School building dispute polarizes sides:
Communication failure between city, school district and historic preservation board at heart of project

Gazette-Times reporter

The Corvallis School District on Monday received the city's approval to proceed with plans to build a replacement Corvallis High School.

The Corvallis City Council's 5-4 vote gives members of a historic preservation group 21 days to file an appeal with the state Land Use Board of Appeals. A representative with that group said they haven't decided whether to proceed with the appeal, or not fight the district's demolition plans and instead focus on documenting and salvaging the building's features.

An appeal would delay the project and push up construction costs by $1.3 million, Corvallis School District officials said. It also could void two years of work planning the new school.

Regardless of the outcome, neither side can claim victory in what has become one of the more contentious local land-use disputes in years.

The preservationists stand to lose what they call a historic treasure.

Students and school employees could be left longer in a building that engineers deemed dangerous because of earthquake and fire safety hazards.

And taxpayers' $86.4 million investment in school improvement projects might be diminished.

These consequences stem from a lack of communication between the city and Corvallis School District when plans for the new school began to take shape three years ago. All of the parties involved the city, the school district and the historic preservation advisory board have blamed others for why the design process was derailed.

Absent from the debate has been discussion of how local government failed to cooperate in creating a vision for the new school.

Appellants disappointed

Carol Chin, a member of the city's Historic Preservation Advisory Board, said she wished the outcome could be different. Chin wrote the nomination letter to place Corvallis High School on the National Register of Historic Places last year when the district rejected requests to save the school.

Listing the school won't prevent the district from continuing with demolition plans, she said.

"Mostly, it's just federal recognition that we have an important structure," Chin said. "In terms of the listing saving the building, I don't think it will do that."

Chin said school officials paid lip service to the city's land development code requirement to consider preservation of historically significant structures. A renovated structure would have to meet the same standards as a new building.

The district didn't use a firm the historic preservation group recommended for a renovation cost estimate. But it wasn't required to by the city, either. Language in the city's land development code says that the city "shall encourage" historic preservation. Several members of the planning commission, the preservation group and a few city councilors believe the city's development code lacks enough historic criteria.

Intervention avoided
When lines of communication between the historic advisory board and the school district dissolved last year, Chin said she asked the Corvallis City Council to intervene.

The district didn't follow a state historic preservation office suggestion to hold a forum last summer on what to do with Corvallis High School. The school board had decided against renovation 15 months earlier.

"We requested that the City Council facilitate a discussion, but the City Council chose not to take a position and not to forward comments," Chin said.

The makeup and leadership of the City Council has changed since last summer with four new councilors taking office. When the historic advisory board asked for the city's help, Charlie Tomlinson was president of the council. Tomlinson later ran unsuccessfully for mayor on a platform that included passing the school district's facility bond measure.

City officials were reluctant to get involved in the school district's design process, even though the city had the authority to approve plans for the school. Tomlinson said it would have biased the council's future land-use decision to intercede.

So the district drafted its facility improvement bond, promising to build a new, $46 million replacement Corvallis High School. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure last November.

Then when building plans were submitted to the city this spring, members of both the planning commission and the council lectured the school district about its public process. At Monday's meeting, councilor Tina Empol accused the district of trying to pressure members of the historic preservation advisory board not to appeal. Empol distributed a draft of a letter by Corvallis School District Superintendent Jim Ford leaked to her by Chin. The unsigned letter was a rough draft of the district's offer to document, salvage, recycle and do an interpretive display.

"This clearly says to me blackmail," Empol said. "This is completely inappropriate."

Neither the planning commission's approval of design plans nor the appeal heard by the council was decided by unanimous vote.

Tomlinson said no amount of public process would have averted the high school controversy, and compared it to other land-use disputes, such as those over the Kelley Engineering Building and Hilton Garden Hotel at Oregon State University, which were appealed to the state, and the Riverfront Commemorative Park plans, which sparked a voter initiative.

Some people say the school district didn't listen to the historic preservation board, and others say the district did everything it could to listen.

"There's Oregon's land-use planning in action," Tomlinson said. "People are polarized around issues."

Both city and school district leaders value education, but the City Council and school board have different responsibilities. Working together would better represent citizens' interests, Tomlinson said.

"Sometimes we have trouble working with the school district as well as we should," he said.

School officials said they felt the preservation issue was raised too late in the process, although they gave additional consideration to preservation as recently as last summer. School leaders were most concerned with student safety and providing the best learning environment, not whether one of its buildings had been left off the local register of historic places.

At hearings, forums and meetings held to gather input on facility improvement plans, including a meeting where the school board discussed whether to renovate the high school or build new, no one raised historic preservation as an issue.

With no reason to think that it was about to make a decision that would place it at odds with the city's preservation board, the school board decided to build new and demolish the old structure in May 2001. The only citizen comment at the meeting was how the windows at the old school looked very nice.

Still at odds
In defense of the preservationists' absence early on, advisory board members said their meetings were on the same night and at the same time as the school board. Still, the school is a landmark, part of the city's identity, they said, and worth preserving.

District officials said they don't have to agree with preservationists, and use the facility improvement vote as an indicator that the majority of people want a new high school and don't mind if the old building is demolished.

In the land development appeal to the city, the community development department tacked on many requirements to minimize the new building's impacts, such as noise and parking, to the neighborhood.

But the district's outreach for what to do with Corvallis High School didn't trigger any external review of its plans until after there was a substantial investment of time, and momentum for a new school was well established.

After Monday's meeting, school board Chairwoman Cyrel Gable said the district is willing and eager to work with the historic advisory board on preserving elements of the old building. Gable said she'd prefer the district not have to expend money on an appeal to the state or have the construction project delayed.

Gable said the city, not the school district, is responsible for setting and interpreting its rules for historic preservation.

"What was foremost for us was the safety of the kids," Gable said. "We weren't really thinking about preserving old buildings."

Becky Waldrop covers youth and education for the Gazette-Times. She can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 758-9510.

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