State Relaxes Historic Hurdles

By Midge Pierce

For National Historic District nominations, the wind of opposition may have lost some sail.

For homes in new districts, onerous required design reviews – the hard-sell against national HD designations – are gone, at least for now. Property owners in new districts will be able to renovate, remodel outdoors as well as indoors, build additions, ADUs, and other exterior alterations that were once subject to time-consuming permitting and uncertain expense.

At the same time, the new rules uphold the key protections supporters sought – deterring the wholesale demolition of the neighborhood.

Now that Eastmoreland’s nomination has hurdled past the state en route to DC, and neighborhoods like Laurelhurst or iconic streets like Peacock Lane consider the nation’s highest historic honor, this is welcome news for those on the fence about whether to support designations or opt out.

The National Park Service which administers the program is expected to decide this summer whether to add Eastmoreland to its National Register of Historic Places. If it does, the enclave would be Portland’s first designation in nearly a decade, one that would usher in this new era of design de-regulation.

While much is yet to be determined, Brandon Spencer-Hartle, who left Restore Oregon to lead preservation work within the City’s Bureau Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, confirms the state’s new rules provide huge flexibility. He says the City is expected to eventually propose design guidelines for new HDs, but a thorough process will be conducted first to allow resident input on whether they need reviews for window replacements, solar panels and the like – or not.

Joining the National Register of Historic Places is neither quick nor easy. Lenient rules will not sway those who want to demolish and redevelop properties.

At this point, Eastmoreland’s designation is far from certain. If 50% plus one resident sends in a notarized objection, the designation automatically dies. Despite the removal of automatic pricey, cumbersome reviews, the battle of yard signs rages. Rumors abound about notaries scouring the enclave for opt-outs that can kill the nomination and nonprofit advocacy groups that spread misleading information.

In Laurelhurst, the neighborhood association board has approved pursuing designation with the caveat that the majority of neighbors support the nomination before it is filed. Supporters are bracing for backlash they say will come from those with development interests.

Peacock Lane’s harmonious Christmas Street may encounter less opposition even though a builder has made inroads by splitting a lot.

The City’s dilemma is how to balance the desires of preservationists against the demands of developers and need for greater density. Spencer-Hartle says both can be achieved without demolition.

“By adding ADUs and converting single family homes, we can meet housing needs, add energy upgrades and keep demolition materials out of landfills. Those who want protections from demolition can find ways to accommodate those who want growth.”

Spencer-Hartle is encouraged by other newly expanded preservation options. Local landmark and conservation districts may once again become options for some Portland neighborhoods and the toothless Historic Resources Inventory (HRI) list, not updated since the 80s, has a green light to refresh listings plus new chops to discourage teardowns.

HRI properties, whose owners could previously file for removal from the list and a demolition permit the same day, are now guaranteed 120-day delays in permit-granting, with none of the strings attached to non-listed homes such as requirements for alternative plans with funding at the ready.

“National Historic District is the highest level of property protection,” Spencer-Hartle explains. “But it’s not for everyone.” And not all neighborhoods qualify. Interested citizens can contact the state Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) or local organizations such as Restore Oregon for initial drive-by assessments to determine if their neighborhood has enough historic merit to move forward.

For those seeking the ultimate protection, he advised extensive research.

Along the 3300 block of Belmont, activists interested in saving streetcar era buildings, need a solid case, difficult to make for buildings owned by developers. Even the distinctive so-called cupcake building on the corner of 33rd and Belmont may be vulnerable to demolition. While listed on the City’s Historic Resources Inventory, it is not on the National Register.

State Relaxes Historic Hurdles

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