BY BRIAN LIBBY
As the real estate economy has begun booming in the past two to three years, rebounding from the depths of the Great Recession, Portland's historic neighborhoods have teemed with life. Travel down streets like Southeast Division or North Williams and you'll see not just apartment buildings under construction but a veritable renaissance of new restaurants, shops and bustle. When Portland and Oregon decades ago committed to density over sprawl, this vibrancy was part of the upside. (Unless, of course, you’re priced out of these neighborhoods due to gentrification.)
But along the way, a worrisome number of single-family homes have been sacrificed like unwanted ballast on density’s filling cargo ship. In 2013 over 230 demolitions were approved, a whopping 40 percent increase compared to 2011. This year, the city is said to be approving demolition permits at about one per day, which would be close to another 40 percent jump over 2013.
As always, the chance to make a profit is motivating much of the deluge, but it's also complicated by our land use laws and the lingering result of the recession. Developers who might have focused on suburban home construction in the past now have more financial motivation to look to the urban city center at the same time there’s less abundance and ease of opportunity to build suburban subdivisions.
The housing crash that began in 2008 meant fewer developers were buying land for subdivisions. And with our urban growth boundary, there has been less land freed up for such development. That's a success as it relates to curbing sprawl at the edge of the metro area, but puts more pressure on the central city. Even if a developer could build exponentially more houses in the 'burbs by creating whole subdivisions, individual lots in Portland now represent the chance to make a higher profit per house. If some old, unoccupied house has to be taken down, the thinking goes, then that's just a small step in the course of doing business.
Indeed, the developers coming into the city to tear down our old houses aren't necessarily villains so much as simple entrepreneurs guided by economic forces. But they also may underestimate the degree to which a neighborhood will in certain instances band together to fight a house's demolition. In the suburbs, after all, historic homes are an anomaly, let alone whole neighborhoods.
Even so, discouragement from neighbors and neighborhoods is largely incongruent with the message they're getting from the city, which, while not explicitly advocating for historic home demolition nevertheless seems to create the right conditions for it by encouraging density. And encouraging density is not at all a wrong choice. It's a path the city has been traveling for decades now, and one generally far preferable to sprawl.
Yet the fact that neighborhood groups in places like (to name three recent examples) Willamette Heights, Eastmoreland and Laurelhurst have worked together to try and stop historic-home demolitions says something very encouraging, I think, about the democratic and participatory nature of our local culture. In many cities and towns, the idea of neighbors taking organized action to try and stop demolition of old houses would be viewed as naive or not worth trying.
It's not to say there isn't still something dangerous going on, for an incredible amount of demolitions have occurred in the past few years in Portland's close-in neighborhoods. By the same token, no one is saying that all old houses have to be kept. Needs and tastes change, and many old houses may be poorly constructed or aesthetical banal enough that few would miss them.
What needs to change in order to prevent more old homes from being demolished? For starters, a little more notice would help, even if it doesn’t actually stop a demolition. Demolitions without notification of neighbors have been on the rise. City code specifies neighbors be notified before a demolition permit is issued, and indicates a permit cannot be issued for 35 days after applying. When that happens, the Bureau of Development Services is required to notify the neighborhood association and the property owner has to put up an orange sign on the structure indicating demolition plans. But there is a major loophole more developers have utilized: property owners applying and paying for a new building permit at the same time as the demolition permit can have the notification requirement waived.
In cases where one house is being demolished and replaced with one other house, as was set to happen with one house in Willamette Heights dating to 1892 that was slated for demolition (before its owner, Google executive Kevin Rose, acquiesced to neighborhood pressure to retain the home and sell), city code doesn't require any waiting period between receiving a permit and demolishing a house.
Since the demolition uproar began to attract attention this year, the City has taken a new step: as of July 1, The Bureau of Development Services will start hanging flyers on the door handles of homes nearby a demolition, a so-called “courtesy notice” that is supposed to go out 10 days before the wrecking ball is scheduled to swing.
Last month, Architectural Heritage Center director Cathy Galbraith offered a few other prescriptions that are worth passing on.
Besides calling for neighbor notification, she recommends changing the definition of demolition in the city code. Currently any demolition that leaves a portion of the house still standing is categorized as a remodel, even though in many other jurisdictions at least 50 percent of the original structure must be retained.
Galbraith also proposes a 120-day delay for demolishing any house over 50 years old. In 1983, the city created a Historic Resources Inventory, which could serve as a guide for which houses were significant, but it hasn’t been regularly updated, so anything a half-century old or more should probably be included. Ultimately the greater need is to regularly update the inventory. In any case, the four-month delay would give preservationists the time to investigate options such as buying out a developer in order to prevent demolition. Buying the demolishing owner out was the solution found for the 1892 house Kevin Rose bought, but it only barely happened at the 11th hour because of a lack of a waiting period.
I'd like to see some kind of new inventory taken of the city's most architecturally significant historic homes and keep it updated every year. That could be our guide for some of these protections.
An additional help Galbraith suggests could come from the city requiring that existing front and side-yard setbacks of the demolished home be maintained. A lot of times when a modern house is being built in a neighborhood of historic homes, neighbors think it’s the contemporary design that’s out of step with the nearby houses, but it’s really about scale. This proposal seems a bit less likely to happen, because it could make increasing density more difficult to pull off. But it would also remove a lot of neighbors’ objections. Sometimes an old house becomes the subject of a preservation campaign because it’s a beautiful old house, but other times it’s simply the fear of an out-of-scale replacement that motivates opposition.
Great cities are ones that engage in successful balancing acts, be it economically, socially or physically.
We want places that are affordable but not destitute. We want great shops and restaurants but not so much competition for real estate that only big ubiquitous chains or moneyed one-percenters can justify the rent. We want enough density to enable and fill with life our walkable neighborhoods, but not so much that good architecture gets regularly torn down simply because something higher-density could be profitably built in its place.
Today many of the biggest and most prominent cultural capitols such as New York, London and San Francisco are grappling with the downside of popularity and gentrification: the middle class is being driven out and often banal high-density architecture is crushing little buildings with character that gave these cities their identity.
These cities have lost their balance, while so far Portland hasn’t. The question, though, is how much we’re beginning to teeter. For while nearly no home by itself is architecturally irreplaceable, collectively when wide swatches of a historic neighborhood’s fabric begin to go away it could easily be seen as a dangerous precedent in which that which makes a city livable and lovable starts to turn on itself. So let’s make sure we continue down density’s path, but in a more nuanced way: one that naturally and instinctively says “Whoa, hold on a minute” when a cultural landmark, even one under 1,000 square feet, becomes threatened. We need the Kevin Roses of the world to take their talents to Portland. We even need developers trucking in from Gresham to keep our stock of homes in good working order and sometimes even replaced. But again, it takes a measured approach that doesn’t take neighbors off guard or erode what makes Portland Portland.