.
Exact plans for the remodel will take months of study, but some things are now clear: one of Portland’s largest and oldest school buildings, vacant since 1982, is now in the hands of someone who wants to keep it standing.
The School Board last month unanimously agreed to sell the building for $2 million to developer Art DeMuro, owner of Venerable Properties, on the condition that he can preserve the 112,000 square foot structure and use it for housing.
Venerable will have nine months to pursue “due diligence,” which will include pursuing ways to make the project work financially.
While DeMuro said he is committed to the housing conversion, “What form that will take, I don’t know,” he told the Portland Observer.
He said the pool of possibilities includes rental versus ownership suites, single rooms or larger family units, market rate or subsidized housing, or a mix of housing types.
DeMuro said he will adhere to the wishes of the school district and neighborhood advocates who want to see the building nominated for national historic designation, either as a landmark or as a contributing structure to a future Buckman Historic District.
This means, in effect, that the school’s 600 seat auditorium will be preserved. “It is a character-defining feature, but not necessarily in its current use,” DeMuro said.
Washington High School was combined with the defunct Monroe High School and renamed Washington-Monroe before both schools closed in 1982. Since then, the building at Southeast 14th and Stark and has been used for a variety of other purposes. In 2003, it was declared surplus, and the following year a citizen task force examined the 7.5 acre property and developed a master plan for its use. Part of the site was set aside for a future community center, part as public open space, and the rest, including the old building, was designated for sale for housing development.
The city of Portland purchased the community center site, but does not have the funds to build a center, with an estimated cost of $40 to $60 million. At one point Brad Malsin and his Beam Development bid to acquire the housing portion, but the deal fell through.
DeMuro and his Venerable Properties have specialized in restoration of historic properties. He has served as chair of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. He has been seeking to develop the property since 2008. At one time he proposed to use the lower floors of the building for community center-related functions; he says that this is no longer an option. At one point the school district was forced to walk away from any possible deal because of its district-wide property and financial issues.
“I appreciate Venerable’s willingness to work through a challenging process,” said school board member Gary Belisle. “We’re honoring what the community asked for.”
Another board member Bobbie Regan added, “For years we’ve been asked about this. It’s exciting that we have an outcome that includes housing.”
News of the sale was greeted enthusiastically by champions of the old building’s preservation. Cathy Galbraith, executive director of the Bosco-Mulligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center, told the Portland Observer, “I think it’s great. Public agencies have proven to be poor stewards of historic resources.”
Buckman Community Association chair Susan Lindsay, who also chaired the 2003 master plan process, agreed.
“This is a beautiful building with wonderful features, but with core systems in serious need of repair,” Lindsay said. “We’ve been trying to get a positive development at this site for more than a decade. Art is not only a quality developer, but he has a passion for saving historic structures that have fallen into disrepair.”
Asked her preference for a development scheme, she said, “It’s always been that part of the housing units work for families. This is six blocks from a grade school, two blocks from a park, and next to a future community center.”
Even so, there may be people unhappy that a public resource is being sold to a private party for a for-profit venture.
“We tried diligently to get part of the community center into this building, and we couldn’t do it,” Lindsay said. “The alternative is for the building to sit vacant for years until it either burns down or is torn down.”
She noted that there have been two arson fires at the school site in the last few years.
“This is our best hope for the building staying up, and even this will be a difficult project,” she said.
Indeed, DeMuro has repeatedly complained about the difficulty of finding a construction scheme that is both technically feasible and works financially.
During an earlier discussion about the property, he said, “the gap between the cost of this project, and the realistic return on investment, is wider than any project I’ve ever been involved with.”
DeMuro hopes to narrow the gap through, among other things, tax credits for historic renovation and perhaps affordable housing subsidies. “There’s been a lot of deterioration,” he said. “This is a very important property, but it needs a lot of love as soon as possible. I’m enthusiastic about finally getting started.”