Rolling hills, expansive views, wild animals, meandering streams, open meadows and green forests – all surrounding the Craftsman mansion built by the co-founder of thehistoric Orenco townsite – will soon be available in the form of a 42-acre nature park for Hillsboro residents to enjoy.
City officials will submit permits for the Orenco Woods Nature Park in the coming weeks, and the project is set to become a reality next year. Hillsboro leaders will point to the site as a representation of their efforts to provide badly needed parkland for taxpayers and secure a refuge from the surrounding high-rise development at Orenco Station.
But when the first Washington County families enter the park for a relaxing, sunny Sunday afternoon, they might not know that the property – previously a golf course operated by the Hillsboro Elks Lodge – was once slated for development. Had it not been for the sustained efforts of enraged neighbors, with a whole lot of help from the housing collapse of the late 2000s, the Orenco Woods property would be filled right now with what Orenco resident Bonnie Kooken called “cookie-cutter” housing.
“They say you can’t fight City Hall,” said Jim Lubischer, one of the residential development’s chief opponents. “I learned that you can fight City Hall, but you won’t win. That was kind of the lesson I learned. But then I have to add an asterisk to it – but maybe you can. Because I certainly didn’t win. It was just circumstances.”
For years, the city had designated the Orenco Woods property as “open space,” but during the height of the housing boom, Hillsboro leaders re-zoned the land for development of 252 single-family homes at the request of developer Venture Properties. The proposal faced unprecedented backlash from the neighbors, who argued that there was not enough parkland for Hillsboro’s ever-growing stock of new homes and new residents. But officials threw their hands up, as if there was nothing they could do.
Oddly enough, Orenco residents can thank the recession for halting the project. The value of the land plummeted, and neighbors raced to broker a deal that allowed the city and Metro to buy it back for less than a third of the original price.
“Now, they’re taking bows for [the park],” said Orenco resident Dan Bloom of the same city leaders who approved the residential development.
Conversations with neighborhood activists, elected officials, city employees and real-estate brokers reveal a compelling story behind a simple piece of land.
Not your average neighborhood
The Oregon Nursery Company, which gave Orenco its name, founded the company town in the early 1900s after purchasing a 1,200-acre site east of Hillsboro. Nursery co-founder Malcolm McDonald erected a sprawling home on the property in 1912, and the business sold smaller lots to its employees, who built their own houses.
Arlene Bernards, who lived in the McDonald House as a girl in the 1930s, remembered the place in memoirs provided to the Hillsboro Parks & Recreation department.
“The first item in my memory bank is the huge lawns surrounding the house,” Bernards wrote. “The front lawn housed a wonderful maple tree just made to order for climbing and swinging from limb to limb, and then there was a swing suspended from a tall tree. How anyone got up that high to hang the swing I never knew.”
The unique character of the neighborhood is still apparent today: No house looks like the next, and residents claim a special identity not available to the rest of Hillsboro. The town incorporated and thrived for years, until World War I and the Great Depression shuttered the nursery. Hillsboro, growing eastward, eventually annexed the Orenco townsite. The local Elks Lodge bought the Orenco Woods property in the 1970s, operating a golf course there for decades.
“I used to work at the golf course as a kid, shagging golf balls,” said Orenco native Dirk Knudsen, a realtor who would end up playing a significant role in saving the parkland.
Kooken, the leader of the Orenco Neighborhood Organization, said she could remember taking “our inner tubes and rubber tires and cookie sheets [to] slide down those marvelous hills” in the winter.
“It was great fun,” she said. “We’d get the whole community together and just have a big picnic there.”
Hillsboro’s growth brings change
In the early 1990s, TriMet began work on a long-planned project to extend the MAX Blue Line westward to Beaverton. Planners eventually lobbied for the line to go all the way to downtown Hillsboro, because of the city’s rapid development and the existing, abandoned railroad tracks there that used to belong to the Oregon Electric Railway.
Those tracks are right next to the old Orenco townsite.
City officials worked with Metro to designate Orenco for high-density, transit-oriented development, and it wasn’t long before tall apartment buildings were built.
“They just started dividing the land, getting ready for the developers to just move in and take over,” Kooken said. “And we in Orenco, who valued our history, said, ‘No. You can’t do that to our neighborhood. This is a jewel in the crown of Hillsboro, and don’t mess with it.’ ”
By 2004, the neighborhood had changed, and the golf course was losing money, according to Hillsboro meeting minutes. So the Elks reached an agreement with developer Venture Properties to sell the land, which was designated on the city’s comprehensive plan as “open space.”
