By Midge Pierce
With its adoption of an interim building code amendment last month, City Council took baby steps toward addressing outrage over Portland’s demolition epidemic.
The ordinance, which will require notice and delay for all single family residence demolitions, is a compromise that swaps 120-day potential extensions for automatic 35 day delays plus 60 more if appeals are filed. Appeals are free if made by a neighborhood association. The cost to citizens is $1318.
This you-can’t-please-everyone ordinance is based on recommendations hammered out by the Development Review Advisory Council and the Historic Landmarks Commission. For builders, the delays are still too long; for homeowners, not long enough. If a neighborhood association is unable to respond within the initial 35 days, appeal, and vigilance, falls to neighbors.
The burden is misplaced, according to Cathy Galbraith, Executive Director of the Bosco-Milligan Architectural Heritage Center. “There’s a lot to like in the new package such as updates to the historic inventory, but the new rules make it difficult for citizens to meet appeal requirements.”
Developer Rich Castlebrook counters that every new zoning code and delay adds costs, time and construction job losses. All this “jacks up” prices he said during public testimony.
It will be several months before the amendment goes into effect and Galbraith fears a lot more homes will be lost by then. “Right now we’re seriously into the building season with a much milder winter and no sign of construction slowdown. Losing a thousand homes in traditional neighborhoods in a few years has had a huge impact on the City’s character.”
Demolitions are on track to break records this year. The Bureau of Development Services reports 457 demolitions between May 2013 and November 2014. Of those, 344 were exempt from notice and delay requirements.
The new ordinance eliminates exemptions that allow builders to avoid giving notice to neighbors in adjacent properties if they file permits for building a new home along with demolishing the old. The amendment also tightens the definition of demolitions to include the removal of structures down to the subflooring and establishes a new permit category for major alterations or additions.
What’s still missing from the package are design standards that address setbacks, massing, height and neighborhood character. During packed sessions, public testimony featured members of United Neighborhoods for Reform, a grassroots group which has circulated a demolition reform petition signed by more than 40 neighborhoods.
They call for sustainability and preservation incentives. One chided the City for “considering neighborhoods profit centers” rather than cohesive communities where people live.
Barbara Kerr, Community advocate, said that protecting existing homes protects affordability. Tearing small homes down is not sustainable. Rather, it causes instability among residents who fear they will be priced out of their own neighborhoods.
Realtor Alyssa Isenstein lamented the loss of once plentiful starter homes in need of elbow grease. Developers outbid young homebuyers and promise quick closings, she said, coming with cash, no contingencies and the jaws of a backhoe.
Justin Wood of the Homebuilders Association disputed the perception that all new homes are executive mansions and claimed not all older homes are worth saving.
Demolition is needed, he continued, to meet the 15,000 new homes the City has told Metro it can build. Out of 15,000 houses, he claimed 9,400 could be built through infill.
Testimony covered the environmental advantages of recycling deconstruction materials and increasing demolition fees to establish an affordable housing account.
A major focus was the handling of lead and asbestos during demolition and deconstruction. UNR’s Al Ellis said current policing of hazardous materials is toothless. Reporting is largely a matter of self-certification under the regulatory authority of the state DEQ office over which the City has no jurisdiction.
A lack of a coordinated complaint line was another concern. “Who do you call if you have a concern?” voiced a resident.
Developer Jeff Fish acknowledged that hazardous materials are a bear to deal but added that “there’s probably a lot more hysteria” than problem.
Commissioner Nick Fish shared firsthand uneasiness over a teardown near his home, citing “anecdotal evidence” that hazardous materials are handled casually. If inspections and accredited certification is a priority, he said the City should find the money to cover the cost.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz responded that City Development Services, which she oversees, is already stretched beyond capacity. “You can’t add work without a funded workplan,” she exhorted.
Further hazmat discussion along with design and deconstruction incentives will have to wait until the interim amendment is reviewed next summer.
For now, attorney Steve Elder’s call for stricter controls and higher costs for the removal of sound structures provided this fitting summation:
“It took over 100 years to weave the fabric of attractive neighborhoods. We don’t want them shredded.”