BY BRIAN LIBBY
For more than 15 years, Jeff Joslin was one of the most important figures in City of Portland's planning and development bureaus, acting as the city's senior urban planner as well as its land use supervisor. But when his tenure at City Hall ended in 2009, Joslin didn't ride off into the sunset.
He has led efforts, for example, to establish a wildlife and habitat enhancement project on his 120 acre Sauvie Island property, mitigating some of the damages to the Willamette River and its most sensitive species identified as part of the Willamette River Superfund project. Joslin also co-authored guidelines for new infill development for Oregon’s 123 National Register historic districts, under contract with the Historic Preservation League of Oregon (which he's also on the board of), and acting as a consulting project manager for the Portland-Milwaukie MAX light rail project.
But saving the Bull Run powerhouse may be Joslin's most passionate endeavor. Recently Joslin formed a coalition with two other private citizens to purchased the powerhouse as well as, Bull Run Elementary School and the Roslyn Lake recreation area from Portland General Electric.
"There is no business model here," Joslin told the Sandy Post's Jim Hart earlier this month. "We took personal (financial) risk to stop PGE’s wrecking ball.”
As Hart notes, the acquisition process, which took about four years, was not simple. Besides negotiating with PGE, the buyers had to satisfy Public Utility Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules and red tape. There is also the continuing wildcard of the Oregon Zoo eyeing the land adjacent to Roslyn Lake site for a future elephant habitat.
Bull Run's powerhouse is isolated and in need of repair. It's unlikely to ever generate as much revenue as its upkeep requires. Even so, there is both historic and architectural value to the structure, as indicated by a recent episode of NBC's "Grimm" being filmed there. In a deeper sense, the power station symbolizes both the promise and pitfalls of hydro-electric power as it was established and, in some cases like this, abandoned in the 20th century.
Even though they spent their own money to save the powerhouse, Joslin's team isn't sure exactly what the future holds. "We are all constantly looking for that crystal ball,” he told Hart. “It’s a pretty big mystery. We have always thought the powerhouse needs to be available to the public to tell the story of an incredible feat of construction that eventually had to be decommissioned to return the river to fish...The future is vague now, but it’s early.”
The group is planning a 100th anniversary celebration in September for the powerhouse, which started generating power in 1912.
Recently Joslin also answered a few of my questions by email about the effort to save Bull Run.
Is it solely the history and story of the Bull Run powerhouse that attracted you and its other saviors/new co-owners, or is there an architectural quality you felt was worth preserving?
It started for me with a meeting with Mark Engberg. Mark had visited the site on behalf of other prospective interested parties who had decided not to pursue the property, and thought I might know of other interested folks. When he started describing the belt-and-pully machine shop, I knew I was one of those folks. After visiting the site, I contacted Rick Michaelson, a renowned local historic redeveloper, and his partner, Karen Karlsson, a former light rail project manager and colleague when we were both at the City of Portland. Rick and Karen were already aware of the site, and intrigued. At that point, it was PGE’s hope and intent to clear the site. Upon visiting, we did exactly what you’re not supposed to: we totally fell for the site. And were convinced it had to be preserved. Then our deeper investigation began.
Since then we’ve developed equal passion for the structures, the site and the history. The site is along a magnificent stretch of the Bull Run River. The buildings are utilitarian – stoic and rich, monumental and intimate – in a manner that fully expresses the boldness and sophistication of the time and the project. It’s seemingly impossible for any first time visitor not to gasp and/or grin as they enter the turbine hall. The more we learned about the project’s role in the early development of the region, the greater became our impulse to ensure the site remained to tell both those earlier stories, and the more recent story of the first great dam removals of the West.
I find it romantic (in a good way) that, at least as the Sandy paper presents it, you're buying the building without any strong sense of what to do with it. Is that accurate? Did the three of you just simply feel compelled, as in, "We can't let this be demolished," or was there any feeling among your group that there was a business potential in saving the structure or a future as some kind of long-term nonprofit purpose?
The short version would be that we were driven by the need to prevent its demolition, and were initially committed to giving ourselves over to the effort towards that end alone. It’s hard enough to succeed in preservation under the best of circumstances, let alone when working with a rural site with no allowed uses, and a quirky set of post-industrial structures. Regardless, we agreed early on that it would be premature if not presumptuous, given the significance of the site to the local community, to impose a personal program or vision on the site. We were also aware that projects like these are long lead efforts by definition, with uncertain paths. Unlike other competing teams who proposed specific re-purposing notions, our proposal was about community process and the interpretive component we believed to be the fundamental opportunity and responsibility of the site.
Given it took us 4 years, 3 months, and 4 days from that first presentation to PGE until closing on the property, any scenarios we might have cooked up back then would have little relevance today.
Along the way, the plot thickened. At the end of the day, we ended up not only with the Powerhouse site, but also with 110 acres of the former Roslyn Lake recreational area and associated potential historic structures, and the historic former Bull Run Elementary School (for which I was the restoration architect in the early 1990s. All three sites present unique opportunities, and specific preservation and re-purposing challenges.
We also understood the first order of business would be stabilizing the site, the second would be working with the County and – if necessary – the legislature to allow more programmatic flexibility in the future than the current zoning allows. Another priority has also emerged: throwing the Powerhouse a really good 100th birthday party next year. In the meantime, we’ve begun our efforts to work with the community to move towards a new future for the sites.
Could you talk a little bit about the historical context of Bull Run in terms of its original construction/operation and why that history is important?
There was a little something for each of us in this project and its history. These structures are heraldic, and have been meticulously maintained for 100 years, since the time it was first constructed to power Portland’s first streetcars. The site was originally so remote that a train was built to it to construct it, and maintained for generations in order to ensure the largest elements that would ever need to be replaced (generators and transformers) could be delivered by train directly into the respective buildings Those trains further delivered campers from Portland, and brought fisherman up on weekends for day trips (we’re all train fanatics, and I’m a fishing obsessive).
Today the removal is resulting in a re-naturalized river, with fish-restoration activities occurring on-site. Grimm has featured the buildings recently, with the transformer building serving as the Lodge for giant beaver creatures and the turbine hall hosting a fight and a double beheading. A national kayak slalom race just occurred at its feet. And the machine shop has been 100% functionally restored. We couldn’t have predicted the trajectory thus far, but the response and the activities to-date promise a remarkable adventure as we seek the next life for each of these site components."