City Wants To Allow Demolitions of Laurelhurst's Historic Houses

This is an alert and call to action. The city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is moving forward with its "Historic Code Revision Project" (HRCP). There are two proposals that could harm our Laurelhurst Historic District.


You may have guessed what the issue is . . .



Photos by Scott Tice


HRCP is a big, complicated rewrite of the city's rules for historic landmarks and districts. The draft code alone is over 200 pages long. Some parts are good, in that they would give some protection to city-designated Conservation Districts and bring some welcome changes to city-designated Historic Districts.


But Laurelhurst is not a city-designated District. We are a National Register Historic District established after 2017. For us, some HRCP changes would be negative.


FIRST, the city would make it a lot easier to demolish a historically contributing house in the Laurelhurst Historic District.


This is the provision, in section 33.846.080.D.4:


" Approval criteria. Proposals to demolish a historic resource will be approved if the review body finds that one of the following approval criteria is met:

"The proposal is to demolish a contributing resource in a single‐dwelling zone in a National Register District, and demolition of the resource will result in more affordable housing than could practicably result from preservation, rehabilitation, or reuse of the resource;"


This is being touted as the "affordable housing" criterion. More affordable housing is clearly needed in Portland. But read the criterion carefully. The proposed code does not say that the replacement housing must be "affordable housing". It only has to be "more affordable" than what the developer claims would result from preserving the historic house. This is a giant loophole.



Here's how it would work. On NE Oregon, just west of 33rd, an attractive 1921 bungalow was recently bought for $450,000 and demolished to build a 35 foot tall duplex with each unit priced at over $700,000. You may have read about it here and here.


If the city adopts the proposed code, developers could similarly demolish any historic contributing house in Laurelhurst. The developer could state that the historic house "needs" $300,000 of remodeling and upgrades. $450,000 plus $300,000 is $750,000. Since the new units are each $700,000, they are "more affordable".



There are other ways the proposed code could be used to approve demolitions of historic houses without producing affordable housing. We won't mention them here, but developers' lawyers will figure them out.


Note that, already, only historic "contributing" houses in Laurelhurst have protection from demolition. About 25% of our neighborhood - over 400 houses - are not contributing and can already be demolished. The HRCP would make 100% of Laurelhurst available for demolition!


SECOND, the city would be able to pack the Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) with developers, lawyers, lenders, contractors, and others to approve those demolitions.


The HLC will review any proposed demolition in Laurelhurst, so it is a very important body.


Today the commissioners are highly qualified historians, architectural historians, preservation architects, and other experts in preserving Portland's historic buildings and places.


The proposed code, 33.710.060, would allow the Mayor to instead appoint people who are in the business of "real estate, economics, construction, community development, . . . law, [or] finance".


Prospective commissioners would be asked to have a "demonstrated interest" in historic preservation, but wouldn't have to have actual experience or expertise in this field. Two commission members could be real estate developers, and the rest could all be in industries dependent on developers. To be very clear: the future Historic Landmarks Commission wouldn't have to have any architectural historian or preservation experts at all.




Historic preservation is a critical part of the Planning Commission’s mission: sustainability. As the HRCP itself notes in its values statement: “Extending the useful life of existing buildings retains embodied carbon and reduces landfill waste.” Moreover, historic neighborhoods, in Portland and throughout the country, are widely recognized for being pedestrian-friendly, a characteristic that induces people to take short trips by foot instead of by carbon-emitting cars. Given the seriousness of the climate change crisis, it is critical that cities not only build walkable neighborhoods but also preserve the ones that already exist.

Why is the city trying to make demolitions easier in Laurelhurst? The city planners don't like residents and neighborhoods taking the initiative to become National Register Historic Districts. The bureau can't take away Laurelhurst's National Register listing, but they can erode our demolition protections.


WHAT TO DO?


1. Go to the Map App https://www.portlandmaps.com/bps/historic-resources/#/map/ and click the button to submit your written testimony, as soon as possible - ideally before the October 27 Planning and Sustainability Commission hearing, and definitely before the October 30 deadline for written testimony.


2. Email the Mayor and commissioners. Commissioner Hardesty runs the Bureau of Planning, but they will all eventually vote on whether to approve the proposed code.


Mayor Ted Wheeler - mayorwheeler@portlandoregon.gov

Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty - JoAnn@portlandoregon.gov

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly - chloe@portlandoregon.gov

Commissioner Amanda Fritz - Amanda@portlandoregon.gov

Commissioner Dan Ryan - dan@portlandoregon.gov


3. Tell your friends and neighbors and get ready to write, call, and testify LOUDLY when this comes to city council in early 2021.


Questions? Email ul

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