Old and new Portland on the former Belmont street car line.
By MIDGE PIERCE
11/7 update: Following a Nov. 3 public hearing, City Council indicated it would consider new amendments supported by pro-densification advocates who claim historic districts obstruct new builds and preservationists who claim that demolishing buildings for costly new development offers neither affordability nor sustainability. New amendments will likely be considered on Dec. 15.
Reporter’s note: A public hearing on Portland’s amended Historic Resources Code Project will be held on Nov. 3. To testify, you must register here by Nov. 2 at 4 p.m. Portlanders can testify in writing via the Map App until the day of the hearing. To learn more about the project go to its City website.
Rhetorical question: How does the City save the best of Portland’s history and toss the worst?
That’s the conundrum of the Historic Resources Code Project proposal as it threads between protections for old Portland and recent mandates for building out the new.
HRCP draft amendments update zoning regulations for the identification, designation, protection, and reuse of historical resources. A major focus of the update is saving the culture and legacies of minority and Indigenous communities. This equity-based framework provides new selection criteria for structures important to Black, Native American, and LGBTQ residents.
Draft author and City planner Brandon Spencer-Hartle says staff will partner with diverse groups in BIPOC communities to nominate noteworthy properties for Landmark or Conservation protections.
What could change is the status of existing, City-assigned historic properties. While the City can not delist National Historic Register districts, code amendments would allow for removal of locally-defined Landmarks and Conservation Districts when there is a compelling reason to do so, according to Spencer-Hartle.
Plus, an outdated 35-year-old Historic Resource List of buildings 50 years or older that could qualify for higher level protections will be updated based on recommendations from residents. HRI buildings will still face 120-day demolition delays, but Spencer-Hartle says demo application alone, rather than owner request, will trigger delisting.
Other changes include flexibility for housing modifications and repurposing commercial buildings to expand job, economic, and living options.
In many respects, the draft signals a departure from architectural preservation to cultural conservation. Prioritizing protections in under-represented communities likely ensures the code’s implementation by a City Council that leads with diversity and inclusion.
In deep blue Portland, residents generally share goals of inclusive, affordable housing and confronting Portland’s discriminatory past. The split is over how to achieve these commonalities.
HRCP is the latest in a series of contentious code changes and rezoning required as part of Portland’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan. Tensions that surfaced during the Residential Infill Project that rezoned traditional single family neighborhoods to allow multi-plexes have re-ignited. Like RIP, HRCP pits those who cherish the charm of classic Main Street corridors and leafy, century-old neighborhoods against those who de-prioritize preservation because they think it inhibits growth and perpetuates exclusionary housing.
The task of finding balance between growth and preservation fell largely to Spencer-Hartle. Tools in the 300-plus page document to save legacy buildings in minority communities are a win-win for all, he says, by “interpreting the past through the lens of contemporary values” to support job creation, environmental sustainability, and preserve under-represented stories.
Curiously, the word preservation is downplayed in the massive HRCP document. Spencer-Hartle says its absence is because preservation is not part of State mandates.
Fred Leeson, Building on History blogger and former Bosco-Milligan Foundation / Architectural Heritage Center president, predicts hard times ahead for preservation. “When you look at the great cities of the world, they keep the best of their historic architecture and figure out ways to blend it with the new— or create new areas for development. Western America is still in the new-is-always-better mode where profit motive dominates all aspects of urban development.”
He understands that in order to move forward with fairness, a town must be willing to honor its finest architectural and cultural heritage as well as learn from mistakes of a flawed past.
Anti-preservation steam has been fueled by rising awareness of neighborhood redlining in Portland’s past that made it difficult for minorities to gain footholds in upper-end areas. New, younger demographics favor dense, multi-unit building over single family homes as a solution to the housing crisis. Longtime stakeholders say market rate infill causes demolition and displacement of vulnerable populations and does not address affordability.
Historic single-family houses in Montavilla.
