It takes a village to build a park.
At least that's what's transpiring at the Gateway Green project in East Portland, set to open next month as the city's first outdoor mountain biking mecca.
Back in December 2005, Ted Gilbert and Linda Robinson concocted the idea of turning an unused chunk of land next to Interstate 205 in the Gateway district into a mountain biking-themed park. Gilbert was a civic-minded real estate investor whose undeveloped property in Gateway was languishing. Robinson was a longtime parks champion in parks-deprived East Portland.
Together, over the next 11-1/2 years, they won over a host of city, state and regional agencies and politicians, led two crowdfunding campaigns, and secured programming partnerships with bicycling and outdoor adventure organizations.
On June 24, the first phase of Gateway Green opens to the public, largely the mountain biking features dubbed the Dirt Lab. Among the three miles of new mountain bike trails are two segments affectionally known as "Ted's Traverse" and "Linda's Line."
At times, Gilbert and Robinson's vision of using Gateway Green as a catalyst to promote the sagging Gateway neighborhood and, by extension, all of East Portland — and creating a visitor's attraction capable of drawing a half million people a year — seemed like a pipe dream.
But now it's coming to fruition.
"It has evolved into something far bigger and better than what we originally envisioned," Gilbert said during a recent sneak-peak tour of Gateway Green.
Mountain bikers on board
The Northwest Trail Alliance, an all-volunteer mountain biking advocacy group based in Portland, agreed to help with trail building, maintaining the trails and organizing programs at Gateway Green, such as an annual Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day, says Chris Rotvik, the group's president.
There are now three miles of trails for a variety of skill levels, from beginner to advanced. Chris Bernhardt, a prominent mountain bike trail designer based in Portland, was recruited to design the trails.
A skills course, still under construction but slated for completion by June 24, will include moguls and a series of bike jumps, allowing bikers to test their skill at drops of various heights. The course will include a pump track, being engineered off-site, which enables riders to learn how to shift their body weight to maintain momentum on hills — an essential mountain biking skill.
Portland Parks & Recreation wanted to make sure there's enough mountain biking amenities to keep a class of youths occupied for three or four hours, says Ross Swanson, Gateway Green project manager for the city parks bureau.
Eventually, the mountain biking facilities are envisioned for use in cyclocross racing, a two-mile obstacle course that involves racing on gravel, sand and mud, over hills and bumps.
Though there are mountain biking opportunities at Forest Park and Powell Butte, many depict Gateway Green as the first big mountain biking center in the city, one that will help recruit younger people to the sport and let them hone their skills.
"We are geared to the beginning and intermediate rider," says Sean Stroup, project manager of the Dirt Lab for the Friends of Gateway Green, the nonprofit set up by Gilbert and Robinson. There also will be a trail for advanced riders along a cliff next to the park's 11-acre forested area, Stroup says. He sees the park as a way for an advanced rider to get in a quick workout after a day at the office, without needing to drive to larger mountain biking complexes in Sandy or other areas outside town.
"Having a single-track in Portland city limits, the mountain bike community has wanted that for years and years and years," Stroup says.
Single-track trails are narrow and challenging, just wide enough for one mountain biker.
Teaching young bicyclists
The Community Cycling Center, a nonprofit on Northeast Alberta Street, won a city grant to offer 100 scholarships for East Portland residents to attend bike camps this summer, says Jake Schorr, camp manager. The nonprofit plans nine five-day summer camps this summer for 12 to 14 kids each, and they'll likely spend much of their time at the Dirt Lab, Schorr says.
The Lumberyard, a business on 82nd Avenue that bills itself as the West Coast's only indoor bike park, also is collaborating with Gateway Green organizers. The Dirt Lab will make a great place for kids who have learned some moves at the Lumberyard to expand to the next level outdoors, says Anthony Maldonado, Lumberyard shift manager.
In addition to the bicycling groups, Northwest Outward Bound hopes to use Gateway Green for its programs for youth and adults, says Chelsea Hendrikx, Portland program and outreach manager.
Outward Bound takes people out of their comfort zone, teaching skills such as self-reliance, trust and team-building. "We're a character development school and we use the wilderness as our classroom," Hendrikx says.
"Right now, transportation limits where we can go and what we can do," she says. "Gateway Green will allow us to serve many more students in Portland and the surrounding area."
Outward Bound now works with 880 middle and high school students in the Reynolds School District, but now plans to add slots for more than 300 additional youth in Reynolds, Portland and Parkrose schools, Hendrikx says.
The group also is starting to plan and raise money to erect a large "ropes course" at Gateway Green, she says. That would enable participants to climb poles, maneuver on low and high rope structures, leap from one to another mid-air and other activities.
Phase two next
The Dirt Lab mountain biking facilities have largely been paid for by donations and in-kind contributions arranged by the Friends of Gateway Green, which totaled more than $1 million in value, Gilbert says. That includes about $500,000 from the city of Portland.
The group's success has spurred additional commitments from Metro of $1 million and $2 million from the Portland parks bureau. That money will finance a second phase of Gateway Green, which commences after the Dirt Lab opens.
The city will do more plant and habitat restoration. White oaks will be planted in the forest, which has been cleared largely of blackberries and invasive trees.
A pedestrian trail will be added, along with a Children's Nature Play area. Those enable children to do creative play with natural features including stones and logs, akin to the Nature Playground at Westmoreland Park.
Utilities will be extended to the park, to provide lighting and permanent restrooms.
The city also is working on adding two access points to the park, now mainly accessible by walking from the Gateway Transit Center or biking along the I-205 trail. There also will be a formal entry and a plaza for central gatherings, Swanson says.
Poor access to the site, isolated when ODOT built I-205 and relocated the Rocky Butte Jail from the land, rendered it unusable for years.
Gilbert's first breakthrough was helping persuade ODOT to sell 25 acres of the property at a bargain price to the city. ODOT also allowed Gateway Green to use an adjoining 13 acres, set aside for future freeway widening, until that land is needed, as long as no permanent structures are built there.
Another turning point came two or three years ago, Swanson says, when Portland hosted a national mountain bike trail symposium. At the time, the assumption at the park bureau was that mountain biking was mostly done by white males in their 20s, he says.
But then symposium participants heard about Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, Colorado, where 80 percent of the mountain bikers turned out to be with their families. The parks bureau, which hadn't been that keen on mountain biking at Forest Park, evolved its thinking. Last December, it put up the $2 million on top of about $500,000 authorized earlier, and now appears to be all in on the project.
"We're taking a remnant piece of right of way and repurposing it for active recreation," Swanson says.
"We've always known this area needs more parks," he says. "This is helping fulfill that."