Council cuts ribbon on Chinese garden plan

From the Oregonian, March 9, 1995

Big-picture dreamer that he is, Bill Naito sees it as “the Pioneer Courthouse Square of north downtown.”

Wow. The proposed classical Chinese garden for Chinatown took its first walking steps in city council Wednesday morning, and it faces a virtual minefield on its three-year journey to fruition.

But if Naito and a whole bunch of people in the Portland area’s Asian community get their way, Chinatown will have the first classical Chinese garden in the United States.

Backers see it as a cultural centerpiece for the city.

City government figuratively cut the project’s ribbon Wednesday when the commissioners and Mayor Vera Katz unanimously voted to approve an option agreement with Northwest Natural Gas for the land.

The land is a 176-space parking facility for Northwest Natural Gas employees. It is between Northwest Flanders and Glisan streets, and between Northwest Second and Third avenues.

The gas company and the Chinese Garden Society agreed in February to a conditional lease — the block would be leased for $1 a year for 99 years.

That and council’s Wednesday decision were the easy parts. All the tough stuff is ahead:

  • The city has to replace the 176 parking spaces somewhere nearby.
  • The Chinese Garden Society has to raise its own money and get the project going in time. Naito, an Old Town businessman and the fund-raising chairman for the project, estimates that the garden will require “$6 million to $7 million in hard cash.”
  • The design will have to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission and Northwest Natural Gas.
  • The issue of the Royal Palm hotel will have to be settled. Mental Health Services West wants to turn the hotel into a shelter for mentally ill people. Since it’s right across the street from the proposed site of the garden, some Old Town and Chinatown businesses want it out of there.

The timetable on the garden project is to start construction in about 18 months and finish by 1998 or 1999.

The project will be designed in Portland’s China sister city, Suzhou. Designers will arrive from that city in April to look at the site. Dr. Eng Lock Khoo, a Portland surgeon, will act as the liaison between the project, Suzhou and Kaohsing, Taiwan, which also is involved.

As for Portland, Katz has assigned commissioners Charlie Hales and Mike Lindberg to help with the fund raising. Bruce Allen of the Portland Development Commission and Andrew Haruyama of the city’s Office of International Relations complete the steering committee.

What will come of all this? Something unique to the city.

As Dr. Khoo explained Wednesday, the garden is a decidedly urban phenomenon.

“It is when you bring nature into the city,” he said.

The project will have a lot of rock design, flowing water and five pavilions as shelter from the sun or rain. Suzhou and Kaohsing will donate a pavilion each.

After that, who knows? Pioneer Courthouse Square may become the classical garden of central downtown.