BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last night's mayoral debate at First Congregational Church, hosted by Restore Oregon, was dramatic even before it began.
Just as moderator Peggy Moretti was starting her opening remarks, a protestor came onto the stage and insisted that in addition to the invited trio of candidates - Ted Wheeler, Sarah Iannarone and Jules Bailey - two others, David Schor (assistant attorney general at the Oregon Department of Justice) and Sean Davis (a writing teacher at Mt. Hood Community College and an Iraq War veteran), be allowed to join in. That particular protester didn't stay to hear most of the quintet's remarks, but a group of activists carrying signs advocating housing-reform measures such as rent control remained active throughout, and the three-person debate became a quintet.
The announced topic of the conversation was "Keeping Portland PORTLAND" by preserving character and livability while embracing growth and density. Whether it was because of the activists or just a reflection of what is this campaign's hot-button issue, the conversation turned more toward density and housing affordability than it did toward historic preservation.
The answers to Moretti's first question, in which she asked the candidates to name their favorite old building or place in Portland, told me that perhaps none of them - or maybe only Iannarone - have a real appreciation for historic architectural landmarks and their value in our city.
Iannarone said that while renovations of landmarks like the Ladd Carriage House and the Portland Armory were impressive, she preferred the June Key Delta House, which involved a successful grassroots campaign to turn a former abandoned Arco gas station into an ultra-sustainable meeting house that meets Living Building Challenge standards. But outside of that, no one could come up with a significant individual historic landmark to mention. Wheeler cited the Central Eastside Industrial District overall, which certainly includes lots of renovated old buildings (and where Wheeler has his campaign headquarters), but its mention seemed less like an appreciation of historic buildings than a segue into talking about challenges there such as homelessness and traffic. Bailey mentioned the stretch of Southeast Belmont, near where he grew up, that includes the conversion of a former dairy into a Zupan's market and the cluster of retail there. Davis mentioned an old Quonset hut he helped renovate into an American Legion post. Schor mentioned the waterfront itself.
Moretti then asked the candidates what they envision downtown and the central city looking like in 20 years. Will it be nothing but tall skyscrapers and no old buildings? This turned out to be a reflection of how the candidates feel about Portland's increasing densification. Bailey, for example, said that while local downtown landmarks like the probably soon-to-be-demolished Ancient Order United Workmen Temple should have greater protection, there's nothing wrong with adding density in places like the downtown core where it's appropriate. Wheeler addressed how Oregon "has among the weakest standards in the nation when it comes to preserving historic architecture," he said. "When you build up, the risk [of demolishing historic properties] increases dramatically. Focus density on the transit corridors and town centers. But the conversation here is what will we do to strengthen our laws and increase incentives to protect our historic architecture. The Workmen Temple is an example with everything that’s wrong with historic preservation today."
"I want to focus on what makes downtown livable now: trees, parks, getting cars increasingly out of the urban core," Iannarone said. "Oslo just committed to a car free central business district by 2019." She also argued that old buildings in the downtown core have economic value, and that the diversity of architecture and people and income levels is all part of the mix. People go to Paris and Milan and Barcelona because there’s historic architecture and diversity," she added.
Schor then brought the question back around to the hot-button topic of affordability: "If we focus solely on density and not on affordability and the uses we need to maintain, downtown will lose its vitality," he said. "We’re going to have to also think about how we can keep people downtown as the cost of living begins to rise. How do we keep housing affordable in the urban core?"
Moretti then asked, "If we all agree we want to keep the significant historic buildings, should there be incentives? What kinds?"
"We need a more robust level of protection, but that needs to happen at the state level," Schor added. To this, Moretti mentioned Oregon being the only US state that requires owner consent for a property being declared historic. Given that we also lack the historic-preservation tax credits almost every other state has, it creates a double-whammy of impetus for demolition.
"We don’t have enough carrots or sticks in our local tool box," Iannarone said. She also mentioned some local laws that could be changed or even just enforced. As became evident with the Workmen Temple, for example, the City of Portland needs to remove the loophole that allows owners to remove historic properties from the city's Historic Building Inventory, thus avoiding a 120-day waiting period before demolition. And we haven’t updated our Historic Building Inventory since the 1980s," she added.
That means, as Wheeler pointed out, that the newest buildings on the inventory are from the 1930s; nothing built afterward is listed.
"We need more incentives," Wheeler said of historic preservation. "We have owner consent [for declaring properties historic], and it’s derived from the state constitution, so we’re unlikely to be able to change that any time soon. If we can’t change that we need strong incentives. We’re one of the only states in the country that does not have robust incentives." He mentioned a failed bill from the last Oregon Legislature session, Senate Bill 565, which would have provided those historic tax credits, but didn’t pass.
Moretti asked, "How do we add density? Where do we put it?"
"Growth and density can go hand in hand with historic preservation," Bailey said. "I grew up in inner Southeast Portland. Take a random walk and you’ll see a lot of duplexes, triplexes, garden home apartments. And they’re very much part of the neighborhood. But they’re not allowed by zoning today. We can go back to that. We need a supply side response: we need more housing."
Wheeler then echoed the need to change zoning to allow the so-called missing-middle housing, and he also mentioned the importance of small housing options in existing single-family neighborhoods such as accessory dwelling units.
"We need more, more, more and more housing," Iannarone said. "There are many ways to do affordable infill in neighborhoods. And not just in my neighborhood [Lents] with $150,000 homes. I think we can also create incentives by letting people adapt them inside. We can create a lot more small units."
