Tony DeFalco speaks during a Cully Park site visit.

Can a new model for development bring health, wealth, and equity to a neighborhood?

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Tony DeFalco (right), coordinator of Let Us Build Cully Park! (LUBCP), speaks to funders and fellow LUBCP members during a visit to the site of the future Cully Park. Photo by Julie Cortez, El Hispanic News

Julie Cortez
El Hispanic News

Portland, OR — Bucking a system that skews to the lowest bidder, the powerful, and the well-connected, the Let Us Build Cully Park! project is envisioned not only as an opportunity to bring a park to a neighborhood short on natural spaces, but also as a model of how to ensure such projects benefit and engage a community ecologically, economically, and equitably.

The Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland is poorer, more diverse, and younger than average, and its residents have minimal access to parks and nature. With those factors and challenges in mind, Verde, Hacienda Community Development Corporation, and the Native American Youth & Family (NAYA) Center have teamed up to create Living Cully: The Cully Ecodistrict, which, according to a statement from Verde, reinterprets the traditional ecodistrict model “as an anti-poverty strategy, where low-income people and people of color drive environmental resources into their neighborhoods in response to existing community needs, creating broad economic opportunities.”

The park is a signature effort of Living Cully, and the three community-based organizations have teamed up with more than 14 others to form Let Us Build Cully Park! (LUBCP), a coalition that includes the Cully Association of Neighbors, Latino Network, Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, and the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, among others.

Thomas Cully Park will stand on 25 acres of buried landfill near NE 72nd and NE Killingworth and is slated for development in phases beginning with the completion of a community garden this summer. Other phases slated for 2013 and beyond include plans for a native plant gathering area proposed by NAYA, improvements on NE 72nd Ave., walking trails, soccer fields, covered picnic areas, and more.

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Students at Scott School helped design the community garden portion of Cully Park. Photo courtesy of Let Us Build Cully Park!

Local residents have already received training and experience in gathering soil samples to ensure safe human usage, and elementary and junior high students at Scott School have helped plan the layout of the community garden. Once park construction begins, workers will be hired from the Cully neighborhood and from the diverse clientele of the Living Cully organizations.

Verde Executive Director Alan Hipólito called the park’s design budget “pretty beefy” for a project of its size due to its emphasis on local community involvement. But Cully Park has the advantage both of a landscape architect willing to work for about half the normal rate, as well as investments by national and Northwest regional funders “intrigued by this relationship between Verde, NAYA, and Hacienda CDC, and by the project’s deep commitment to community involvement,” Hipólito said.

There are also resources available to nonprofits that aren’t available to public entities, Hipólito added. Many of Cully Park’s funders are specifically interested in the additional social and environmental benefits of the project.

In February a group of over 30 people — the majority of them from LUBCP and from public agencies helping to fund and execute the project — slogged up a grassy hill and across a muddy field to hear about how the buried landfill they were standing on would soon become a safe place for Cully residents to play and plant. The discussion was part of site visit from Metro’s Nature in Neighborhoods Capital Grant program.

Cully Park Phase 1 Master Plan Building Cully Park“It’s a chance to restore essentially a mountain of trash into a community asset,” said Tony DeFalco, LUBCP coordinator.

Nathan Teske, community and economic development director for Hacienda CDC, told those assembled that his organization’s affordable housing units in Cully boast a sizable population of Latino and Somali immigrants, many of them with large families whose children do not have access to natural and safe areas in which to play.

“This park would be a gem for them and their families,” Teske said. “… It’s gonna be one of the nicest parks in Portland.”

Ed Gilbert, whose house lies directly across from what will be the main entrance to the park, said he supports the construction of the park in spite of any inconvenience that might be caused by increased traffic on his dead-end street.

“It seems like such a waste to just sit there,” Gilbert said of the acres of land that are visible from his property.

“I’m disappointed that it’s not done already,” he added. “… Let’s get started.”

Even when the park is completed, Hipólito said the work will not be done. To have maximum impact, the project must be replicable in other communities.

“One of the things we need to do next is develop a way to share the story,” he said — a “packaged something” that answers the question: “How do we take what we’re doing and turn it into something other folks can absorb and adapt to their own neighborhoods?”

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