Activists say beloved Portland tree doomed by development

Multnomah County

Merlin Radke built his St. Johns home around a bigleaf maple

Ashley Meyer, a project coordinator for the Tree Emergency Response Team, points at the bigleaf maple that sprouts from the Radke property in Portland, January 19, 2020 (Pamplin Media/Zane Sparling)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — The man named Merlin wrapped his home around a tree, and lived happily – until the forces of change came calling.

It sounds like something ripped from the pages of “The Overstory,” the recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel that features a subplot about a Portlander fighting to save a strand of trees from city saws.

But unlike Richard Powers’ fiction, this story is true.

Longtime residents will remember Merlin Radke for his auto parts store, which closed its doors in 2015 after more than 80 years in business.

Radke built several homes on his secluded property at 6285 N. Fessenden St., including one with the bole of the tree branching through the roof. On his death, the property was deeded to Warner Pacific College, according to local activists with the Tree Emergency Response Team.

It seems the institution didn’t have much interest in the property. Multnomah County property tax records show the lot is owned by Fish Construction NW, who purchased the land last year for $470,000.

Here’s where the story gets complicated.

Activists held a rally for the Radke trees in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020 (Pamplin Media/Zane Sparling)

“Normally when you think of trees that are about to be cut down — you immediately think, ‘oh, it’s the developer’s fault,'” says Ashley Meyer, a project coordinator for the response team. “That’s what Captain Planet taught us.”

But developer Jeff Fish is well known for his commitment to building affordable starter homes aimed at first-time buyers. Meyer says she met with Fish and learned that the Portland Bureau of Transportation is requiring him to build the project’s new driveway on Cecelia Street.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

If the driveway let out on Fessenden — an admittedly busier thoroughfare — more of the walnut, cherry, cedar and maple trees on the roughly 7,500-square-foot property could be saved, according to Meyer, including the one built into the house.

Meyer and other activists held a solemn protest January 19 in order to push PBOT to consider a variance for the development.

Laura Wilson, who has captured trees in paint for the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, says the effort is about more than just saving shade.

“It’s really innovative how they valued the tree in that time,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us and the community to say: let’s preserve.”

The Tribune has reached out to PBOT and Fish Construction NW to learn more.

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