Despite objections from local architects, historic preservationists and community members, theRiverdale School Board on Monday reiterated its stance that the 88-year-old Riverdale Grade School should be torn down and replaced with a new building that board members hope will reverse declining enrollment.
New cost estimates may reveal that renovating the structure would not cost the district more than replacing it. But board members said they are less concerned about “nostalgia” for the old building and more concerned about drawing parents and students to the district with a new building.
Located in Dunthorpe, a neighborhood north of Lake Oswego, the grade school was designed by A.E. Doyle. He created many of Portland’s high profile buildings in the early 20th century, including the Multnomah County Library, the Benson Hotel and the Meier & Frank building.
“It’s a historic building,” said Cathy Galbraith, executive director of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation of Portland, which advocates historic preservation. “It has not been designated as such because the school board is not interested in protecting the building. They have every reason to be interested in preserving it.”
Board members said Monday they want a new building that can attract more students because the school district is facing a potential budget shortfall in coming years. The district has hired Mahlum Architects to design a replacement building, and the firm is already several months into that design.
But a backlash from residents of the school district and preservationists prompted the school board to delay a decision until Dec. 15.
“This pits the people who had kids in the school and look back nostalgically and equate the old Doyle building as the only thing holding us together, against the people who want what’s best for kids in the school,” said board member Steve Klein. “The replace option is in the best interest of the kids here.”
Before making its final decision, the board instructed Francesca Gambetti of the construction management firm Shiels Obletz Johnsen to review the costs of each option: either tearing down the school and replacing it, or renovating it and building a two-story structure adjacent to the school. Bremick Construction is the general contractor.
Galbraith called Doyle one of Oregon’s most significant architects and said the board is “making a decision based on reasons not made clear to the voters.”
Earlier this month, school district voters passed a $21.5 million bond measure to renovate the grade school campus, which includes the Doyle structure and several additions built later. But Galbraith said many voters didn’t understand that a yes vote meant demolishing the iconic grade school.
School board chair Chris Hall said there was a great deal of misinformation presented before the vote. Board members on Monday said they had been deluged with e-mails and correspondence by members of the Dunthorpe community since the bond measure passed. Some of the messages demanded the building be preserved, and some requested that it be replaced.
Hall said some residents vowed to “throw enough legal weight around” to block demolition of the Doyle building based on its historical value.
Steven Jewell, a Dunthorpe resident who helped coordinate a petition drive to block demolition, said the Doyle-designed grade school is a “psychological focal point that keeps the community attached.” He said he was “gratified” that the board delayed a decision until Dec. 15.
“Obviously, the community is split,” said board member Ron Penner-Ash. “It’s a conundrum.” He added that “there is no mandate to save the Doyle.”
The school board said the demolish/rebuild option would be cheaper. That option would cost $17.5 million to $20 million, while the cost to save the Doyle building and build an additional facility would be $18.4 million to $21 million.
However, those cost estimates were made in February, and board members said it’s likely that they have come down as the costs of construction materials have dropped.
That prompted the board to ask the design and construction management team to go over the figures in the next few weeks and see how much they’ve changed.
Even if the estimates show that preserving the Doyle would cost the same as demolishing and rebuilding, board members appeared firmly in the demolition camp.
Hall said that “restoring the Doyle building would open up another can of worms,” and questioned the practicality of saving it.
“The Doyle building apparently represents memories so sacred that if you are not able to drive or walk by it, all the collective experience of those who have entered its doors will somehow cease to exist,” Hall said. “Apparently, this board is supposed to do what it’s told, and all the work that comes with it, while you determine whether we’re designing a building and managing the process the way you want.”
Klein said the debate boiled down to “the old guard and the new guard” – those who went to Riverdale or have lived in the district a long time and want to preserve the building, and those who have children at the school today and want a new facility.
“Part of what binds this as a community is the bricks of the Doyle,” Klein said. “That icon creates the bond we all share. But to me a community is also about people, not just structural objects.”