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Historic District Doesn't Stop Remodeling!

A common argument made against Historic District is that the protections for historic homes could discourage homeowners from maintaining or remodeling their houses.

We’re already seeing these claims being made by those who don’t want Laurelhurst to be protected as a Historic District. Some of them have a financial interest in the remodeling business. For example, this post by a contractor on NextDoor Laurelhurst:

“I am a general contractor in Portland. I specialize in residential remodeling. In the past 30 years have worked on over 600 projects from kitchen, bathrooms, garages and entire second story remodels. Irvington and Ladds addition are two east side Historical Districts. I use to do a fair amount of work in both neighborhoods. Not any more. Not as many people renovate in these districts because of the hassle and costs.”

Joe Petrina, posted on NextDoor.

Is it really true that “not as many people renovate in [historic] districts”? No. That claim is not true at all.

Irvington became a Historic District in 2010. We went to the City of Portland’s records and examined building permits issued in Irvington. Significant remodeling projects typically require building permits, at least if you do them legally. So let’s see: has Historic District listing has actually discouraged remodeling in Irvington?

The chart below shows the count of building permits issued in Irvington for each year from 2004 through 2016. Remodeling activity peaked in 2006-2008 – remember the Real Estate Bubble? – then declined in 2009-2011 – remember the Great Recession? – before recovering in 2013-2016. Today, Irvington Historic District homeowners are remodeling their homes even more than they were during the Real Estate Bubble when Irvington wasn't a historic district.

Clearly Historic District listing has not reduced the volume of remodeling in Irvington.

How has Historic District made a difference in the remodeling process?

In a Historic District, interior remodeling – like kitchens and bathrooms – are not affected at all: Historic District protections only apply to the exterior of a house. Only exterior remodeling of a house is reviewed.

That exterior work has to be compatible with the house’s architectural character. The homeowner or his contractor will submit drawings and information to the city for a “Historic Resource Review”. The project may run into problems if, for example, the homeowner or contractor is trying to use fiberglass or vinyl siding, corrugated metal, or other aggressively “contemporary” materials on a historic house, or if the contractor is trying to specify low-quality materials or do low-quality work, or if the project will destroy the house’s existing architectural features such as porches, eaves, or windows.

Fortunately, most homeowners who choose to buy a historic house in a neighborhood like Irvington (or Laurelhurst), don’t actually plan to convert their 1915 Craftsman bungalow into a modernist, contemporary, post-modernist, or other ultra-modern house. Nor do most actually want to destroy their house’s distinguishing architectural features.

Thus it may not be surprising that, when we examined the Historic Resource Reviews records for Irvington we found that less than 5% of projects get rejected, even temporarily. Over 95% of projects are approved on first review. That is because what Historic District rules are trying to protect is the same as what most homeowners are trying to protect.

So why do some contractors keep claiming that their work has dried up and that few people are remodeling houses in Historic Districts like Irvington, when the facts show that more remodeling projects are going on in Irvington now than in the peak years of the Real Estate Bubble?

We asked a contractor who is doing many of those Irvington projects, and got this perspective:

“I own McCulloch Construction, a design, remodel, and build company best known in Laurelhurst for protecting the landmark Markham House. We have done thousands of period renovations over the decades.

Not only has the brisk pace of remodeling in Irvington not slackened with historic recognition, but low quality hack work has decreased. There are still a few companies marring the irreplaceable art that is our classic architecture, but most have reduced their remuddling operations in Irvington.”

John McCulloch, via email.

A homeowner who completed a remodeling project in Irvington Historic District added:

“Perhaps we got lucky, or perhaps others failed to understand and document their plans. We built a detached garage for a contributing home in Irvington and didn't find the "burden" so horrible. We went through the entire review process, yes it forced our contractor that wasn't familiar with the rules to document plans more clearly...but it didn't derail the project or add "exorbitant" expenses like being implied here.

We did get guidance to use lap siding from the review process, but all we had to do was to explain how that didn't match the siding on our house. We were required to use fiber glass windows, however we had already intended to avoid vinyl. We already planned to use a beautiful garage door, design elements that matched the design of the house, and historical designed exterior light fixtures. Overall we didn't find the process as burdensome as everyone is making it out to be.

We had far more delays and frustration from our contractor than anything to do with BDS [Bureau of Development Services] or the Irvington historical [process].”

Russell Callen, posted on NextDoor.

Other inquiries we made in Irvington point to the same conclusion:

If the homeowner and contractor intend to do a quality project consistent with the architecture and design of the historic house, and if the contractor understands the historic review process and requirements, then Historic Resource Review is just another permit to be obtained. It won’t be a significant obstacle to the remodeling project, and it will protect the beauty and integrity of our historic houses and neighborhood.

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