Historic preservation is an uphill battle in Portland. Opponents claim preservation obstructs growth. Proponents claim it can be compatible with growth through adaptive re-use and that it honors Portland’s unique architecture, culture and sense of place, providing jobs, tourist dollars and guidance that averts the past mistakes of gentrification.
In a 2018 State of Preservation report, outgoing Historic Landmarks Commission Chair Kirk Ranzetta indicates that historic preservation is an untapped asset for businesses, contractors, and those needing affordable housing.
Ranzetta writes that more than 36 jobs are created by every $1 million invested in residential historic rehabilitation. By contrast, he claims only 24.5 jobs are generated by $1 million in non-preservation residential construction. Moreover, visitors stay longer and spend more when cities preserve legacies.
While the report was generally well-received by City Council last month, the elephant in the room was last year’s Council denial of even modest funding to update its outdated, thirty-five year old historic resources inventory.
Countering “tear down and replace” bias, the report calls preservation an essential part of lower-cost housing solutions by saving older, more affordable buildings and multi-units in already dense neighborhoods.
The report recommends incentives for adaptive re-use and retrofits of unreinforced masonry buildings (URMS).
An aspect that gained particular traction with Council members was the emphasis on equity and acknowledgement that marginalized communities, such as the displaced African American residents of Albina, have been underrepresented in past preservation efforts.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly indicated she could support preservation of “historic structures, but not historic inequity.”
In a win for historic preservation, the Laurelhurst neighborhood came closer to recognition as a National Historic Register District.
After three years of careful neighborhood planning, the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation voted unanimously to send Laurelhurst’s nomination to the neighborhood’s federal decision-maker, the National Park Service in Washington D.C.
With some 75% of homes qualifying for National historic status, the neighborhood made its case based on architectural significance and community planning as one of Portland’s original streetcar suburbs between the turn of the last century and the 1940s.
Calling Laurelhurst an example of “Live History,” District champion John Liu said designation could help protect the small, relatively affordable homes in the area.
He countered charges of elitism by saying that Laurelhurst is committed to multi-family conversions & ADUs to absorb the neighborhoods share of growth.
Resident Constance Beaumont cited neighbors’ widespread support for “smart density” without demolition. A multi-city traveler, she said Laurelhurst should rank in the top 5% of nationally-significant historic assets.
Richmond resident and anti-designation speaker Doug Klotz called Laurelhurst “a wealthy neighborhood with a sorry history” undeserving of recognition.
Portland’s recent decision to require signage indicating earthquake dangers of unreinforced masonry buildings has critics alarmed that it will instill fear, devalue historic structures and cause a new wave of demolitions.
Some 1640 signs will be required to be prominently positioned on URM buildings, many with legendary Portland historic credentials. In the Buckman neighborhood alone, 126 signs are required.
In addition to safety signage, Council is requiring landlords to notify tenants about earthquake risks when they enter rent or lease agreements.
Roger Jones of the Hawthorne Business Association says businesses that tried to work with the City on the issue have been “double-crossed” by fear-based concerns about structures identified in a defective database. He adds that financing options for retrofits are virtually nonexistent.
Restore Oregon is calling for a state tax credit for rehabilitation and seismic upgrades that would incentivize more preservation. MP
Trends Don’t Lie: Housing Still Unaffordable
With some 15,000 living units added to Portland since 2015, vacancy rates are rising. Yet, despite at least a 2% price drop in the recent roller-coaster economy, rental rates remain at historic highs, according to real estate data.
Portland does not have a housing shortage; it has an affordability shortage, according to city densification watchdogs.
With rents averaging $1400 a month, and real estate data showing inner Portland neighborhoods at $1800 for 750 square feet, $20 per hour wage earners remain priced out of Portland.
So it came as a shock to observers that the City Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) recommended expanding the Residential Infill Project (RIP) plan to 97% of all single family residential neighborhoods without requiring guarantees of affordability.
Geographically challenged areas such as steep Westside hills have been excluded.
The directive also came as a surprise to city staff. Questioned about what the Commission’s densification extension meant for staff, one indicated planners were scrambling to redo in three months a proposal that was three years in the making.
The staffer suggested that between now and spring, when the project is expected to go before City Council, residents should dig into the plan to understand its pros and cons.
Both sides share common goals for affordability, livability and sustainability. How best to achieve these goals is literally splitting communities.
Pro RIP supporters claim it protects the urban growth boundary. RIP critics say it will exacerbate infrastructure shortages with vertical sprawl and luxury housing.
The Infill project has powerful supporters with deep pockets: groups like 1000 Friends of Oregon, and its paid lobbyists in Portland for Everyone (P4E) are supported by donations from the building industry.
Some city staff is ill informed, according to an attendee of Portland’s many RIP pitch meetings. An Eastside resident tells of an exchange with a young staffer about potential displacement of entire populations as happened with the African American community in Albina. “What’s Albina?” the staffer asked. MP
Complete Streets, a program of the Portland Bureau of Transportation has the intent of modifying existing streets into a more multi-modal format while at the same time reducing the focus on automobiles.
Retrofitting existing streets may only involve sidewalks and/or bike lanes. Others with hazard records may involve more substantial changes.
Complete Streets works hand in hand with the Vision Zero program, per Nick Falbo of PBOT.
In the case of Foster Rd., the Complete Streets/Vision Zero changes were widespread, including travel lane reductions, bike lanes, and pedestrian crossing amenities.
Falbo stated that although Foster has functioned as a major arterial and a connection between SE Portland and I-205, the program intent is to reduce auto dependence.
“That means traffic congestion on Foster would necessitate the use of Powell Blvd. as an alternative route,” he said. “And we anticipated that as part of the Foster design, but we’re hopeful more people will be biking or using mass transit to offset vehicle trips.”
Part of PBOT’s rationale for this direction with Foster was due to changes with the City’s Comprehensive Plan that is trying to reduce auto-oriented commercial uses on Foster in return for mixed residential and commercial pedestrian-friendly uses.
This is a prime example of how Comprehensive Plan changes coupled with transportation design changes can alter the entire character and direction of an area. DK