Today we’re going to leave the borders of Laurelhurst and take a quick trip south. As you may have heard, Eastmoreland is trying to become a historic district and the issue has become rancorous. We wanted to find out: why did Eastmoreland start its historic district effort, and why has the debate there become so heated? At the end of this article, we’ll come back to Laurelhurst and see what lessons we can learn.
How Historic District Got Started in Eastmoreland.
We know Eastmoreland as one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in east Portland, and among the most expensive. As you walk by the large, lovely homes on big lots around Reed College, it is hard to imagine that they’d be candidates for demolition and infill development. But Eastmoreland has been targeted by developers for many years.
The reason is a quirk of history whech became a loophole for developers: “historical lot lines”. A century ago, much of Portland was a patchwork of small, irregular lots. As the city developed modern zoning, these fragmentary lots were pulled together into lots of regular size and neighborhoods were organized into today’s zones.
Some are single family neighborhoods - Laurelhurst, for example, is a “R5” zone, which (used to) mean one single family house per 5,000 sq ft lot – others are mixed, apartment, and commercial neighborhoods. This is so familiar to us today that we take it for granted. When you buy a house in a single-family house neighborhood, you assume that your neighborhood won’t become filled with apartment buildings, and that your little house won’t suddenly be surrounded by three-story walls.
But Portland’s development rules have a loophole. If a developer buys a house on a regular lot, if the lot used to be multiple fragmentary “historical lots”, the developer can demolish the house, split the lot along its historical lot lines, and build infill houses on those historical lots. Even if those lots are much smaller, and result in houses being squeezed much closer together, than the neighborhood’s zoning is supposed to allow. Read more about this at Restore Oregon here.
Eastmoreland has many of those historical lot lines. Developers know how to find those lines and split up the lots, helped by the city's maps described in the Portland Chronicle article here. By buying and demolishing one original house, they could build two houses. In a neighborhood like Eastmoreland, two infill housing units are so valuable that even beautiful, large, historic houses will be demolished.
Here is an example, that is going on right now. On the tree-lined corner lot at 7556 SE 29th St at Rex St there stands – but maybe not when you read this - a lovely 1925 house, known in the neighborhood as one of Eastmoreland’s “treasures”.
Last November, Everett Custom Homes bought this house for $750,000 and filed a demolition permit. Why demolish a three-quarter million dollar house? This lot has a historic lot line (the dashed blue line) running through it, so the developer can split it into two new lots. As you can see, many Eastmoreland lots have similar historic lot lines.
The historical lot lines here allow this developer to demolish one house and build two. That is so profitable that the history, beauty, and even price of this house didn’t protect it.
If you’ve been following the Residential Infill Project (RIP), you’ll see the parallels. RIP will allow developers to build two units on every lot in Laurelhurst. Developers will no longer have to go looking for historic lot lines; the city will let them “demolish one, build two” throughout Laurelhurst, Eastmoreland, and most east side Portland neighbors.
Infill developers have been demolishing historic houses in Eastmoreland at an accelerating rate. Houses demolished recently include 7110 SE Reed College Pl (demolished 2014), ), 3832 SE Woodstock Blvd (demolished 2014), 3679 SE Knapp St (demolished 2015),3646 SE Martins St (demolished 2015), 3685 SE Martins (demolished 2016), and almost a dozen more – all in the past few years. There have been enough demolitions in Eastmoreland that the entire south-eastern quarter of Eastmoreland is no longer even eligible to be listed as a historic district.
Here is a city map of demolitions in recent years in Eastmoreland.
Some of the earlier demolished houses were smaller, and most were bought for $500,000 or less. The 1925 treasure at SE 29th and Rex represents another phase; the demolition of large, expensive homes to build multiple infill units.
Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association (ENA) Tries To Protect The Neighborhood
For the Eastmoreland, historic district has been a last resort. The ENA first tried many ways to stop the accelerating destruction of Eastmoreland’s historic character. In 2011-12 it asked the city to stop lot-splitting along historic lot lines. In 2012-2015 it tried to get the city to amend existing rules in Eastmoreland to protect the neighborhood's character. In 2015 the ENA tried to get the city to protect Eastmoreland through zoning.
The city rejected all of those efforts. Developers and their allies (more about them later) portrayed Eastmoreland as a wealthy neighborhood "standing in the way of progress”, and the city refused to do anything to protect the neighborhood from demolitions.
In early 2016, the ENA turned to a National Register Historic District listing, as the last hope to protect historic houses in a historic neighborhood from demolition. The ENA voted to pursue a historic district listing. Neighborhood volunteers performed the necessary survey of houses, the Nomination was written and filed with the State Historic Protection Office (SHPO) in the fall, and Eastmoreland was on its way toward protection.
The Developers Move In.
Over the past decade, various Portland neighborhoods have attempted to become historic districts. Irvington gained historic listing in 2010; only one house has been demolished in Irvington in the past seven years, while 1,724 have been demolished elsewhere.
All the other historic district efforts were blocked by developers, often from outside the neighborhood, who joined the opposition campaigns. Developers profit from demolitions; stopping historic districts is good for business.