Ideologies sharpen fault lines
Acolytes of densification such as 1000 Friends of Oregon call preservation the product of systemic racism that deprives minorities of opportunities to live in neighborhoods where they could grow wealth. Portland Neighbors Welcome support HRCP amendments for righting past wrongs designed to segregate Portland.
The Sightline Institute think tank which advises Friends posits that historic regulations can be co-opted by preservationists to keep out new neighbors. “Historic districts could become a common exclusionary tool,” writes senior researcher Michael Andersen. In an article entitled “Bogus Historic Districts”, he calls designations a new way to perpetuate white privilege by blocking change, diversity and growth.
His views are echoed by anti-preservation Map app testimonials claiming that preservation “walls off” exclusive parts of the City and freezes them in “amber”. Similar arguments about racism and discrimination were raised during contentious RIP hearings.
Sightline, which contends that National Register Districts were not intended as land-use regulations, calls for greener, fairer, more democratic local regulations.
Decision makers matter
Conversely, Stop Demolishing Portland’s Jim Heuer counters that there is nothing green or affordable about market-rate construction that soaks up resources. Infill is not cost effective, he says, citing a duplex recently built in the Irvington area where each unit is selling for around $800,000— a scenario he said is repeated throughout town.
Stephanie Whitlock of the Architectural Heritage Center supports the diversity and streamlining behind the amendments, but believes they fail because they restrict Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission’s ability to directly address City Council on historic matters.
A website called Welcome to Portland Tomorrow warns that HRCP weakens protections that will ultimately disadvantage minorities. The site claims that revisions dilute the membership and authority of the Landmarks Commission, remove the Commission’s ability to make recommendations to City Council and cede more responsibility for historic markers to bankers and developers.
Diminishing the role of the Commission and its ample historic expertise concerns community-champion Linda Nettekoven, who says the amendments offer more paths to “yes” on delisting historic resources.
Spencer-Hartle does acknowledge: “The code amendments also allow for difficult discussions about which places are not appropriate for protections,” he says, “… because of the city’s racist history and the inequity of the current list of landmarks and districts.”
Preservationists say the potential for delisting goes too far. Heuer says the draft code not only undermines the Historic Landmarks Commission’s traditional role in protecting historic designations, it grants too much power to builders. He wrote: “Powerful developer-driven forces have had an impact on HRCP watering down demolition protections and restructuring new historic designations.”
If Portland’s architectural heritage was more widely recognized, he continues, it could rival Boston or Philadelphia and lure tourists back to a city that some say has lost its shine. Weakened protections will tear apart Portland’s historic fabric, he added.
In recent years, Portlanders have decried gentrification that displaced Black residents of Northeast Portland’s Albina neighborhood. Repurposing older structures is an alternative to new builds, according to Spencer-Hartle. He says adaptive re-use incentives for under-represented communities are baked into amendments to provide economically-viable options such as multi-housing adaptations plus retail, and office uses in residential zones without harm to historic structures.
Urban renewal’s impact
Restore Oregon’s website declares “Reuse is Climate Action”. Rehabilitating older structures reduces Portland’s carbon footprint and promotes racial equity in diverse communities by preserving the “embodied” carbon of existing buildings and keeping residents in their homes.
A popular family food cart pod at 28th Avenue and Division Street was dismantled to make way for new construction.
Heather Flint-Chatto, founder of PDX Main Streets, a co-sponsor of an HRCP presentation about the historic policy, says demolition could increase if repurposing does not make economic sense. She warns of leaving the future to a few developers with an imbalance of power.
To retain community character, she urges the integration of architectural patterns in new builds that are consistent with the heritage and cultural identity of an area:
“We need a master plan for preservation of our City’s special places, demolition review not simply demolition delay, and more financial tools and support that help diverse neighborhoods.” Compatible design is no more costly than incongruous design, she says.
While the draft code provides new tools for local historic identification and protections, the gold standard remains National Register awards, a program of the National Parks Service.
Stakeholders in Irvington’s Historic District point to its many apartment buildings and converted mansions as evidence of inclusivity.
