By Midge Pierce
Portlanders may assume historic designations protect treasured places from the SE wave of new construction, but the saga of the Herman Vetter Property, midway up SE Taylor between 55th and 60th, indicates that even National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) are vulnerable to development.
Everett Custom Homes purchased the property in 2013 with plans to build a large prototype in front of the handsome 1890s Queen Anne vernacular. Before a permit had been pulled, the developer gouged a parking pad that runs like a concrete scar up the hillside.
While the builder later claimed the lack of permit was a mistake, neighbors grew vexed when the City hurriedly approved that permit and later, the partitioning of a developable lot. The size of Everett’s proposed new build and its proximity to a giant sequoia on adjacent property drew impassioned objections from neighbors.
Within months, Everett resold the house to one family and the buildable lot to another. Both new owners say they plan to respect the historic character of the property, but questions linger about a process that allowed for partition of a nationally-registered property.
“It’s an unusual situation,” says SE Uplift Neighborhood Planning Manager Bob Kellett. “The Bureau of Development Services lacks tools to protect these resources.”
Preservationists seem perplexed too. “It’s not very often we hear of someone building a new house on a National Register property,” says Val Ballestrem, education manager at Bosco Milligan Foundation’s Architectural Heritage Center. “It happens all the time with historic properties that are not designated.”
This fall, Tim Rhys moved into the Vetter house expecting his young sons would grow up with a sense of their new home’s roots. Among his priorities is pulverizing the concrete parking pad. Doing everything he can to preserve the property is another. “I saw a picture of how it looked before it was split and the drive went in. It was beautiful with its sloping walkway and vintage lighting.”
The developable lot was purchased by builder Ethan Beck, whose company sports the tagline: “Our homes have history and soul”.
The house he proposes is set back from the Vetter home, away from the giant sequoia. He also plans to preserve the stately English walnut on the lot.
“I love the neighborhood. I’m excited about the plan. We have been working on the design for about 10 months, receiving input from the city’s historical resource review team, neighbors, as well as other design professionals.”
Architect John Cava, a Taylor Street neighbor, was chosen to design a dwelling typical of the1890s. Cava says his concept looks like a traditional carriage house while functioning as a single family dwelling. Massing, roof slope, color scheme, materials, window and trim details will match that of the Vetter House as closely as possible.
Since the house will be built on NRHP property, it is required to go through historic review. However, even Cava, who designed the concept to fit the era, questions whether the process is stringent enough. While the City had the legal right for a partition conforming with R5 zoning, Cava acknowledges, “The lot division should never have been allowed.”
Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA) Landuse Chair Stephanie Stewart tried to stop the land division a year ago. In a letter submitted to the city in November, 2013, she called the Vetter property a “rare and historic asset” integral to the development of SE during the streetcar era.
“This lot is worth preserving as a whole. The proposal to divide up and then build a new house on the lawn of the Vetter house seems akin to putting a house on the lawn of the Pittock Mansion.”
For Rhys, the more he learns about the property, the more determined he is to stop what he calls “a theft of the nation’s historic heritage.” A film maker and publisher who moved to Portland for its storied quality of life, Rhys is appalled the City has allowed plans to get to the design stage. “It’s a travesty that this National Historic landmark is altered to the point where it would not have been put on the registry in the first place.”
In comments submitted to the planning department’s historic review officer, Rhys writes that there is far too little “vigorous defense” of the preservation of Portland’s historic properties. Allowing construction of a new house on the Vetter lot “would eviscerate the property’s character and the intention of the national designation,” he says, urging government officials to avoid making an “irreversible” and “damaging error” by allowing construction to move forward.
Hillary Adam, the Historic Review planner currently reviewing comments about everything related to construction of the proposed new house, says her office will release the decision to approve or disapprove the building later this month. She likes that the house Beck and Cava propose is smaller in scale than the Everett plan and is setback to preserve views.
Because the new lot is still within the national historic property boundary, however, she says the decision could be appealed to the mayor’s Historic Landmarks Commission. The process costs $250. “Often people submit comments about a plan they dislike, but then they don’t pursue the appeal.”
State Historic Preservation officer Ian Johnson says his office has no regulatory authority over the property. “This is a local planning issue. We don’t comment on these.”
A benefit of the Historic Register is tax savings for property owners. While the original tax benefit for the Vetter Home has expired, Johnson says the current owners can apply for a second term that would freeze its assessed value, providing the tax savings are applied to historic restorations.
Historic preservationists worry about the future. “In SE Portland,we have very few houses on the national register,” says Ballestrem. “In theory this [Vetter Property] could set a dangerous precedent for individual houses.”
Laments Stewart, “Understand that code changes may protect the next Herman Vetter lot, but they won’t reverse what happened here.”
Rhys says if the property has to be developed, he is relieved it is by Beck and Cava. Still, he says, “I intend to protest vehemently until the shovels hit the ground.”