BY BRIAN LIBBY
When doctors take the Hippocratic oath, they pledge to "first, do no harm," or as it literally translates from Latin, noxamvero et maleficium propulsabo: "I will utterly reject harm and mischief."
Apparently property developers undergo no such oath.
That notion of rejecting harmful acts came to mind yesterday morning as I paid what will likely be my final respects to the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple, the Richardsonian Romanesque-style historic building that has stood downtown at 914 SW Second Avenue since 1892. A few days ago, demolition crews began their job of tearing apart the building as it reaches its 125th anniversary.
The demolition is being spearheaded by Onder Development and Arthur Mutal, in order to make way for an office building. These developers are also demolishing the historic Hotel Albion (best known as home of the Lotus Cafe) on the same block to make way for a 20-story hotel. Both buildings would be designed by Ankrom Moisan Architects and built by Turner Construction. And the new buildings actually look pretty decent in the renderings, I must say. Too bad they'll arguably be tainted by what they trampled.
Despite my frustration and despite feeling appalled, I don't think it would be helpful to vilify the developers or anyone else. Arthur Mutal, for example, is involved in some historic rehabilitation projects around town such as the Cornelius Hotel. When I interviewed Arthur Mutal's Jeff Arthur and architects from Ankrom Moisan in December 2015, they both expressed reluctance to be part of the demolition and had valid reasons why their hands were tied.
"With the reality of the block size," Ankrom's Carolyn Forsyth said, referring to the possibility of a rehab into office space that they explored, "once you get a core in there that has all the stuff a highrise core needs to have, the plate left over is not something a modern office tenant would be fit to use."
"I’m a native Portlander and have been doing a lot of adaptive reuse and some historical reuse for about 10 years," Arthur said. "Whenever possible I like to keep older buildings intact and bring out their character. When we looked at that block, that was the goal and intent."
"We haven’t made any final decision about anything. We’re still exploring options," Arthur told me that December day. "As we’ve gone through this we’ve realized the challenges are greater than we thought."
The fact that Portland is also now anticipating a major earthquake is also part of the story. To properly stabilize seismically an unreinforced building this size is not cheap.
What's more, Portland's and Oregon's surprisingly lacking historic preservation laws and incentives figure in here too. If there were state, county and city-level historic tax credits for renovations, it might have helped the developers get closer to feeling such an approach would "pencil out," as the saying goes.
Having considered all those mitigating factors—the size of the floor plates on a half-block building, the cost of seismic retrofitting, the lack of sufficient incentives—am I in a mood to accept or forgive the developers for what they're doing?
Not. At. All.
As far as I'm concerned, Onder and Arthur Mutal's actions amount to a kind of one-block Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. It's not a natural disaster, but make no mistake: it's a disaster. Restore Oregon has called this the most historically-significant demolition to happen in Portland in decades, and they're not wrong.
I've always found "pencil out" to be a conveniently vague phrase. After all, any building owner or developer could come up with a different answer to the question of what point the cost of a building's construction or renovation outweighs the potential profit they stand to make.
In the case of the office building that will be located on the United Workmen Temple site, maybe it's true that with seismic stabilization the leftover space on each floor would be smaller than what's sought for the most lucrative-to-lease Class A office space. At the same time, a quick glance at the many old warehouses in the Central Eastside and to a lesser extent Slabtown being renovated for creative companies would seem to indicate that many potential renters or buyers of office space are precisely looking for old buildings, with the brick walls and wood beams that speak to the continuity of the generations and give off an authentic ambiance and texture that is very rarely found in new construction.
I think of projects like the Brewery Blocks in the Pearl District, which 15 years ago replaced the former Blitz-Weinhard brewery with mixed-use, LEED-rated office and condo buildings, as well as renovating what became the Wieden + Kennedy building. I'm sure it wasn't cheap to preserve the old brewhouse and its smokestack like developer Gerding Edlen did. But you know what? I feel pretty confident those guys have made a lot of dough without losing sleep at night. I can think of any number of similar cases around town: the Ford Building, the Leftbank Building, the US Custom House, the Olympic Mills Commerce Center. Even if one were to argue those renovations were cheaper than the United Workmen Temple renovation and seismic upgrade would have been, those developers all added something positive to the city's fabric. They not only did no harm, but they actively did something good. And they still each made a profit.
As I saw first-hand this morning as well as in a stream of social media posts from those documenting the Temple's demolition, it is unequivocally too late to save this building. So where do we go from here?
For starters, we absolutely have to find a way to change the math and change the system. It is preposterous that we haven't updated the city's historic building inventory since the 1980s. It's a slap in the face to our citizenry and our shared history that building owners can de-list their historic properties. We need both more carrots and more sticks: more financial incentives to do the right thing, and more penalties for not doing the right thing—for the Onders of the world.
We must also not forget. For all I know both developers will go on from here to do good things. I mentioned Arthur Mutal's involvement in other historic renovations, for example, and that's laudable. At the same time, I wonder if a kind of unofficial Scarlet Letter is in order here. Anyone have a sewing kit?
This isn't character assassination. I'm inclined to believe these developers are upstanding Portlanders trying to make an honest living and, aside from this demo, are decent people. But they did perpetrate one of the most unfortunate demolitions the city has seen in decades. There will be no penalty for that. They will presumably find constructing an office and hotel on this site in booming downtown Portland to be quite lucrative, enough to laugh off some hotheaded writer or the historic-preservation nonprofits calling foul. And no one is really trying to stop that. But we do have the power to do some small but important things: to remember, to remind others of what was done here and who did it, and to try harder to build consensus big enough to overcome those who would oppose proper incentives for historic preservation at the city, county, state or federal level.
It may get worse before it gets better. Our knuckle-dragger-in-chief occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could easily do away with federal historic tax credits altogether despite their bipartisan support, perhaps to cut taxes for KKK members, to fund the rounding up of immigrants and journalists, or to literally go nuclear when some country won't build a Trump hotel on the site of a children's hospital. But whether it's the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple or our ongoing national crisis, I'm trying to remind myself of the need to, as Jesse Jackson once implored, "keep hope alive." And to keep fighting.
Every city is continuously a work in progress, with construction cranes and demolition wrecking balls never out of service. And for the most part, that's the natural way of things. One era or generation or century's architecture is not always suitable for the needs of the next. Most buildings, moreover, are not so remarkable and historically significant that they must always be preserved in perpetuity.
Yet great cities preserve and protect their most significant architectural contributions through the decades, and cities are, of course, always made up of people like you and me who collectively determine, block by block and building by building, what will stay and what will go. Of course those decisions usually get made not just in terms of what is best for the city, but what might serve current needs, be they the need for profit or to serve the public. And sometimes we get car crashes like the Workmen Temple demolition, where that historic architecture is decayed and in need of some expensive TLC, with not enough incentives to take the dangerously sharp edge off the profit motive. There will always be casualties—buildings demolished that should be. But there will always be you and me and our neighbors, the people without dollar signs as our guiding light and without our integrity potentially eclipsed by said cash. Jesse's right that we have to keep hope alive. But we also have to do something beyond just motivation: we have to keep fighting. That's the only way a tragic day for local architecture like today will not have been without an eventual bright side.