By Midge Pierce

“Demolition is like a cancer spreading through the City,” lamented Sunnyside resident Jeff Cole as demonstrators gathered on a recent Saturday in front of a one hundred year-old Hawthorne Blvd. home approved for demolition. Citizens, said Cole, need to band together to effectively stop the epidemic.

Demonstrators out front of 3423 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

Demonstrators out front of 3423 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

Members of Stop Demolishing Portland is one group amping up its grassroots efforts, staging one of its August protests in front of 3423 Hawthorne Blvd., a building group co-founder Terra Wheeler calls a local landmark. A five story apartment complex is planned on the site of the 1909 foursquare that sold for $900,000.

As long as it stands, she urges citizens to rise and shout ‘STOP’. “This is an example of a home that could be retrofitted for low income apartments,” Wheeler said of the 3900 square foot building.

Apparently, no onsite parking will be provided for the complex to be built in the heart of the busy Hawthorne shopping district. At 30 units, the development rubs up against minimal requirements for minimal parking.

To illustrate the problem, a local architect integrated the developer’s sketch with a graphic of the existing streetscape. The proposal shown would rise 55 feet above the street,- approximately 20 feet higher than a four story new build across the street.

According to protesters, the plan is incompatible with the surrounding Main Street feel of Hawthorne that has been a hub of refurbishing older buildings for a decade.

Wheeler said the house is on the City’s historic inventory from the 1980s. The designation, however, lacks the official protection of a National Historic Registry. Rather, she described how structures on the inventory become a virtual shopping list for developers. “They look at the list and if they find a house in disrepair, they do a cash buy.” Young families who might otherwise afford the home as a fixer-upper are priced out of the market.

“The City doesn’t care about the history and character of our neighborhoods,” said a demolition-seasoned Sellwood resident.

Against an apocalyptic smoke-laden Saturday sky, the only sliver of fortune was that the lot is highly visible. “If they build what’s planned, it will be the poster child for what’s wrong with our code,” continued Cole.

“This the first place where we’ve been able to protest in front of a house on a major thoroughfare,” added Jon Wood.

Wheeler said the group aims for more visibility but the process is daunting. “We are struggling to mobilize faster. To be effective, we need to act at the same pace as development.”

The action group is driven by an amalgam of passions coming from 1500 online members from throughout the City. Most have signed up in the last three months as construction trucks ply their streets and awareness grows.

Stop Demolishing Portland’s website, along with handouts distributed at the protest, outline what group members feel is wrong with current code including demolition that destroys affordability, processes that burn up the energy embodied in the old growth timber frames of older homes and the destruction of Portland’s tree canopy. One resident decried Portland as becoming an unaffordable haven for the elite.

Protesters audibly groaned when asked about the City’s new emergency demolition ordinance.  “We argued for delays, but what we got was way worse,” several explained at once.

In effect, they claimed, the new regulations reduce delay time from potential 120 days to 60 days, with requests required to come from official organizations (like neighborhood associations) along with proof of viable means to fund alternatives. Most citizens lack the time and sophistication to stop projects started by developers who initiate permits for a living.

“We can’t depend on zoning or the comp plan,” said Cole. “All the developers want is a fast buck for low quality, poor form and shoddy exteriors like hardy board.”

Part of the difficulty is that demolition is happening so fast on so many fronts that activists’ attention is dispersed over a wide swath of development. Every part of the city is impacted and residents strain to keep up with the change and gentrification in their own neighborhoods.

“What the City needs now is a hero to stop the demolition,” said Cole. “Heroes need to coalesce all the small, divergent coalitions in the city and make a mass movement to get the City’s attention,” he continued.

“You’re the man for the job,” urged another member of Stop Demolition Now who had gathered for an eastside protest for the third time in recent weeks.

Former resident Dave Otto summed up. “We’re destroying history we won’t get back for the sake of a momentary building epidemic. I love this City with all my heart. It’s hard on me to see so much that is a part of me, that I don’t recognize.”

Otto was forced to move to Tigard when he could no longer afford Portland’s high cost of housing.