The largest preschool in Portland, OR is getting evicted and it is ultimately because the school’s landlord, a church, prefers cars parking over kids playing.
In late 2018 a neighbor filed a complaint with the City of Portland saying the “church opens parking lot on Sundays but [Childswork] school does not and forces people to take up neighborhood street parking.” This complaint started a process that could easily have ended with happy kids on a playground for years to come, but because of America’s car dependency and the tax-exempt status of Churches in the USA, the preschool has to move.
St. Stephen Catholic Church opened in the Sunnyside Neighborhood in 1924. In 1957, plans were approved for St. Stephen’s School. At its peak enrollment, the school had around 400 students. Sometime in the early 2000s the elementary school closed and in 2005 Childswork Learning Center took over the facility.
When Childswork moved in, there was a patch of playground set amidst approximately 80 striped car storage stalls. Over the years, the preschool expanded the playground, covering about 30 parking stalls with bark chips, play structures, and happy children. The rest of the parking lot was sometimes used for cars, overflow parking for church events and neighborhood cleanups, but the primary use was a place for preschoolers to play and learn.
The 1956 permit for the school required that “one off-street parking space shall be provided for every 12 seats in any assembly hall or gymnasium constructed on the site.” There doesn’t seem to be a record of how many parking spaces were constructed initially, but after the city investigated the complaint, they told the Church a new conditional use permit was needed because changing the approved amount of parking spaces by more than 10 percent requires it. Though it wasn’t entirely clear how many spaces were “lost” to the playground, it was clearly more than 10 percent of the previously-approved situation.
The church and school had a few options here. One option would be to completely remove the playground and make the surface parking available during business hours for the customers and employees of the preschool. Not only would this have greatly degraded the experience for the students, but the street next to the playground is a neighborhood greenway, a street designated for low stress trips by pedestrians and people on bikes. Adding pick-up and drop-off traffic to that street would create conflicts for bike commuters and having people able to drive onto the campus would make it unsafe to use the entire paved area for recess.
Another option would be to get the city to allow less parking. As part of a conditional use permit, a consultant can show fewer spaces are actually necessary for the pre-school and the church, sharing the same lot. Stormwater upgrades, landscaping, and striping would be installed, fees paid, and everyone would move on. The school pursued this approach, designing a layout that kept the playground in place and upgraded the paved area to have 42 car parking spaces. The city indicated such a plan was approvable. Alas, the church backed away from the plan after they realized that agreeing to it meant they could not easily replace the playground area with parking at any time, at least without going through another land use review. Once that decision was made, the church terminated Childswork’s lease five years early, forcing them to move.
It’s possible St. Stephen Catholic Church will find a new tenant to run a school out of the building. If they do, they’ll have to remove the playground and open the parking lot or go through another conditional use process. It seems likely the school will be empty for some time, but given the Catholic Church doesn’t have to pay property taxes, there is little disincentive to bank the land.
An attorney for St. Stephens told the Willamette Week that “[t]he parish has other plans for the space more directly connected to its core ministry.” One can only assume this purpose would be to store the cars of some new wellspring of parishioners, but the number of Americans strongly identifying as Catholic has been on the decline for decades. Regular attendance at Catholic Mass has been in even steeper decline, particularly among younger people. Portland is, perhaps, the least religious city in the United States.
This wasn’t a typical parking battle. Often angry neighbors can push a city to force a business or builder to give more space to car storage. For many years, Portland has been heading in the opposite direction. Around the same time the complaint was being reviewed, another business in Portland appealed a denial of a conditional use permit with less parking to City Hall, and won. It is very likely the school could have demonstrated a need for zero off-street parking spaces, but the church would have lost the right to park cars on a playground.
Last year, Multnomah County voters approved taxes to provide universal preschool to children in the county. The city needs more preschools and fewer church parking lots.
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