Future use for Washington High still undecided

By Reed Jackson

Redevelopment plans for long-vacant Washington High School are expected to be set soon, after its future use is determined, according to Venerable Properties President Craig Kelly.

“Our first priority is to save the building and preserve it, but to do that we have to do something that also makes sense financially,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to be sensitive to all the stakeholders, and there are a lot that care about this property.”

The present owner, Portland Public Schools, required the prospective buyer, Venerable, to secure a historic designation for the building, place it on the National Register of Historic Places or draft a deed restriction that would prevent demolition. Venerable recently obtained a designation from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.

Redevelopment plans for Washington High School have progressed significantly as a result, Kelly said, but unique site challenges – including limitations related to zoning and preservation – have prevented the firm from settling on a future use.

“It’s very hard to pencil,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have to pick a direction.”

In April 2012, when Venerable was close to purchasing the property, the plan was to convert the building into multifamily housing. Ten pricing proposals were presented, Kelly said; however, none has led to an agreement.

One of the main problems is that approximately half of the 116,000-square-foot building is common area. Some of that space, such as the 400-seat auditorium and the 14- to 18-foot hallways, are expected to be preserved under the building’s historic designation.

“In protecting the building under the designation, there are more restrictions in terms of what you can do internally to alter the framework of the building,” said Susan Lindsay, chairwoman of the Buckman Community Association. “I hope there is some flexibility because … it will need some work to bring it back to the fine building it is going to become.”

As a result, only about 56,000 square feet of the building can be redeveloped. Finding uses for the hallways and the auditorium will be difficult, especially if an all-housing plan were chosen, Kelly said.

The firm is exploring other options, such as converting the bottom floor into housing and the upper floor into commercial space. Another possibility would be a conversion of the entire building into commercial space, perhaps with retail included.

Venerable is hoping to transform the auditorium into a community asset, Kelly said.

Buckman residents would like to see the building become mostly housing, but they are open to other uses if they would fit the neighborhood, Lindsay said.

“We thought the whole place was going to be residential, so we’ve wanted a residential component all along,” she said. “(We want something) to provide some stabilization to that area.”

One worry among residents is that a heavy commercial or retail development would bring more motor vehicles to the area, which already is poised to gain traffic from a planned $47 million community center next to the school.

However, with only half of the building to work with, a conversion to mostly housing may be difficult, Kelly said.

“It’s a challenge to figure out a plan that is cost-effective to renovate an entire building where you can only get half the building’s rent,” he said. “I’m trying to keep the costs earthbound as opposed to up in the stratosphere.”

Another challenge presented by the property is that it’s zoned R1. It can have one housing unit per 1,000 feet, but financing can be difficult and there are restrictions in terms of commercial uses, Kelly said.

Venerable is weighing whether to apply for a zoning change for the property, but that process would likely be long and difficult.

“It just adds another wrinkle to the mix,” Kelly said. “This is already a very difficult financing environment for any commercial development.”

The plan is to decide within the next two months on a use or uses for the building, and then address potential zoning issues.

Project stakeholders ranging from developers to neighboring residents have remained positive, partly in tribute to Venerable’s late founder, Art DeMuro, who pushed for the redevelopment.

“We had a very close relationship with Art DeMuro, and I personally was devastated when we lost him,” Lindsay said. “And the show must go on.”

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