Does Architecture Matter?

By Gabe Frayne

The winding down of testimony and negotiations in connection with Portland’s Historical Resource Code Project (HRCP) has brought the contentious issue of historical preservation back to center stage in the city’s political arena. 

Housing activists and preservation advocates remain far apart on the question of whether protecting the city’s period architecture, including many homes, is a luxury the city can ill afford in the midst of a housing crisis, or whether Portland’s numerous cottages, bungalows, low-rise masonry buildings and other historic sites provide a sense of place and identity that touches all the city’s residents. 

Superficially, there is some common ground. Preservationists are “just trying to make [the code] easier to make changes to your historical property, such as solar panels and converting an old garage to an ADU,” says Stephanie Whitlock, the Executive Director of the Architectural Heritage Center (AHC), located on SE Grand Ave. in a two-story brick building dating back to 1883. 

“We all have favorite old buildings and everyone wants to preserve genuinely important historical places,” says Anna Kemper, an activist with Portland: Neighbors Welcome (PNW). 

“We merely oppose the status quo where small groups of property owners can exploit an undemocratic federal process to get special protections without input from renters, community groups or even their neighbors.” 

These two differing visions of Portland’s future collide most acerbically on the issue of historic districts, where most buildings have certain special protections against demolition. These include some of the city’s pricier neighborhoods such as Laurelhurst, Irvington and Nob Hill.  

A posting on PNW’s website calls on City Council to adopt an amendment to the Historic Resources code to “include a history of racial covenants as a reason for Council to resize, demote or remove a district’s Historic or Conservation status.” 

It adds, “Do not allow communities with a history of segregation and exclusion to rely on those histories to continue to exclude more affordable housing.” 

Steve Dotterrer, a volunteer for the AHC’s advocacy committee, notes that a recent study by the pro-housing Sightline Institute found that “because of the property values in those areas, [infill developments] are not very likely to happen in the Historic Districts that we currently have.” 

In other words, the PNW proposal could conceivably create new housing opportunities for people of color, provided they have six-figure incomes. 

In recent years, the AHC has focused not only on Portland’s architecture itself, but also on the “social history” revealed in buildings from long-gone eras. 

As Whitlock and Board President Denyse McGriff put it in their November 3 presentation to City Council: “We strongly support the proposed increases in protections for Conservation Landmarks and contributing properties in Conservation Districts. 

“The proposed changes will create greater preservation equity by protecting the neighborhoods in North and NE Portland that tell the story of the African American experience.” 

One issue that touches on both architectural heritage and the need for affordable housing is the current limbo of Portland’s unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs). While absent from the debate over HRCP changes, the question of how to retrofit, and thereby preserve, these pre-war buildings remains unresolved. 

Most URM owners do not have the financial resources to retrofit their buildings up to the “life safety” standard that City Council would like to see implemented before the Big One arrives and the options on the table are insufficient. 

Asked whether PNW would support public funding or loans for URM owners to retrofit buildings that offer affordable housing, Kemper replied, “Obviously, we need to do something to mitigate the risks of URM buildings and we support the city’s efforts to find a long-term solution. 

“We also recognize that we have a deep housing shortage along with a homelessness crisis, so there aren’t any easy answers about where finite public dollars should go.” 

Architectural preservation will continue to be a fraught issue for as long as Portland is a rapidly growing city and housing becomes less affordable. 

For preservationists, “Portland for Everyone” is an unsustainable slogan and for housing advocates, historical preservation is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) obsession. 

Asked about the intrinsic value of historic architecture, Whitlock replied, “There are intangible qualities, for sure – the scale and design. People will gravitate towards a main street that’s human scale, that shows character.” She worries that the recommended HRCP draft would make it easier to de-list various historic resources. 

Former journalist and current preservationist blogger Fred Leeson sums it up this way: “Great cities respect their architectural heritage as they build their futures.” 

Architectural Heritage Center photo by Lincoln Barbour

Does Architecture Matter?

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