By Midge Pierce
As SE Portland continues to be split at the seams by development, residents along historic corridors like Belmont are learning the hard way that the City currently lacks tools to keep intact the beloved blocks that define their neighborhood.
More than half of Portland’s buildings are more than 50 years old. Most lack any type of landmark protections. Portland’s rampant demolition is legal if it follows current zoning.
To deter the demolition epidemic, citizens are learning that an update of the City’s historic inventory list is critical. Identifying buildings with significant history and architectural heritage would slowdown, if not stop altogether, the teardown of the buildings and bungalows that make Portland unique.
The 3300 block of Belmont is the kind of streetscape that lures newcomers to Portland’s vintage neighborhoods with main streets even Disney might envy.
Behind the storefronts is a rich historical narrative that residents are plumbing in hopes of saving the block from a planned multi-story glass and steel structure. At a special landuse presentation in March, residents said that the planned demolition of the midblock building threatens the entire block. A petition circulating has more than 5,000 signatures.
The building is perhaps the least architecturally interesting on the block, but residents believe that saving the weakest link, may save the entire block from eventual destruction.
Residents are pinning their hopes on research neighbor Meg Hanson presented indicating that several prominent early Oregonians were among the original owners of the property. Onetime mayoral candidate T.S. McDaniel was chair of Willamette University for 8 years at the turn of the Century and influential in politics.
Hanson’s research is intended to make a case for additional protections of the building. “ We’ve been able to develop a deep and meaningful historic narrative for the building’s original owners, businesses, and tenants from 1895 through 1940.”
City representatives praised her research but said there is no easy way to save the building – or others on the block that lack historic designations. Current zoning allows structures up to 45 feet tall along Belmont. That means one and two-story buildings are likely to come down as four-stories of glass and steel go up.
Until recently, property owners were unable to build to the fully allowable heights because banks refused to finance that scale. Now housing demand and improved economics are driving developers to optimize their investments by building to the max.
One safeguard is to get the properties – and entire blocks – on the National Register of Historic Places. The process can take well over a year. Moreover, Oregon is the only state that requires owner consent. Owners are often reluctant to agree to designations that restrict their ability to develop their property.
Marty Stockton, Southeast District Liaison for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the Belmont block and a stretch of Hawthorne between 35 – 38th streets are among 15 in the City that planners are considering downzoning from 45 foot heights. The goal is to keep intact streetcar era blocks from nonconforming structures.
Low-rise commercial storefronts are proposed for areas that have concentrations of one and two story commercial buildings along a stretch of at least two blocks or 400 feet. This lower 35 foot scale would serve mid-core main street corridors and fringe areas such as the entrance to Mt. Tabor at 55th. St. and Hawthorne Blvd.
Property owners will be notified of the proposal in early April. Backlash is inevitable once owners realize downzoning may affect the development value of their property. Stockton predicts an array of builders and lawyers will materialize to testify against the plan.
Stockton encourages residents to testify in support of the plan at upcoming BPS hearings. She says the strongest tool Sunnyside residents have is to cite neighborhood mission statements that call for protecting the character of their existing communities.
She dismisses the validity of so-called solar rights of adjacent properties. Stockton said it was an ineffective argument because the City abolished that policy decades ago.
The city’s new historic resource planner Brandon Spencer-Hartle suggested residents try to persuade commercial building owners to take advantage of a 10% rehabilitation credit on properties developed before 1936. The tool, he acknowledged, is little used.
Neighborhood activists like Stacey Atwell, Tiffany Conklin (misidentified in the last issue) and Hanson continue gathering signatures and enriching the area’s historical narrative. They say they are shocked at the lack of protections for Portland’s cherished blocks and they are hoping their petition and a public show of support can save their quintessentially Portland block.
City representatives encourage neighborhood activists to be knowledgeable, respectful and persistent in their testimonials at upcoming hearings. Whether any activism can save Belmont and Hawthorne in time remains a worry.