BY FRED LEESON
Perhaps no one in Portland knows the Old Town/Chinatown district better than George “Bing” Sheldon, the “S” in SERA Architects, one of the city’s most prominent partnerships. Sheldon has housed his office north of Burnside in the historic district since 1968.
With almost 45 years under his belt, Sheldon makes his feelings clear these days: He doesn’t like what he sees.
“To me it’s obvious the system has failed completely,” he told the AIA’s Historic Resources Committee recently, referring to the stagnation in Old Town. While surprising growth has occurred in the Pearl District and other parts of the central city, little has come to Old Town. “At this point, I have given up total confidence in the public sector,” he said. Though designing new projects in historic districts is never easy, Sheldon noted that advances have occurred in Northwest Portland’s Alphabet District and in the 13th Avenue historic district, while Old Town moulders.
As a consequence, Sheldon has asked the Historic Preservation League of Oregon to include Old Town on its list of the state’s 10 most endangered places. The preservation organization’s annual list will be issued later this month.
Street musician in Old Town (photo by surreal perception, via Flickr)
Sheldon also has asked the HPLO, a state-wide preservation advocacy group, to convene property owners, developers, social service agencies and ethnic groups that have a stake in Old Town to see if agreements can be reached that will bring new energy to the historic district.
“Cities that don’t change, die,” Sheldon said. “That’s what I believe.” Sheldon said little has occurred in Old Town since completion of the Lan Su Chinese Garden almost 12 years ago, and it was built largely with public rather than private funding. He also noted that land-transfer agreements that led to the garden were hammered out by the late William S. “Bill” Naito, a creative entrepreneur who stimulated a popular revival in Old Town back in the 1970s.
“Once Bill died, I think civic leadership disappeared,” Sheldon said. “If he were alive today, he’d be front and center in this discussion. He was full of great ideas and had the determination and courage to do them.”
An attempt by Mayor Sam Adams to reach a consensus with developers and historic preservation advocates over possibilities for several “opportunity sites” in Old Town died last year in a stalemate. City zoning rules in much of Old Town allow buildings as tall as 200 feet, which preservationists contend would overwhelm and eventually strangle the historic feel of Portland’s oldest neighborhood.
Sheldon did not indicate his leanings for solutions, but he did say the city should not be afraid to demolish buildings that have outlived their usefulness. His own firm was involved in a prolonged battle over the demolition of the Dirty Duck Tavern, to make way for a new Blanchet House now under construction.
As a result of that deal, the Portland Development Commission now holds the old Blanchet House on the same block. “I predict they (PDC) will just sit on it,” Sheldon said. “We’ll have another empty building waiting to fall down.” He added, “I’m not in favor of demolition, but I’m not in favor of something that doesn’t work.”
It will be interesting to see if the HPLO accepts Sheldon’s request to serve as a mediator. A recent year-long HPLO study of historic districts around the state suggested that infill projects should be respectful of the scale and massing of adjacent historic structures, a tune that doesn’t resonate with developers.
HPLO Executive Director Peggy Moretti listened to Sheldon’s plea. She said the organization supports “compatible” infill. “A lot of good pieces of solutions exist, and they need to be brought together,” she said.
Paul Falsetto, an architect who worked on the HPLO infill study, said all parties need to find a “sweet spot” for infill that does not overwhelm. “This is where we need to play,” he said of that seemingly hard-to-find balance.
As an architect, Sheldon’s firm has worked on many new buildings as well as historic renovations. As a former Portland Planning Commission president, he’s no rube when it comes to public process and public/private partnerships. “We have a history of working things out,” he said. “I don’t know why this area has avoided solutions.”