With the housing market booming, the price would eventually eclipse $15 million by the time Venture closed on the property. But before it could build anything, Venture needed to convince the city – in spite of the neighborhood’s opposition – to re-zone the land for residential use.
Planning Commission meetings are usually very sparsely attended; the five hearings regarding the Orenco Woods property routinely attracted crowds of over 40 and 50 and lasted sometimes until after midnight.
“These were long meetings, absolutely,” said Hillsboro planner Ruth Klein.
Bloom, a carpenter who built his own house, was among the Orenco residents who opposed the development. Years before the economic downturn, he predicted that the housing bubble would burst.
“I couldn’t understand what the basis was for the selling of houses like balloons,” Bloom said. “There was no basis in reality for this pricing. … We took our savings out of the stock market.”
Bloom said the proposed Orenco Woods development was “the type of behavior that resulted in the collapse. Everyone was cashing in and flipping and getting intoxicated by the bubble and the quick money.”
Bloom, Kooken and Lubischer were among dozens who pleaded with planners to retain the area as open space, pointing to Hillsboro’s own Parks & Trails Master Plan and city leaders’ promises to increase the local stock of parkland.
Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey said it was true that elected officials had previously pledged to secure more parks.
“Way back when I was on City Council in the 1990s, we were beginning to monitor kind of a park standard of so many acres per 1,000 residents,” Willey said. “And I can’t remember what the number was, but let’s just say it was 10 acres per 1,000. We were at about three. And I remember the City Council at that time making a commitment that we wanted to get that number up gradually.”
Formerly rural Orenco was becoming gradually surrounded by development, and the golf course land was the last barrier to complete engulfment.
“That development meant that we would be nothing but a driveway,” Kooken said. “There was no way the [new residents] were going to go out on Cornelius Pass. They would come right through Orenco, so we would no longer be a townsite. We would just have been a driveway.”
Brian Roberts, the president of the Hillsboro Planning Commission at the time, struggled with two issues, according to meeting minutes.
“One, the Elks had certain rights to do with their private land what they wished,” he said during a 2004 meeting. “Two, the need to preserve old Orenco. Approving this plan change would start us on a path to fundamentally change the character of the Orenco townsite.”
Roberts is still on the planning commission, now as vice president. He remembered that “to turn [the property] into private use just seemed wrong.”
“I really felt for the community,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I had a responsibility to look at the application for the application. And I can’t just say ‘no’ because I don’t like it. Well, I can – but that’s not the right thing to do, either.”
Willey, who wasn’t elected mayor until 2008, said “it was one of those situations where it was unfortunate that the public best use of that land probably wasn’t what the developer was going to do with it.”
“But we couldn’t prohibit it,” Willey added.
Roberts said the city’s modus operandi is to “find a way to say ‘yes,’ not find a way to say, ‘no.'”
“This isn’t the city of Portland. … This is Hillsboro,” Roberts said. “Why do you think Intel is here? There’s a reason Intel is here.”
The Orenco residents remember it in a different light.
“In retrospect, I was pretty naïve about the whole thing,” Lubischer said. “I just had more trust in our city officials, that they would keep the comprehensive plan and preserve our areas for parks.”
“There were a lot of statements like, ‘We wish this could be a park,’ ” Bloom recalled.
“Money speaks louder than good sense,” Kooken lamented.
Zoning designation changed, but fight continues, economy tanks
After five hearings and “hours and hours of testimony,” in Lubischer’s words, the planning commission – however reluctantly – approved the zone map change in May 2005.
The approval was contingent on some conditions negotiated with the developer: lower density, a commitment to open space in the new neighborhood and buffering between the new houses and the Orenco townsite. It appeared that the neighborhood had lost the fight.
But Lubischer, representing Orenco pro se, decided to appeal the case over and over again, eventually taking it as high as the Oregon Supreme Court.
“It was Jim who took it all the way,” Bloom said. “At the end, it was mostly just him. By that time, your chances keep getting slimmer and slimmer. Even though Jim doesn’t officially live in Orenco, he’s been an advocate for Orenco.”
Lubischer’s appeals were denied every time, but his efforts held off the $15 million sale agreement between the Elks and Venture until late 2007.
