By Midge Pierce
A 35-day prior notification and delay procedure is one result of the City’s new demolition regulations that took effect April 20. The delay can be expanded to 60 days if demolition alternatives are actively being pursued.
These latest requirements are generally considered a compromise even by the preservationists, developers and citizen activists who hammered out a deal that means neighbors will no longer awake to the sound of a bulldozer tearing down the house next door without warning. Still, the new regulations may not have come fast enough or go far enough for neighborhoods being torn apart at the seams.
United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) held its fourth summit in the week prior to implementation, to address demolition, affordability and hazardous materials release during demolition.
Facilitator Al Ellis commended the group’s dogged determination to have a seat at the table. “We had to ride on the coat-tails of the developers. Some progress has been made. We’re moving forward, but slowly.”
Loopholes that developers could drive their trucks through have been closed largely as a result of a UNR circulated petition. Until recently, a code exemption called K-1 allowed “stealth demolition” if developers applied for demolition permits at the same time they requested permits for a replacement house.
In the newly-implemented regulations,demolition definitions have been tightened.
What’s not in the regulations are new construction guidelines. A litany of horror stories were recited at the summit: People coming home from work to find the house next door gone; Charmless McMansions replacing viable, affordable homes; a developer overheard boasting that at the current rate of demolition, Beaumont-Wilshire could lose all its bungalows in 10 years; sooner, as one speaker suggested, for inner SE neighborhoods like Richmond.
Urging the assembly to stay positive, Ellis called for more City Council hearings to preserve the best and most affordable aspects of Portland. Speakers cited the mayor’s support for a citizen task force to develop design recommendations.
The task force could address mass, footprints, setback and the height of new buildings to preserve neighborhood character, tree canopies, sunlight, privacy and protect what a UNR blog calls blue sky, sunshine and the ability to grow gardens.
Given the slow turnaround at City Hall, speaker Margaret Davis expressed dismay that it might take 18 months or so to set up a task force. She drew nervous laughter when she said that LA had successfully stopped demolition while sustainability conscious Portland has not.
The construction boom turned neighborhoods into profit centers, she said. “Thirty years ago when current zoning was put in place, no one thought builders would develop lots to the maximum.” Now they are.
Activist Barb Strunk said the replacement of starter homes with so-called executive housing has raised the median house price in her neighborhood to $760 K. Houses built are 2.3 times bigger than the houses they replace and 2.4 times more expensive. She seeks code changes to incentivise remodels and stem the waves of “huge, wasteful replacement houses”.
Tearing down fixer-uppers is one of many UNR issues. Lot splitting is a concern to neighbors of homes on large lots. Some 2000 homes sit on 5000 Sq foot lots in areas zoned for greater density.
“They will be demolished,” according to Jim Heuer, Portland Coalition for Historic Resources. While such lots are tucked throughout the city, a significant number are in the Richmond, Hawthorne and Belmont areas. Houses on transit corridors are at greatest risk.
It’s not just that demolitions make the City unrecognizable, it’s the potential release of asbestos and lead and other safety issues that raise alarms.
In the Richmond area recently, no warnings or permits were posted as excavators and freight trucks plied heavily traveled sidewalks frequented by school children. It happens all over town every day.
With hazardous waste,” we assume good controls are in place,” said John Sandie. “Not so.”
Newly-adopted regulations require certification of asbestos and lead prior to permit issuance but it’s largely a self-certification program with few teeth. “Our job is to identify where are the vulnerabilities are, then pick and choose our battles,” said Sandie.
City officials say it’s too soon to know what impact the compromise regulations will have. So far, demolition has not stopped. Just days after the new regs went into effect, a massive historic church in NE Portland was felled despite a petition to stop destruction and with no apparent attempt to dampen down potentially toxic dust.
While the April 20 regulations may not slow or stop demolition, Brandon Spencer-Hartle, a senior program manager at Restore Oregon, says they can involve the public more in process. He is also hopeful that the mayor’s proposed task force for zoning can make a difference in helping neighborhoods determine their futures.
Another reason for optimism is a plan to be released to Council on June 3 by a deconstruction advisory committee to reduce demolition waste streams.
“If a house is going away,” Spencer-Hartle said, “we have to come up with a more environmentally sensitive way to deal with that waste than to send it to the landfill. The City and metro must play a role to ensure the health and safety of citizens.”
Impressed by the passion and determination of citizen activists at the UNR Summit, Spencer-Hartle sees preservation gaining momentum.
“One thing that Portland does really well is community engagement and neighborhood problem-solving.”