On Portland’s east side, pushback has so far stopped Eastmoreland from becoming a National Historic District. In recent years, however, Laurelhust and nearby Peacock Lane joined Ladd’s Addition and Irvington on Portland’s short list of federally recognized historic areas. Even though HRCP offers several layers of historic protections such as landmark status and conservation districts, National Register awards remain the highest level of protection. Proponents say district designations promote investment and economic stability.
Beloved Peacock Lane is a recent addition to the National Park Service’s National Historic Register.
National registry may save a historic BIPOC lodge
Opponents claim that historic awards are the purview of white privilege. Yet, National Register designation came in the nick of time for a BIPOC, multi-generational meeting hall in the heart of the Albina area. The Billy Webb Elks Lodge, on the corner of North Tillamook Street and Williams Avenue, recently suffered a devastating fire. Its listing on the Register qualifies it for federal grants and loans that may help it rebuild, according to Spencer-Hartle. (By contrast, another headline-maker, Oregon’s only all-aluminum house, lacked protections and has been completely demolished.)
Like a tale of two cities, the damaged Billy Webb Lodge (above) sits in the shadow of infill development across the street (below).
National Historic designation for the lodge is especially noteworthy because the building stands in the shadow of a massive, new contemporary complex in an area of rapid redevelopment gobbling up North Williams.
Flexibility wins support
An aspect of HRCP that elicits widespread approval is allowing energy-efficient adaptations like solar panels anywhere— even when visible from the street. The amendment is lauded by many living in and out of historic districts as a responsible reaction to the climate crisis.
Other noteworthy changes include exempting historic resource reviews of garage demolitions and construction of accessory dwelling units. Additionally, requirements for providing on-site parking would be removed.
Despite the common-sense updates, community adviser Nettekoven is concerned that City Commissioners lack the technical expertise to understand amendments that could forever change the face of Portland. “How can this not lead to decision making based on the loudest voices and political issues, rather than historic merit?”
More change coming
HRCP is the latest in a series of rezonings that have sparked frictions. The Infill Project that went into effect this summer eliminated single-family zoning in order to provide more multi-family housing units in residential neighborhoods. Essentially, this means that a demolished home on a typical residential street must be replaced by two or more. While it’s too soon to measure RIP’s impact, refrains that came from competing interests have a familiar ring with some watchdogs saying it goes too far, others say not far enough. Portlanders will soon brace for RIP 2 which will expand densification on to large residential lots of R-10 (residential lots 10,000 square feet or more).
Competing interests re-surfaced over resource allocations in Design Overlay Zone Amendments that raised height minimums for Design Commission reviews to 75 feet. This effectively excludes high-level reviews of the fast-morphing eastside where construction is below thresholds on Main Street and streetcar corridors like Hawthorne, Belmont and Division.
Contrasting development on Belmont Street.
Feuds of old vs. new continue
The real villain of a divided Portland is greed, says a well-known data analyst who prefers to go by the pseudonym Nerdletta. Adept at connecting the dots between odd alignments, she contends that pro-growth activists with densification agendas have adopted a “false” mantra that “more housing equals cheaper housing” spun by building lobbyists with conflicts of interest and venture capitalists disguising exploitative investment schemes.
As an affordable housing activist, she believes that anti-preservation progressives have been duped by Wall Street. “Speculative real estate investors have given rise to an extractive ecosystem… that benefits the few to the detriment of the many.” A frequent voice on KBOO radio, in early 2020 she described a housing “gold rush” that led to complex inter-relationships and misaligned allegiances that harm the most vulnerable.
As Portland reworks development rules for the future, it has wrestled with questions about densification, demolition, displacement, and discrimination. Yet Portlanders seem to agree that the tools to preserve important legacies of the past should be inclusive and available to all.
Midge Pierce is a recovering media consultant and personality who worked from East to West Coast Coast on newspapers, in TV for network and public television affiliates and for cable programmer Starz where she ran a channel for young people known as tweens. She is currently a semi-retired freelance writer in SE Portland enjoying time spent with grandkids. She is passionate about finding balance between old Portland and new.