National Historic Designation can save the house next door

By Midge Pierce

Design-builder John McCulloch, known for his rescue of Laurelhurst’s Markham house, is an apostate in the construction community. He calls current demolition rates the “tip of an iceberg capable of sinking Portland” as we know it.

McCulloch sponsored a Restore Oregon informational meeting, Living in a Historic District, intended to demystify myths about a national designation that offers property protections beyond what the local historic resource inventory provides.

Without preservation, he said, “Portland would lose our shared culture – what makes us unique.” He predicted that if projects like the Residential Infill Project proceed, “65 percent of all single family lots will be rezoned for development”.

With demolitions seemingly on par and possibly surpassing last year’s record breaking tear-downs, two Eastside neighborhoods are exploring requirements for becoming National Historic Districts. The designation is generally considered a way to honor the historical significance of a specific area, ostensibly protecting it from developer wrecking balls.

In Eastmoreland, neighbors are split over whether to continue funding the research required to move forward. In Laurelhurst, as this publication went to press, neighbors were in the early stages of discussing pros and cons of designation.

Several years ago, the Buckman neighborhood rejected designation. McCulloch claimed Buckman voted the wrong way after being misled by developer propaganda. “They hand out fliers about how bad historic designation might be,” he said. “Don’t listen. We need these kinds of protective zones to save Portland.”

Restore Oregon Executive Director Peggy Moretti hopes the event helps residents make decisions to preserve Portland’s legacy.  “As the demolition epidemic continues, the places that matter are our own neighborhoods. Not every house should be saved, but we should save the best of our history.”

The meeting featured residents of the Ladds Addition and Irvington National Historic Districts who addressed the benefits of National Historic Districts. Residents said the designation raised property values, promoted civic pride and fostered a sense of neighbors helping neighbors.

Ladds Addition resident Henry Kunowski praised the program for bringing neighbors together to care for the district’s rose gardens and distinctive elms. Ladds has received a national award for liveability and integrity as an active engaging community since its designation in 1988.

“It’s a wonderful thing to retain the stability and character of your neighborhood and not wake up to the house behind you being demolished,” said Jessica Engeman who sits on the City’s Historic Landmarks Commission and is a resident of Irvington, the state’s largest district with 2800 homes.

Panelists dismissed falsehoods that designation would disallow remodels, home expansions or construction of accessory dwelling units. They pointed out that fixtures such as solar panels, skylights and satellite dishes may be allowable if they are minimally visible from the street.

Landscaping and paint color selections are not regulated and re-roofing is considered repair unless original materials such as ceramic tiles are substituted with shingles. Windows can be replaced so long as they look similar to the originals. (Cheap plastic windows would not pass muster. Panelists emphasized that repairing double hung wood windows is greener and less expensive than buying new.)

Typically, exterior alterations are subject to Historic Resource Review. Plans that are reasonable and do not threaten the architectural integrity of the district are usually approved. The key to changing home exteriors is to retain the scale, size and immediate character of surrounding homes and neighborhoods. Interior remodels are not subject to any review.

“Historic Districts do not freeze homes in time,” said Irvington resident John Hoyer. In fact, residents of both Ladds and Irvington rattled off names of recommended companies and contractors who do authentic renovations.

What is likely to be disallowed is a complete demolition particularly if a house is a contributing structure, defined as a building that fits the era and adds to the architectural significance of the district. Many districts also have a percentage of noncontributing structures subject to more relaxed rules.

One aspect of national historic designation that bothers objectors is what is known as the opt out. The National Park Service, which runs the program, considers designation an honor and assumes communities that apply for designation concur but if 51 percent of residents submit objections, the application is voided.

At a contentious Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association meeting, it became clear that not everyone agrees that designation as a National Historic District is beneficial.

After board chair Tom Hansen described the designation as the “best and last protection” for Eastmoreland, residents angrily responded that the board’s use of neighborhood funds on research was a unilateral decision not reflective of the entire community. “Don’t patronize me,” said one resident when her comments were cut short.

Another declared First Amendment Rights on behalf of his house. “Homes are a form of free speech. I value freedom of speech. I’d rather have more freedom than more money from (increased property) worth.”

The speaker was later drafted to fill a vacancy on the board.

National Historic Designation can save the house next door

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