“We held it up for so long, but in no way at any point was this an obstructionist idea,” Bloom said. “This was not an obstructionist idea. It was absolutely on the merits and the rules. The lucky part was that it held out until everything collapsed.”
By the time Venture was ready to start shoveling dirt, the housing bubble had burst, and the company asked the city to add commercial development to Orenco Woods in 2008. Hillsboro planners denied Venture’s request, and U.S. Bank eventually foreclosed.
“If it hadn’t been for Jim, it would have been houses,” Knudsen said. “Developers don’t want to close until the appeals are done. Time was the victor.”
Once the bank took ownership, Knudsen saw an opportunity. He scrambled to find out whether the land was for sale – worried that another developer would swipe in and build houses there anyway.
“It took me over two years to get one phone call back from U.S. Bank,” remembered Knudsen, a realtor. “I was like, relentless. And I had given up, essentially. At one point, I was screaming at people on the phone.”
Knudsen eventually determined that SA Group Properties, a subsidiary and holding company for U.S. Bank, owned the land. Finally, he received a call from “some low-level person” at the bank, he said, who was wondering why he cared so much about a vacant property in Hillsboro.
“That was my playground as a kid, and I don’t want houses there,” Knudsen told the bank employee.
The banker told Knudsen to stop calling, and to contact a broker out of Corvallis namedGene Buccola, Knudsen recalled.
“Give me his number!” Knudsen yelled into the phone. Time was of the essence. The property still hadn’t hit the open market – once it did, developers would come calling.
Realtor Ryan Buccola, Gene’s son, remembered dealing with the Orenco Woods site.
“Our involvement on that piece was very brief. We represented U.S. Bank after U.S. Bank foreclosed on the property,” Buccola said.
Knudsen rushed to assemble a coalition of potential buyers. He approached city leaders, who – now that the land was cheap – had become interested in turning the property into a park.
“Fortunately for the city and for [Orenco residents], the economy stepped in and doomed the whole project and made an opportunity for the city to buy it back,” Willey said.
Metro got involved and ponied up $2 million. The city was willing to spend another $2 million. Knudsen remembered an asking price of over $6 million, but the bank finally agreed to sell it for $4 million, perhaps because the buyers were offering cash, Knudsen said. The Trust for Public Land helped facilitate the deal, and by the end of 2011, the land belonged to the city.
“It was at a time when the value of land went to absolutely zero,” Buccola remembered.
Knudsen and Lubischer think they beat other potential buyers in a close race; there was definitely other interest, Knudsen said.
“I wasn’t gonna take no for an answer,” Knudsen said. “And I got lucky.”
‘A new park and a new opportunity’
Now, Orenco residents and city leaders – once fierce opponents when the property was re-zoned for development – agree that the “Saga of the Orenco Woods Golf Course Property,” as Lubischer calls it, will have a happy ending.
“I think the more the park is developed, the more that we kind of keep the old town identity,” Kooken said.
The city sold just under 10 acres of the southeast portion of the property, at the intersection of Cornelius Pass and Quatama roads, to Polygon Northwest Company to finance the park’s construction. The Polygon site is already being developed for 71 future single-family homes – not nearly as many as Venture wanted to build.
“It was the beginning of a new park and a new opportunity,” Willey said. “It was pretty exciting because that property just was pretty cool, rustic property, and certainly converting it now back into a nature park is going to preserve a part of Hillsboro history and obviously provide a great opportunity for residents to wander around and see some very cool wildlife.”
The city is working on a separate plan to preserve the McDonald House. The parks department has applied for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and planners have proposed exhibiting Orenco’s history in the house and renting it out for private events such as weddings. (The plans alsodisplaced a nonprofit program to help pregnant teens that had been operating in the house.)
Willey and former Hillsboro City Council President Aron Carleson can remember a ceremony at the future park where leaders were celebrating the city’s and Metro’s purchase of the land. A bald eagle flew overhead – an indication of the wildlife that future visitors will enjoy.
“It is going to be a very enjoyable place to go for a walk through nature,” Willey said. “And quite frankly, for those of us who used to play golf there, it’s a little bit of a déjà vuof a nature park with memories of where you had to get the ball from.”
For Orenco residents, the park’s opening will culminate a long struggle against development that began over a decade ago.
“We’re trying to fiercely defend things money can’t buy,” Bloom said.
— Luke Hammill