By Midge Pierce

A loophole in Portland’s zoning code that can expedite demolition along historic Belmont clouds Sunnyside’s future.

The loophole allows property owners to voluntarily remove commercial buildings from the City’s Historic Resources Inventory and avoid a 120-day demolition delay. Developers can theoretically delist and get a demo permit the same day.

“This is cultural kidnapping and architectural extortion,” charged Meg Hanson, organizer of a peaceful anti-demolition protest in the 3300 block of Belmont. The block is the site of a recent delisting at 3342 SE Belmont, home to Circa 33 and Suzette Creperie. Next door, the century-old 3334 SE Belmont building is slated for demolition and replacement with a multi-story steel and glass structure. Owner Valerie Hunter of Get R Done Construction has said she would stop her project if someone pays $2 million to purchase it.

“This is the going rate for kidnapping our distinctive town center,” Hanson said. “We’re surrounded by destruction and woefully without tools to stop this.”  The 3300-3400 blocks of Belmont that date back to the 1880s were the Eastside’s first shopping center. Hanson believes the district is one of – if not the last – intact streetcar-era, Main Streets left in Portland. She fears it will be eviscerated much like Sellwood and other eastside neighborhoods.

The buyback tactic has worked in residential areas – notably Eastmoreland’s giant sequoia lot and Laurelhurst’s Markham home. Hanson doubts it can work everywhere given that there are some 3000 homes in Portland potentially at risk. They include the delisted historic home at 7707 SE Alder and the architectural gem in Northeast Portland known as the Ocobock Mansion.

Soon to be developed area on SE Belmont

Soon to be developed area on SE Belmont

Hanson and petitioners from Montavilla to the King neighborhood seek to get a Close the Loophole Coalition petition in front of City Commissioners as soon as possible. “We’re in a race against time,” said Hanson who recognizes a need for balance between construction of affordable housing and preservation.

“We are losing incredible, irreplaceable stretches of vintage blocks and homes,” lamented Jeff Cole, a Sunnyside Board member until May’s elections. “Once neighborhoods are gone, they can never be restored.” Cole has pointed out that Sunnyside is already a 20-minute neighborhood and questioned why so much change targets Sunnyside rather than building other 20-minute neighborhoods. “People want more density until they see what happens to the buildings and community.”

Before new board members were elected, placards lined the wall at the Sunnyside Community Center saying “Save Historic Belmont. This Place Matters. Save the Past and Enrich the Future.” Cole addressed coming demolitions along Belmont and concerns about the potential demolition of a house on Peacock Lane, cherished for its charming English cottage-style homes.  The proposal is causing widespread alarm. “Peacock Lane is unusual for its architectural cohesion,” said Cole. The Chinese filmed a documentary about the street. It is a special place.”

Surprisingly, Peacock Lane has neither historic protections nor restrictive covenants. Current plans that involve splitting the lot at 522 into two parcels are perfectly legal, according to Cole.

Vic Remmers’ of Everett Custom Homes seeks to develop the empty parcel. Remmers has rubbed many an angry elbow with Southeast residents from Eastmoreland to Richmond over removal of trees, teardowns of viable single family homes and construction of houses out-of-character with existing architecture. “Nothing can stop the building of a tall, skinny house on a 35-foot wide lot,” warned Cole.

Residents claimed Remmers, who says he would work with neighbors on design, also told them he too would be willing to sell. His asking price for the narrow vacant lot is $350 K. If no one ponies up, Remmers will have a high traffic showcase for his building during the annual Christmas light show attended by thousands annually. Either way, Remmers breaks hearts or wallets, according to activist Hanson.

As for the fate of the existing home, a so-called shell company operating out of Washington plans to remodel and resell it. Resident requests to meet with the owners had been ignored at this writing but the Perrin family of Vancouver reportedly spoke with housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman who wrote a letter supporting Peacock Lane. Cole is cautiously optimistic the hue and cry will transform the project.

Up Belmont in the 4300 block, three homes and a lengthy stretch of the eastside’s superior solar access will vanish to make way for a 70-unit building. And on SE Hawthorne, site of a rooftop sit-in, Cole has told residents to watch for construction of a 55-foot tall building.

Landuse and transportation co-chair Michael Molinaro provided background on the challenges Sunnyside faces. The neighborhood is already one of the City’s densest, shouldering nearly three times the population of areas like Eastmoreland. With 19 residents per acre, it is approaching par with the Pearl District. An architect who has saved some half million square feet of landmarks across the country, Molinaro describes himself as a preservationist who also advocates for owner’s right.  “Preservation laws are not what we like in Oregon. A property owner can do what he wants regardless of neighbors. We need to find a balance that engages new people in the process.”

The City’s historic resource inventory lists 133 buildings in the neighborhood. Molinaro indicated another 400 qualify. But listing on the HRI offers little or no actual protection beyond the four-month delay.

A better option is designation in the National Historic Registry because it offers protections that supercede the City and state. But the designation process is daunting, requiring extensive research and review that can take more than a year. If an entire street or community is included, a majority of owners must approve the proposal.

Buckman started the process years ago but could not get sufficient property owner support. Both Eastmoreland and Laurelhurst are exploring options that might establish useful guidelines for other neighborhoods.

Not all residents want to preserve the past. A dissenting view came from a young woman squeezed by rising rents who advocated for development to accommodate greater densification and affordability. Others responded that instead of affordable units, developers prefer the profit in upscale houses, pricey condos and cheap-looking but overpriced apartments.

“The heart of Belmont is not the only place left to build affordable housing,” said Hanson who believes there is room for growth that respects neighborhoods. She holds hope that a pending judgement in an Oregon Supreme Court Case will close the loophole that allows same day permitting for delisted houses. Lawsuits will be a last but possibly necessary resort. So far, she said, it seems like all residents can do is bang the tin cans while builders take advantage of city policies that favor developers over existing residents.

Hanson recognizes that compromise between progress and preservation is essential. “You can’t just put plastic on the furniture and never touch it. But right now we’re playing whack a mole.”

The full text of the petition and action items requested can be found at https://www.change.org/p/close-historic-property-demolition-delay-loophole

    Remmers Responds

Can you provide an update on plans to develop the property at 522 SE Peacock Lane?

Our Everett Custom Homes team has applied for a lot confirmation with the city of Portland, which is being processed at this time. To be clear, Everett Custom Homes is only interested in the vacant lot next door to the existing home on Peacock Lane. We do not own the homesite with the house currently residing on it, nor will we ever take possession of that homesite.

Once it’s split into two properties, we plan to build a home on the vacant lot that will be approximately 25 feet wide. Per our previous conversations and feedback from the neighborhood, the final home will be built in a style similar to the English cottages currently on Peacock Lane.

Is it true that you would sell the lot for $350 K?

I am always open to the possibility of selling the homesite to someone else. I have not had any serious conversations with any of the neighbors in regards to selling the homesite. We have not discussed a price to selling the homesite either.

How do you respond to neighbors’ who feel that this is outrageous?

Our team understands current concerns regarding 522 Peacock Lane, and are more than happy to address any thoughts or questions from the community. Everett Custom Homes prides itself on being a responsible partner, and that’s exactly why we’re dedicated to working closely with the Peacock Lane neighborhood throughout this process. Since holding a neighborhood meeting in late April, we’ve been able to further understand their concerns and are working towards finding an agreed upon solution for the design of the home. With the urban growth boundary being what it is, Portlanders will see more and more undeveloped lots being developed in the coming years. Without this, the city of Portland will be unable to support the influx of new residents.