By Midge Pierce
If a house on your block is slated for demolition, chances are you heard it first from The Portland Chronicle. The website is marking a year of providing comprehensive online information on virtually every teardown of a single-family home in the City.
More often than not, the houses it lists are in inner SE, a prime demo bull’s-eye, and Beaumont Wilshire where organizations like United Neighbors for Reform are most active.
The online publication is not only a source for demolition permits, but also an expose of code loopholes and zoning abuses. In some cases, the history of homes is documented as well as structural and livability conditions.
The site does not editorialize, but given the sheer volume of demolitions and permit abuses, the information is provocative.
Take the saga The Chronicle followed for months about the razing of an 1894 home at 1388 SE Madison, sold in 2014 for $514,000.
The posting, one of site’s most frequently read, claims that demolition regulations were skirted during the teardown. Zoning at the time allowed a one-for-one replacement home but two were actually built on the site. One sold for $750,000 and the other was listed at $850,000.
The Chronicle has revealed how underlying lots enable developers to legally exploit properties in older neighborhoods typically zoned R5.
Ostensibly, R5 means one house can be built on 5,000 square feet of ground, but if two 25 by 100 foot lots were put together with a house built in the middle a hundred years ago, they can be divided, providing each sublot contains 3,000 square feet.
This practice of opening an underlying lot allows builders to tear down the original house – no matter the size or condition – and replace it with two or more larger, more expensive homes.
The dilemma of lot-splitting is addressed at fixportlandzoning.com, a website that contends that the “demolition derby” makes the city less affordable by driving up both home prices and rents.
“Lot-busting replacement homes” rob Portland of its greenery, it says. Plus, builders who are able to pay cash up front push first-time home buyers out of the market.
The culprit, it contends, are zoning regulations that allow houses to almost completely fill lots, thereby encouraging pricey structures with masses and heights that overwhelm neighborhoods.
“Can you imagine Portland without its famous canopy, gardens and greenery?”, the site posits. “It’s been happening and the pace is quickening.”
United Neighborhoods for Reform has circulated a pledge signed by more than 40 neighborhood associations to try to stop such practices and keep older homes intact – or at least out of landfills.
Now, it is beginning to distribute fliers to alert neighbors in so-called demolition “fall-out” zones. These are areas in which hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos released in the air during demolition could get into gardens, play areas or schoolyards. (See unitedneighborhoodsforreform.blogspot.com.)
Finally, Restore Oregon has a website designed to consolidate information and educate the public on its views of the issue. The new Neighborhood Preservation site at restoreoregon.org/neighborhood-preservation has data on what, where and how much demolition is going on, a how to guide for obtaining delays as well the waste and landfill implications of demolition. It lists efforts for residential infill design.
Restore Oregon advocates policy initiatives to protect landmark buildings, encourage reuse of existing buildings and allow for responsible new construction.
Executive Director Peggy Moretti posts, “While not every old building is worth saving, retaining a sense of place is vital to our quality of life.”
The site’s projections of 400 single family home demolitions– most of which fail to meet the city’s objectives of affordability and density – is sobering indeed.
These organizations and others dealing with demolition, housing and affordability share a common denominator, a love for the city and a desire for Portlanders to make their voices heard.