Moretti then said to the candidates, "It would be unrealistic to stop all demolition. But many would like to see it curbed. How do we do that? And where they do come down, how do we make sure what replaces it is better?"
Davis mentioned having recently testified before City Council about the recently adopted plan to require houses being taken down to be deconstructed to preserve their materials. "Not only does that benefit the environment, but it creates jobs," he said. All five candidates said they supported the new deconstruction rule.
"There will be demolitions," Wheeler said. "The question is how do we limit them? A bad policy outcome is if a historic cottage is demolished and what’s built is a much larger house that houses the same number of people. We have to have standards. If you’re going to demolish, we should capture the tax increment value as it’s assessed and make that a pool for affordable or workforce hosing. And we need standards to make sure the new houses have the same scale and mass as what they’re replacing."
"We don’t have a lot of tools," Iannarone answered. "We need to incentivize the outcomes we want and disincentivize what we don’t. We need to protect those trees. We need to make sure we’re looking at energy. We need to charge carbon impact fees. A 1,600-square-foot house uses the same energy as a LEED Platinum-rated 2900-square foot house."
Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple (Cafe Unknown)
"What concerns me is big developers coming in and buying up older homes and putting up cookie-cutter houses," Bailey said. "Real estate transfer taxes are unconstitutional. But we can set standards with zoning. We also need to make it easier to get homes on the historic registry and harder for an owner to take it off. What if we said you have to have a home that goes up with a better energy performance, or better density?"
Moretti asked the candidates, "How do we achieve this affordability we all want to see?"
To this question Schor had a compelling idea. "I propose to create a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing," he said. To fund it? "Tax the top one percent of income owners."
"We need more supply," Bailey answered. "Affordability is a function of cost, supply and demand, and income. We need more middle-wage jobs. We need to address cost. One reason you see lotline-to-lotline homes is it would cost that much to recoup permitting and fees. I propose a fast track for market rate housing. Third, we do need more kinds of housing. And fourth, we need more housing options."
"Talk to the people," Davis said. "Have that tenant-landlord agreement saying, 'We’ll not raise your rent without notice for 90 days.' Inclusionary zoning failed in committee. I like that idea 20 percent of units in any new development will be affordable."
"Start with the city’s own policies and the cost it takes to bring affordable housing online," Wheeler said. "The design review process is broken as it relates to affordability. Most of us strongly support inclusionary zoning. But it still doesn’t allow Portland to craft its own policies. The bill has been watered down."
Moretti then asked an audience-submitted question: "What thoughts do the candidates have for encouraging better designed buildings?" This question sounded hopelessly vague, but most of the candidates took it to mean a question not about architectural style but scale.
"You don’t want me as your architect," Wheeler said, explaining that he has little sense of architectural aesthetics or taste. "But new construction is out of scale."
Iannarone then made an important distinction. "This can be coded language when you talk about character," she said. "We have to make sure historic neighborhoods don’t just become enclaves for privileged people. There’s no accounting for good taste. What can we talk about? Scale."
Davis also made an important point here about being realistic. "You can’t put it all on the mayor," he said. "You have to go to the neighborhood meetings and make your voice heard."
"Design review is broken," Bailey said. "There’s not a lot of predictability. Some buildings sail through and some don’t. And some change on the back end. We need consistency, and that’s only fair. And that will reduce cost. And on the residential side, one tool might be the city has had competitions on infill design. Having that pre-set design might be a way."
This is the point where I started to grow a little concerned by the responses as they relate to maintaining architectural quality in our city. Both Wheeler and Bailey were adamant that the city's Design Review process is flawed. That's true to a degree, in that the Design Commission is all voluntary and unpaid, and since so much is under construction they've become overwhelmed by the volume. But Wheeler and especially Bailey seemed to be going a step further by questioning the validity of the Design Commission's purpose: to maintain a level of pedestrian friendliness at the street level and architectural quality overall. And while Iannarone's point about the idea of maintaining the architectural character of neighborhoods can be construed a code word for restricting certain peoples from a neighborhood, it would be a shame if she came out against having historic districts, which are one of a city's most important historic preservation tools and why certain areas of town like the Alphabet District and Irvington have retained so much great historic architecture.
Another audience question asked, "What will you do to prevent real estate speculation, and what tools will you use to force developers to build affordable housing?"
"You can’t stop real estate speculation but you can mitigate the consequences," Wheeler said. "Housing is not like any other commodity. That’s why I have supported tenants’ rights."
"I propose community managed, community owned public housing," Schor said. "You need tenant rights and just-cause eviction reform and rent control, but also investing in appropriate public housing managed by tenants that will be affordable forever."
At this point there were still lots of audience questions to get to, but your faithful scribe's tank was on empty. If there were questions during the ensuing overtime period that addressed historic landmarks under threat other than the United Workmen Temple, such as Centennial Mills or Memorial Coliseum, I didn't hear them. There's no arguing that today we're facing a crisis of homelessness and affordable housing as Portland's cost of living, home prices and median rents all skyrocket, and so it's hard to take issue with this forming the core of the conversation, or with much of the talk going to questions of density. I just hope that if one of these five candidates becomes mayor, he or she will remember that cities are defined not just by economic conditions, but the great places we build and maintain. Just about any political candidate's platform is a reflection of the concerns being voiced by constituents, and housing is the topic of the day, both as it relates to affordability as well as to the physical makeup of our neighborhoods. Yet finding the right balance between density, affordability and home demolitions will not be enough to keep Portland Portland. It is also our shared landmarks that help define us, and that make others want to visit and migrate to our city. Some of that is the waterfront and parks that certain candidates mention, but it's also our major and most historic works of architecture.