Freiwald House B&B, Irvington (photo by chrispyworld, via Flickr)
BY FRED LEESON
The figurative architects of Portland’s newest and largest historic district – the 2,800 property Irvington neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places a year ago – now have a new target in sight: reducing Portland’s costly fees for historic design reviews charged to owners wanting to make minor alterations to their historic homes.
Members of the Irving Historic Preservation Committee say the design review fee, starting at $1,050 for something as simple as replacing a front door or a single window, can be more expensive than the restoration project itself.
Committee members also fear that costly fees will encourage property owners to make repairs on the sly – avoiding the fees but also avoiding design review protections that honor historic designs and presumably protect health and safety.
“We believe in design review,” said Barbara Christopher, a preservation committee member who served as a member of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission in the 1990s. “We believed in it strongly enough to impose it on ourselves.” Piper said her committee respects the knowledge and insight of city staffers in the Bureau of Development Services who perform historic design reviews. She said the issue is cost, not the quality of the city’s work.
Are Portland’s fees out of line? Piper surveyed 19 cities in Oregon and 43 across nation for comparisons. The average fee in Oregon, excluding Portland, was $29; Portland’s fee boosts the average Oregon design review fee to $70. In her national survey, Piper found that many cities charge nothing; aside from Portland, the highest minimum fees she found were $333 in San Francisco and $325 in San Jose. The only others hitting three digits were Tucson at $153 and Oklahoma City at $100.
“The survey woke us up,” said Jim Heuer, an architectural historian and Irvington Preservation Committee member. Heuer said the Portland currently counts 5,277 buildings either in historic districts or individual landmarks on the National Register – all of which require design review for exterior alternations.
That list could grow substantially in the future. Citizens are either gathering data for potential historic districts in the Buckman neighborhood and are investigating that option in at least two others. Under national historic standards, Heuer said 85 percent of buildings in North and Northeast Portland west of 82nd Avenue could qualify as eligible for historic protection. “This is not a modern western city,” he said of Portland. “It is an old western city.”
Piper’s committee hopes to meet with neighborhood association representatives in other parts of Portland with historic neighborhoods in an attempt to build political clout for change. They hope to raise the fees as a campaign issue in 2012 as Portland goes about electing a new mayor and two other members of the five-person City Council. After all, the council is where the buck, so to speak, eventually stops.
Starting back in the early 1990s, the City Council started raising development-related fees in an attempt to make development services self-supporting. The decision was based on the philosophy that developers should pay for their development costs, not city taxpayers. The city stayed true to that vision in the Great Recession. As development fees plummeted with the dismal economy, the city lopped of a substantial percentage of its Development Services staff.
Heuer noted that some development fees, such as building permits and plans for new buildings, are rightly expenses charged to developers. But he said design review in neighborhoods is intended to protect the historic fabric of entire districts that citizens and tourists enjoy – not just the property owner in question. He cited a national listing that ranked Portland ninth in the United States for “noteworthy neighborhoods” recognized for their quality of life and “visitor experience.” Still, the fight over design review fees is not likely to be an easy one, given the city’s budget constraints.
“The reality is that the district is here to stay,” said Irvington’s Christopher. “There will be more of them. Ignoring the problem is not a rational way to run a government.”
Although there was little opposition from residents to creation of the Irvington National Historic District, worries about fees were one the few objections voiced at the time.
Piper has turned her attention to trying to lower design review fees, but has no regrets about having helped create the district. “Not at all,” she said. “No way. I’d dread to see what would have happened in the last three years if we had not done this. For the most part, people in the neighborhood like it.”
Fred Leeson is a Portland journalist and president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center.