Preserving Portland history

By Bob Kellett
Neighborhood Planning Program Manager
SE Uplift Neighborhood Coalition


The City of Portland turned 163 years old this year. It is young compared to cities on the east coast and a mere babe compared to cities in other parts of the world. Even with its relative youthfulness, Portland is a city with history. You can see it in our public spaces such as our Olmstead-designed parks and our pioneer cemeteries, the parts of our street grid that is a remnant of the streetcar era and in our homes and offices. In fact, more than half of Portland’s buildings are older than 50 years old and there are over 20,000 buildings that were built before 1910. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, these buildings connect our present with our past and provide context for our shared identity.

As Portland continues to evolve and grow, we face the difficult task of trying to accommodate new people, new jobs, and new buildings, while preserving the older buildings that make our city a special place. How do we balance new development with historic preservation? How do we decide what we should fight to keep and what we can let go of? These are challenging questions and to answer them, we first must understand how Portland designates its historic resources and what tools are in place to preserve them.

Buildings, sites, trees and other objects can be classified in a number of different ways. This includes:

Historic Landmarks: These come in three forms. The first is a “local landmark” designated by the City of Portland. The second is a “national register property” listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The third type is a National Historic Landmark. Portland has two of these: Pioneer Square and the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District.

Conservation Landmarks: These are individual resources designated by the City of Portland that may have a “lesser” level of significance than historic landmarks. They are treated like local historic landmarks in the city code and are subject to the same 120 day demolition delay.

Historic Resources Inventory (HRI): As part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan update in the early 1980s, there was a citywide inventory to determine properties with potential historical and/or architectural significance. As a result more than 5,100 properties are on the HRI.

Historic Districts: Just like individual properties, historic districts come in two flavors: local and national. In Portland’s case, all 15 of its historic districts have been designated as such both locally and in the National Register.

Conservation Districts: These districts are designated by the City of Portland, but have “lower” significance than historic districts.

Properties and districts listed on the national or local historic designation lists are subject to the City of Portland’s historic resource review. This means most changes to the exterior of historic and conservation landmarks are reviewed to make sure they preserve a building’s historic characteristics, features, and materials. Additionally, construction of new buildings in historic districts undergoes a historic design review with the goal that new buildings support the district’s historic qualities.

Zoning Code Preservation Incentives

The city’s zoning code offers property owners a number of incentives to preserve historic properties. Depending on the property’s location and zoning, these might include the transfer of unused density from one site to another, additional residential density allowances on properties, less onerous and costly conditional use review processes, and greater allowances for non-residential uses. All of these incentives are designed to entice property owners to maintain a historic structure.

Portland has a lot in place to try to preserve its historic landmarks and districts – not to mention the local, state, and federal grants and other financing tools that support preservation. However, designations, reviews and incentives are imperfect tools. The designation process for an individual property is difficult and requires a motivated property owner to initiate it.

Finding a balance between property rights, preservation, and growth is a challenge, and that challenge is likely only going to increase as Portland continues to grow and as our buildings continue to age. It may be time to re-examine the tools that are in place to see what is working, what isn’t working, and what else could be added to the mix.

As we continue our discussion about Portland’s Comprehensive Plan and what we want the city to look like 20 years from now, it may also be time to re-examine our relationship with historic and cultural sites. What are our values and how should they be reflected in the buildings and places in which we live?

Bob Kellett can be reached at 503.232.0010 ext. 314 This article first appeared in The SE Uplift newsletter, October edition and can be read in its entirety there.


Preserving Portland history

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