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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Meet me at the wrecking ball

The Multnomah County property at SE 20th and Morrison in Portland has been in the news quite a bit lately. There's a derelict county building and parking lot on the site, which used to be a burial ground for Chinese immigrants many years ago. It's on the southwest corner of the Lone Fir Cemetery, where the remains of many of Portland's more prominent founding mothers and fathers rest. The Chinese, who did all the heavy lifting, were put in their own place on the corner.

Like seemingly all space within the city limits, the lot was being looked at pretty hard recently by developers, who envisioned yet another ugly, bulky, out-of-place, but lucrative condo complex. The county, hard up for money, seemed about ready to go for that idea, and yet another round of Buckman Neighbors vs. West Hills Unelected Powers was about to begin.

But for years, people who are especially attuned to other-worldly phenomena said they were convinced that when the existing building had been built in the late 1940s, although the construction crews said they had exhumed and moved all the bodies, in fact they had missed some. And when the county had archeologists check last week, lo and behold, there is at least one poor soul whose earthly remains have rested under the parking lot for many decades.

So now the site has historical significance, and the Condo People have to go find some other corner to cash in on. But the county's task of getting rid of the property has gotten much more complicated and expensive. There's hope that money can be found somewhere to create an on-site public memorial to the Chinese ancestors who were, and apparently still are, buried there. Let's hope so. Those folks deserve our gratitide for their contributions to our city and region, and look, now they may have even saved the beleaguered neighborhood from one more ugly building.

All this reminds me of the one time that I visited that county building on official business. It was around 15 years ago, when a friend of mine had asked me to handle an appeal of her property tax assessment. The county had appraised her condo at $10,000 more than she sold it for right around the assessment date, and she thought that wasn't fair. It wasn't. So off I go, naive young-ish lawyer, to plead her case. The case was to be heard at 20th and Morrison.

I parked on top of the Chinese immigrants, about whom nobody was talking in those days, and got ready for my big spiel.

I walked in to the appeals board hearing room, where as I recall I found three or four very grouchy, white-haired people sitting behind the head table. I was informed I would be allowed to speak for one minute. That's right -- one. As in 60 seconds. So I did.

My friend had just sold the condo for $10,000 less than the assessed value. "Did she sell to a relative?" a gruff old codger on the panel snapped. No, I replied. "Why did she move? Was she forced to sell?" No, she got a job in Seattle and moved up there. She had the condo on the market for quite a while before a buyer showed up. "Huh. Thank you. We'll mail her our decision." The guy left off "Now get the hell out," but there was no need to actually say those words. I got the message.

My friend mostly won her property tax appeal, but as I recall, they re-assessed at a thousand bucks higher than what she sold for. I guess they showed us, eh? Jerks.

There's nothing but bad karma all around that building. Having the greedy developers hovering around with dollar signs in their eyes over the last year or so has only made it worse. The sooner it is taken down, and a suitable memorial park constructed, the better for all concerned.

Comments (6)

Gosh. It's too bad the movie Poltergeist wasn't out yet, or they would have known better. Never develop ON a graveyard.

Were they hoping to fill the condo with goths? As far as I know, I'm the only person in my circle of friends who actually *wants* to live right next to a cemetery.

Personally, I don't get the whole sacred space thing, and don't see why the bodies can't be moved to the cemetery proper, *and* give the Chinese a memorial (because it's deserved), *and* build a bloody condo, if you think you can sell the units to anyone but me. Whatever is to be done, I'll be glad with the wrecking ball hits that fugly old building.

An aside: anyone who has studied that corner of Lone Fir would know they built on top of bodies--it's pretty obvious that little care was taken.

In 1993 I accepted a job with the Multnomah County Planning Department and walked into the first floor of the Lone Fir Building. Working there was like a 14th Century Mayan living in the ruins of Chichen Itza. A space that used to hold 20 or so planners back when everything east of I-205 was unincorporated now held eight. Everyone got a private office, with plenty of space left over.

The main administrative person had worked there 37 years, ever since she was 19. She had some sort of stress-related problem which had taken away her voice, and she could only whisper. This made life quite interesting for our customers when she had to answer the phones! The code enforcement officer, a 32-year employee, quickly let me know that he was a "non-singing member of the Portland Gay Men's Chorus." Since the receptionist was a devout Catholic, the two hated each other, and had hated each other for their entire 32-year working relationship. The subdivision planner was legally blind.

Meanwhile, in the next office over, the assessment appeals boards went their merry way. They were indeed a bunch of old codgers, and it was entirely unclear what sort of political pull they had to get these part-time jobs to supplement their social security income. They handled thousands of appeals cases a year, so your one minute limit was probably a necessity.

When the Board of Commissioners announced that the Planning office was moving into a new building next to the old County toxic waste dump in Gresham, I high-tailed it out of there after 4 1/2 interesting years.

He he! Thanks for filling things in, Gordo.

Just remember that you and I are getting closer and closer to being white haired codgers ourselves. My employees are already accusing me of "codgerism".

Jack, I think you will always be a Buckmanite in your heart! You certainly think in tandem with most of us Inner Eastsiders about every issue. Thanks always for taking the time to speak up on behalf of the poor beleagured Inner East Side.

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