BY FRED LEESON
A Beaverton developer hoping to pack more than two dozen apartments on a 5,000 square- foot lot in Northwest Portland’s historic Alphabet District has changed design teams and given a preliminary look at the revised plan to the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
Dennis Sackhoff, head of Creston Homes LLC, dropped the Lake Oswego-based OTAK firm and hired Myhre Group after the commission criticized Sackhoff’s first plan last December. The new version proposes 26 units on the site at 2124 N.W. Flanders St., down slightly from 28 in the first plan.
The Myhre Group plan, outlined by one of its principals, Don Sowieja, appears to have a better chance of winning a green light from the commission, which is charged with making sure that new developments are “compatible” with the historic district.
The original OTAK plan showed an unusual side entry, which allowed room for 28 units, the maximum allowed by the zoning code. The revised version offers a traditional central entry as part of a symmetrical facade facing on Flanders. The new version includes a brick face, double-hung windows and a simple but traditionally-styled cornice atop the third story.
“We looked at it afresh,” Soweija told the commission at an informal design advice meeting on May 9. His presentation included a detailed packet showing numerous apartment buildings of larger, smaller and comparable size, mostly standing cheek-to-jowl in the historic district.
Indeed, side setbacks will be the key issue assuming that Sackhoff seeks formal approval. City zoning rules mandate setbacks as wide as 14 feet, depending on the size of the side walls. On a 50 by 100 lot, that would leave designers with only 22 feet to work with.
Sowieja’s plan calls for setbacks as narrow as 5 feet and as wide as 8 feet, a pattern that he says is consistent in the neighborhood. But that thought rankles members of the Northwest District Association, which is among Portland’s most zealous neighborhood land-use watchdog groups. “It creates a canyon of shadows,” said Joy Strand, who lives two lots east of the proposed building. “No light gets into that slot.” She added that residents in neighboring buildings would have to keep their shades pulled to maintain privacy.
Don Genasci, a Northwest Portland architect and architecture professor, said contemporary residents want more natural light. He also said the proposed building would adversely affect the two older apartment buildings adjacent to it, making it “seriously as odds with preservation of the Northwest Alphabet District.”
In response to a commission question, Soweija said he never considered designing a building as narrow as 22 feet, but he said he “could show how it would not work” if the commission wanted such a study.
Widening the setbacks would eliminate the possibility of double-loaded central hallways, Soweija said, eliminating the symmetry that the commission seemed to want after examining the original proposal. Although no formal votes are taken at advisory meetings, Soweija appears likely to prevail on the setbacks once a formal application is filed.
If so, it means destruction for a much-modified and regrettably misunderstood house on the lot now. It was built for Nathan Simon, a Portland lawyer, in 1895, and backed up to a house built for his more prominent brother, Joseph Simon, that faces on N.W. Everett St., now nicely restored. Joseph Simon, who held titles as U.S. senator and Portland mayor, was one of the most notable Oregon political figures in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. He headed the “Simon faction” of the Republican Party, which battled fiercely against the “Mitchell faction” headed by John H. Mitchell, who also served – ignominiously in the end – in the U.S. Senate.
In their era, senators were elected by state legislators, not by popular vote. Historians view the Simon-versus-Mitchell battles as heavily corrupt by modern standards, which led reformers to pass the “Oregon System “ in which the public voted in “advisory” elections for senators. Rather than jamb their thumbs in the eyes of voters, legislators went along with the advisory results. The system helped lead to passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913 that provided for direct election.
Mike Ryerson, a Northwest Portland historian and journalist, said proponents of the historic district adopted in 1988 missed the significance of the Nathan Simon house, and had the wrong year of its construction. As a result, it was listed as a “non-contributing” building in the district, which allows demolition without any public review.
The house was modified several times over the decades, although it retains some of its original details. Today it contains 17 rental units, some as small as 100 square feet.
The new building as now proposed would contain 26 studio and one-bedroom apartments, ranging in size from 300 to 520 square feet on three floors above a daylight basement. “Although they are small,” Soweija said, “they are not microscopic in our view.”
Back in December, when the landmarks commission criticized the first plan, the developer make remarks critical of both the commission and the neighborhood association watchdogs. For whatever reason, Sackhoff did not attend the May 9 hearing.
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectrual Heritage Center.