Threatened buildings at Sixth & Couch (photo by Brian Libby)
BY VAL BALLESTREM
Two recent development proposals along Portland’s East Burnside-Couch couplet, would spell the demise of a trio of interesting-if-not-designated-historic vintage buildings. The first proposal is for a 5-story 66,000 square foot mixed-use building at the northwest corner of NE 6th and Couch. The new building would extend the full block from Couch to Davis - on a lot that includes two early 20th century apartment buildings. The Davis half of the property has been empty for several years. With few remaining older buildings in this area, the project raises a couple of questions.
Where’s the creativity here, Portland? Why not figure out a way to integrate the older structures into the new development? If you retain (and rehabilitate) the two apartments facing Couch, the new construction could be focused on the vacant portion of the block along Davis. Such a design would preserve some of what remains of the historic character in this much modified part of town, while also allowing for a new building. It would also conserve the energy embodied in the two existing structures, preventing construction and demolition waste. Who knows? It might even render the apartments more affordable than new construction alone would allow. It would be a win for everyone and would be wonderfully sustainable.
Rather than pursue a creative solution, the developer, (as we see in the City’s public notices to date), appears to be pre-empting opposition to the new building by touting all of the "green" features it will have and noting how the existing buildings will be deconstructed. This argument has been used repeatedly in Portland in recent years - but it leaves out other factors that are as (or more) important.
Threatened buildings at NE Sixth and Couch (photos by Brian Libby)
Just because a building is deconstructed or building materials are recycled does not mean the material will all be re-used. It takes energy to turn recycled materials into something else. Meanwhile, energy is consumed in the deconstruction and recycling processes - energy that could just as easily be applied to the renovation of the existing buildings. In a nutshell, regardless of all the "green" bells and whistles a project such as this may include, it still means the consumption of untold tons of materials for new construction. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation states, "We can't build our way out of climate change."
Beyond energy consumption and the environment, we should also remember that many people consider the existing apartments their home. Is it really the most socially sustainable option to force the relocation of dozens of residents or is gentrification (as in “out with the old and in with the new”) a force at work here? Hopefully the developer will consider alternatives to this project other than the complete removal of the existing buildings.
The second project has gotten a bit more publicity of late. The owner of the Galaxy Restaurant at Ninth and East Burnside plans to demolish the existing building, replacing it with another single story restaurant. Again this raises a couple of interesting questions.
First of all, why demolish the restaurant only to replace it with another restaurant? Unless there are irreversible structural issues, it is a huge waste to demolish a building only to replace it with something that serves the exact same purpose and will do nothing to add housing density or other social benefits to the community. As with the project on Couch, this demolition would be a waste of resources and energy.
Secondly, it appears that the Galaxy building was once home to Portland's first Denny's Restaurant, opening in June 1963. Modeled after the prototype Southern California Denny's (founded in 1953), the building was used to promote franchise possibilities in Portland for the restaurant chain. The "check mark" design is one of those trademark patterns from the era of "Googie" architecture. Not far away at NE Grand and Hassalo, is another early Portland Denny's. If Oregonian employment ads are correct, that location opened within a year after the Burnside location. Is something like Portland's first Denny’s worthy of preservation? What about other buildings from the 1960s?
Galaxy restaurant (photos by Brian Libby)
In response to the proposal to replace the Galaxy, the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center (BMF) recently submitted a letter to the BDS, noting how the project would not meet several aspects of the Central City and Central Eastside Design Guidelines. You can read the letter here.
The design for the proposed Trio Club/Galaxy demolition was recently approved. Design reviewed projects of this size ($1,865.600 or less), are subject to "Type II Design Review," meaning the designs are reviewed by BDS staff and a decision is then made. Any appeals of the decision go before the Portland Design Commission. An appeal costs $250, but that fee is waived for recognized neighborhood associations (in this case the Kerns Neighborhood).
Another issue with this particular proposal is the lack of consideration given to including housing in the new design. One would think that this location is just the sort of place where the City, County, and Metro would like to see more housing density. Adding it in a location such as 9th and East Burnside, would take some pressure off of nearby single family residential neighborhoods - including some of the eastside's oldest neighborhoods that currently have few if any protections against redevelopment.
The Galaxy demolition/Trio redevelopment provides yet another example of Portland's collective inability to halt needless demolitions of functional buildings - whether historic or not. The City’s code language of "no designation - no protection" hampers our ability to protect any but the most architecturally significant buildings. Owners of such buildings must then be willing to spend $3,000 in application fees to receive few benefits. While we should expect that "designated" buildings have some level of protection, we should also acknowledge that a formal historic landmark designation is not appropriate for every building in the city.
In the 21st century, with dwindling natural resources and the ongoing environmental impacts of building material waste, isn't there a way we can prevent needless demolition and make better use of what we already have? There must be a way that we can conserve and reuse existing buildings, without them needing the “designated historic” mantle.
Val Ballestrem is the education manager for the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center.