Preservationist sets sights on Washington High

By Nathalie Weinstein

The man who stepped forward with an interest in purchasing Washington High School and redeveloping the building as a community center with market-rate housing is historic preservationist Art DeMuro of Venerable Development.

But DeMuro said it’s too soon in the planning stage of the historic renovation project to call him its developer.

“I’m nobody,” DeMuro said. “I don’t have it under contract. This is Venerable seeing a need. By investing our own time and energy, we’re trying to see if we can contribute to this scenario.”

DeMuro in November approached Washington High Community Center Advisory Committee chairwoman Susan Lindsey about purchasing the historic structure from Portland Public Schools to redevelop it as a Portland Parks and Recreation community center with housing on the upper floors. At the time, the advisory committee was struggling to find a feasible way to preserve the former high school.

Now, DeMuro is talking to several city bureaus about how to make the historic renovation pencil out. He said he would even invest his own money, if necessary.

DeMuro said he became interested in Washington High while working on the renovation of Fire Station No. 7, which is around the corner from Washington High School at Southeast Stark Street and 11th Avenue.

“I’m the old building guy,” DeMuro said. “As a landmarks commissioner and historic developer, I’m interested in the fate of our old school buildings and concerned as a preservationist about the deterioration of the school. The property needs work.”

But before anything can move forward, Portland Public Schools must decide whether to sell Washington High School. The school district is reappraising the property, which in 2006 was assessed at $4.65 million. The present appraisal will be completed this month. Calls to Doug Capps, a school district facilities manager involved with the appraisal, were not returned before deadline.

“The previous appraisal was performed at the height of the real estate fever,” DeMuro said. “The school district now has to come to terms with the building’s current value, and determine if they want to part with it at that value.”

DeMuro said his interest in the project in no way indicates Venerable’s exclusive right to redeveloping the high school. Portland Public Schools has not said whether it will sell the building to Portland Parks and Recreation, DeMuro or anyone else.

“We have no special blessing on this,” DeMuro said. “The conversations I have had are very preliminary.”

If he had his way, however, DeMuro said he would try to fit as much of the community center on the lower portion of the old school as possible, and would locate market-rate housing above the ground floor.

Washington High Community Center project manager Susan Meamber of Portland Parks and Recreation said her bureau will meet with the Bureau of Development Services later this month to discuss potential land-use issues if the community center were established in the school.

DeMuro acknowledges that presently there is a substantial funding gap to place housing in Washington High.

“Any housing subsidy would have to come from the Portland Housing Bureau, who I have spoken with very initially and superficially,” DeMuro said. “The Portland Development Commission would need to participate, and they are exploring what assistance they can provide, but the cupboard is bare.”

DeMuro said that unlike other historic preservation projects, which can have limited support, nearly everyone wants to see Washington High School reused and preserved.

“I have not abandoned housing as a desired outcome,” DeMuro said. “Housing is the goal for Portland Public Schools and the neighborhood. There is a plethora of interest in this project, and we are hoping all of that energy can have a positive outcome.”