Laurelhurst Races Against the Wrecking Ball

By Midge Pierce

With a the tally of 2016 home demolitions topping 375, according to The Portland Chronicle, some 600 plus signatures support designating Laurelhurst a National Historic District to protect it from the wrecking ball.

“At this point, we have no doubts whatsoever that the neighborhood supports the HD initiative,” said community organizer Keith Comess.

In a race against the demolition frenzy, neighbors spearheading the drive consider an HD the best way to protect some 1,860 single family homes and commercial properties in the area.

As one of the West Coast’s most historically-significant planned communities, they make a strong case. With mature treescapes, classic homes of all sizes and concentric-like curves built around its Frederick Olmsted designed park, Laurelhurst is an urban oasis its citizens say all Portlanders enjoy.

Volunteers seek sufficient support to avoid the rancorous pushback that has plagued Eastmoreland’s nomination and defeated earlier efforts in Laurelhurst and Buckman.

They sense urgency with a process that can take a year or more to complete. The group contends that 45 lots in the neighborhood will be rezoned this year to allow six-plexes.

As a result of Residential Infill Project (RIP) concepts and fast-tracking through City Hall, duplexes on all lots, triplexes on corners and multi-unit clusters on double lots could supplant single family homes.

The RIP scenario effectively rezones single family neighborhoods throughout SE Portland. Yet, balancing the needs of a city anticipating tens of thousands of new residents, with the rights of property owners, ambitions of developers and demands of newcomers poses a trifecta of challenges.

Activists opposed to historic designation say all neighborhoods must do their part to provide sufficient housing for Portland’s growth projections. In this playbook, more housing equals affordability.

In neighborhood newsletters and facebook pages, Laurelhurst residents dismiss affordability claims and warn of a “tsunami of change” coming that will overrun infrastructure, overcrowd schools and, as is happening nearby, decimate entire blocks.

They blame RIP for concepts that will choke  livability out of inner SE. The RIP, conceived as a city-sponsored initiative to address demolitions, was co-opted by developers’ alliance with housing advocates like Portland 4 Everyone, some considered a front for 1000 Friends of Oregon’s tight rein on the UGB and intent to mass growth close-in to downtown.

In a strange twist, demolition was taken off the table for discussion at the RIP Stakeholder Advisory Committee meetings. Developer interests subsequently became the majority opinion.

With historic designation, developers would be unable to demolish houses that contribute to the architectural heritage of the HD. Some degree of densification could be achieved through ADUs and internal conversions. Non-contributing homes in the district could still be demolished and replaced with duplexes, triplexes or apartment clusters.

The LNA has yet to take a position on designation. Instead, it has formed an Exploratory Historic District Committee to study the pros and cons.  LNA President Dick Kuhns has promised to assess community sentiment first before making final decisions.

John Liu, chair of the exploratory committee that will make recommendations to the LNA, says Historic District listing gives back neighborhood control. “Remodels, additions, ADUs and a reasonable increase in density will be allowed, but not wholesale rip-and-replace development.”

Comess says despite the positive reactions to the petition, too few have been aware of the potential impact of RIP or advantages of living in historic districts such as access to state grants and tax credits for refurbishing.

“We have to block predatory developers,” he continues adding that watching a solid bungalow get replaced with a “pre-fab looking house built with low-quality materials” was the catalyst for his involvement.

In Laurelhurst’s community newsletter, Certified Building Analyst Greg Lasher lashed out at a builder’s insistence that tearing down older homes to build new ones was good for the environment.

“This disinformation is known in my industry as ‘greenwashing’.” Transporting labor and materials unable to stand the test of time adds, rather than reduces, Portland’s carbon footprint.

As it evaluates designation, Laurelhurst would do well to learn from Eastmoreland, the only SE neighborhood with a nomination in progress. Now approved by the City Landmark Commission, it will go before the state this month. The Historic Landmarks Commission will review the nomination February 13th and provide advisory comments to the State Historic Preservation Office and National Park Service.

Final approval could come this summer from the National Park Service which administers the program. That is unless 51 percent of residents opt out.

The process has not gone smoothly. Posting signs like Eastmoreland: Land of the Fee, a group called Keep Eastmoreland Free has persuaded more than 100 residents to send letters of opposition to decision-makers.

“Their basic strategy is to sow confusion and spread the misinformation that homeowners would suffer negative consequences under historic designation,” says Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association board member Rod Merrick.

“The group is an odd mixture of libertarians, developers and supporters of densification.”

At a recent Eastmoreland Historic District workshop with state and city officials, the Duniway school auditorium was standing room only. Researchers spoke of the importance of protecting archetypal homes like the area’s first all-electric house, another built entirely by WWI Vets and one  commissioned by an all woman group of realtors that set the standard for the neighborhood.

Speakers dispelled myths about high fees and restrictive reviews for minor alterations or maintenance, confirming that design guidelines could be established by the neighborhood itself.

Across the hall, citizens angered that the NA had overstepped its authority in pushing the nomination forward, stationed notaries in a classroom to affix seals to letters of objections. HD dissenters feel the designation is an over-reaction unfair to property owners.

The Keep Eastmoreland Free group writes of window replacement nightmares and says that RIP’s reduction in house size will make demolition less profitable, and therefore less likely.

As a result of the contentious process, Derek Blum and his wife Manda Blum started the HD support group HEART  – Historic Eastmoreland Achieving Results Together. The group convened to avoid neighbor-fighting-neighbor and establish a “kinder, gentler” approach to exploring designation.

Materials they distribute explain that home remodels and expansions  are generally allowable providing they maintain the character and integrity of a conforming home.

Earlier efforts to nominate Laurelhurst and Buckman were squelched by well-organized detractors declaring that HD designation lowered property values.

Information was disseminated about draconian measures such as the “crazy paint color rumor” that falsely claimed homeowners could not choose their own exterior palette.  As for property values, residents of Ladds and Irvington have told community groups that property values actually rose after designation.

Contractor John McCullogh saved Laurelhurst’s Markham house from destruction and said, “It’s inspiring to see neighbors uniting to preserve whole neighborhoods from demolition.”

Back in Eastmoreland, where 52 homes have been demolished in recent years,  the gracious manor at 7556 on SE 29th purchased by Vic Remmers and featured on The Southeast Examiner’s January front page,  will soon be rubble now that Portland has issued a demolition permit.

“We were hoping it could be moved, “said Merrick, “but there is a limited amount that can be done without the protection of a National Historic District.”

Laurelhurst residents supportive of the Laurelhurst HD designation can sign the petition at

Revised land use rules

For the past 22 years, Oregon has not had any statewide protections in place for historic sites or structures. This meant that even properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places could be demolished as long as property owners waited 120 days after applying for a demolition permit.

DeWitt Museum, Prairie City

Neither the public, nor the local government, had any power to halt demolition of these buildings.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Restore Oregon on the afternoon of January 27, the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development voted to adopt revised land use rules – revisions for which Restore Oregon has fought for a very long time.

This is good news for Oregon’s historic buildings!

Now, each of Oregon’s 11,594 Historic Register properties must undergo mandatory demolition review before they can be destroyed. Demolition of Register-listed properties can no longer happen without public/government input.

Additionally, these new rule revisions make it easier for Oregon property owners to create historic districts – and add additional protections for historic properties and districts – beyond mandatory demolition reviews.

Oregon’s cities and towns now have the right to create historic resource inventories; comprehensive lists of historically significant properties.

These lists do not infringe upon property owners’ rights, as they simply allow cities and towns to take stock of local buildings with historic value.

Laurelhurst Races Against the Wrecking Ball

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