In the Buckman neighborhood, for example, outside developers and contractors moved in, worked with the opposition, who built a website (keepbuckmanfree.org) of “alternative facts”, sent letters to property owners, hired professional canvassers who went door to door, hired notaries who also went door-to-door, and successfully solicited enough objections to block the historic district nomination.
One of these outside interests was even from Laurelhurst: developer and LNA board member Joe Petrina of Petrina Construction.
In Eastmoreland today, developers are using the same playbook that worked in Buckman. A website (keepeastmorelandfree.org) which recycles many of the same misleading claims and residents' quotes, found on keepbuckmanfree.org, a well-funded leaflet and sign campaign, mobile notaries.
In addition to the keepeastmorelandfree.org website, there is a Keep Eastmoreland Free LLC owned by a commercial property owner and developer active in the opposition campaign, and a second LLC registered by another developer involved in the campaign.
The opponents of Historic District in Eastmoreland appear to be running a well-funded, professionally-managed campaign.
For example, a professional political polling company from Salem called Eastmoreland residents with a “push poll” in which the caller urged residents to oppose Eastmoreland’s historic district listing. This company, Nelson Report, is run by the well-known Oregon lobbyist, Mark Nelson (read more here). We've heard that professional telephone campaigns like this, using live telephone solicitors, cost well over $10,000.
As another example, a professional public relations and lobbying firm, Pacific Public Affairs LLC, is actively gathering residents' "stories" opposing Historic District. Here's a Facebook post from one of the persons recently contacted (we've blanked out his name):
The “Environmental” Groups Move In.
In the last several years, groups that we used to think of as environmental protectors have joined with developers to promote demolition and redevelopment of Portland's historic neighborhoods.
Many of us know "1000 Friends Of Oregon", the venerable environmental group whose mission is supposedly “Working with Oregonians to enhance our quality of life by building livable urban and rural communities, protecting family farms and forests, and conserving natural areas.”
It surprised us to learn that 1000 Friends is among the main supporters of the Residential Infill Project (RIP).
The Deputy Director of 1000 Friends worked with developers like Vic Remmers (Everett Custom Homes) on the "RIPSAC" committee to develop the RIP proposal.
1000 Friends is a member of the the "Portland for Everyone" coalition which was among the main lobbyists for the Residential Infill Project (RIP).
Through Portland For Everyone, 1000 Friends even organized "Testimony Prep Parties", training RIP supporters to testify at the public hearings.
1000 Friends' deputy director is now working to block the Eastmoreland historic district.
Does 1000 Friends' mission include helping developers demolish century-old historic houses built of old-growth timber and local materials, and replacing them with infill McMansions full of glue-and-scrap board and imported vinyl and plastic?
Are rows of new million-dollar duplexes more livablethan the lovely, historic, walkable neighborhood that Eastmoreland is today? Does throwing a century of old-growth timber in the landfill while cutting down acres of trees for new construction really protect forests? Is working with developers like Everett Custom Homes to push through RIP, and then working to deliver historic houses to those developers' bulldozers, what this non-profit should do with the $5 million in donations it has collected from Oregonians over the past few years?
Eastmoreland HEART Fights Back
Residents of Eastmoreland, trying to protect their neighborhood, are fighting back. They have organized as a grassroots group called HEARTand are calling their friends, talking to their neighbors, displaying lawn signs, and speaking out in support of the historic district effort.
HEART has no professional telephone pollsters, no public relations firms and lobbyists, and no related LLCs that we know of. They are badly outgunned, but fighting hard.
We have visited Eastmoreland, seen the infill demolition and development, and met with both supporters and opponents of historic district. We don’t know what the outcome will be. It will depend on whether residents can rise above the organized opposition campaign, the professional telephone push polls, the public relations firms and lobbyists, and the environmentalists who seem more focused on promoting high-density redevelopment of Portland’s historic neighborhoods than on the forests and rivers shown on their websites.
It doesn’t make sense to us that a neighborhood as lovely and historic as Eastmoreland should willingly let itself be demolished and redeveloped, but in the age of Trump and "alternative facts", anything can happen.
Lessons For Laurelhurst
Back home now, we reflect: what should Laurelhurst learn from the struggle in Eastmoreland?
First, the neighborhood has to be well informed about RIP and historic district, with accurate and documented facts. We believe that our neighbors want the truth, will distinguish between facts and alternative facts, and will make their decisions in the best interest of our neighborhood.
Second, the neighborhood must support a historic effort, for that effort to succeed. Recently the LNA board said it will not file a historic district nomination for Laurelhurst unless the Laurelhurst neighborhood supports it. That makes sense. The LNA board should do what the neighborhood wants. It is up to us – neighbors, working together – to show them what we want.
Third, whether Laurelhurst becomes a historic district or not, should be up to the residents of Laurelhurst and no-one else. Developers and anyone with a financial interest in demolitions and infill development should stay out of the discussion. 1000 Friends too - as much as we may respect that group's work for rivers and trees, this neighborhood is not a tree to be cut down.
Fourth, our petition campaign is really, really important. That's how the neighborhood can learn about historic district and show its support. Please consider getting involved.