Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky-tacky, Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes all the same…
Malvina Reynolds’ now iconic one-and-a-half minute satire hasn’t been lost on the citizens of Milwaukie. Since its 1848 founding, the little city down by the river clearly hasn’t lost its charm, nor its unique sense of place. But like many communities across the United States, even the Dogwood City of the West couldn’t fully escape the modernization campaigns of the late 1950s and 60s which left all kids of low-quality “ticky-tacky” structures in their wake.
Thankfully, the community’s spectrum of diverse citizens is committed, engaged, and eager to tackle an array of downtown revival efforts. The projects—which range from historic preservation and renovation, to developing the riverfront, and potentially bringing in Light Rail and minor league baseball—are focused on creating a vibrant and accessible space that enhances the pedestrian experience, economic vitality, and ultimately rekindles the very soul of a city where some 20,000 people live, work, and play.
I recently sat down on separate occasions with Chantelle Gamba—active member of the DLC (Design & Landmarks Commission) who also serves as the Historic Milwaukie Neighborhood District Association chair among a variety of other posts and community involvements with her husband Mark—and Ed Parecki; Milwaukie community advocate, business owner (Spring Creek Coffee House), educator (Marylhurst) and seasoned contractor.
The two Waldorf parents (each have three children who graduated from, or are currently enrolled in, the school) staunchly stand by their own opinions. Still, it’s clear they take the same issues to heart even if they arrive at them by different means: doing whatever’s in their power to bring out the city’s best attributes, with a strong eye toward creating a more livable place for many generations to come. Lot Whitcomb, Milwaukie’s entrepreneurial founder, would likely give their pioneering spirit an earnest nod of approval.
CHANTELLE GAMBA moved to Milwaukie from Bend with her husband Mark—a commercial photographer whose work has graced the covers of National Geographic Adventure and Sports Illustrated, among many others—and their three kids. As entrepreneurs, the two could live nearly anywhere they wanted, and landed on the Portland metro area because it fit their short (but imperative) list of criteria: Fed Ex, an international airport within a day’s drive, and a Waldorf School that went all the way through twelfth grade. It would be a great inadequacy to say that the Gambas have merely ‘settled’ into the small town way of life. Nine years later, the two have made remarkable strides toward a greener, more vibrant Milwaukie.
Tell me a little about how you started to get involved in this community after moving here: I would really have to credit the Waldorf School for bringing in new families to the area. A lot of Waldorf families are entrepreneurial, so there were a lot of people who had their own businesses, or worked from home. It really appeals to creative people. It’s also a very warm, nurturing, community-based kind of experience. So a lot of these families started moving to Milwaukie and getting involved in the city, because you know we’re going to live here so we want to make it nice.
Because it’s a small enough town, and because they rely so heavily on volunteers, we thought shoot, let’s walk our talk, let’s get involved.
Mark joined the planning commission, I joined the DLC, I took over the chair of the Historic Milwaukie NDA, and Mark will be running for city council.
In a community this small, you’re really able to become intimately involved aren’t you? I remember the first time I went to the post office, and the person behind the counter recognized me. I thought yeah, this is a small town! And I really started developing a love affair with being here. Knowing the people that own the coffee shops, and bicycling by the mayor and going, “Hey, Jeremy!”
Because there’s really a lot of room for improvement in Milwaukie, it became obvious that they just needed energy and people with time or the passion for it to come forward. We started to get more involved, and when we started to see things happening the way we would hope that they would happen, it was very gratifying. We know that even if there’s a little pushback, eventually people are going to see that we’re long-range thinkers—beyond your own lifespan, to the lifespan of our children and grandchildren.
Tell me about your work with the Design and Landmarks Commission: The commission deals with the Downtown Design Guidelines, and because we’re going to have Light Rail come right through downtown, there’s going to be a lot of impact. I thought, that’s something I want to be a part of. People always want to know where I’m at on the Light Rail fence, and where I’m at on the Light Rail fence is, it’s coming! So, I want it to be the best it can be.
Is there an historic preservation component to the DLC, and how were the Downtown Design Guidelines chosen? We don’t have any real strong historical preservation guidelines in the city… But personally I feel strongly about just raising the level of awareness to people in Milwaukie. We have all of these amazing buildings. You know, let’s not tear down the pretty old buildings and put up some monstrosity, like Key Bank. There have been a number of really cool buildings in Milwaukie that during the “revolution” of the 50s and 60s were torn down in favor of concrete blocks.
Out of that, and because there were a number of historically significant buildings downtown, it was decided that we really need to have some design guidelines so that we can create a space that’s cohesive and attractive. A place that people want to be.
How does Milwaukie feel about these guidelines and changes? We’ve seen a revitalization of the downtown businesses, so you know it seems to be working. There have been two big things recently: the Facade Improvement Program, and Light Rail. We spent a lot of time discussing each application [for the Facade Improvement Program], even if we were talking about something as small as a $2,000 grant. We wanted to get the most bang for our buck—if we were going to have this $50,000 to spend, we wanted to make sure it was being spent in ways that could really make an impact.
There’s almost $5,000 left of the grant money, correct? That’s right. And I would love for someone else to apply because the last money has to be reimbursed by June—we use it or lose it.
I know you have an opinion to share… What about the city’s need for a grant writer? The city had a guy on staff whose main job was to go out there, and find money to make these projects happen. But he was hired away from us to go work in another city in Oregon, and the decision was made not to fill his position. So we don’t have anyone on staff anymore. My understanding was that the money for that position was shifted into the Community Development budget, which is now intently focused on bringing baseball to Milwaukie. I feel like things aren’t happening because we don’t have someone chasing that money. I’m a little bummed out that the grant writer was seen as expendable.
What do you predict is going to happen now that this money has been reallocated? I think we’re going to have to be creative… Maybe we create a volunteer post for that, maybe even on a commission basis. Though I’m not sure if that’s even possible? If the money is going to continue being allocated to baseball, either we’re going to have to give up on some of these projects (which I just don’t see happening), or we’re going to have to look for some other creative ways to find funding.
It sounds like people aren’t going to be deterred, no matter what happens. That’s what American’s do! Find another way. Find common ground. Get people’s imaginations fired up, and just go for it.
Part two of this article here:
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