Amity First Baptist Church, Amity, Oregon (Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
For more than 20 years, most historic buildings in Oregon, particularly those outside Portland, have had virtually no protection. And because we’re one of the only states with owner-consent rules regarding historic designations, we’re one of the worst in the nation for preservation in many ways. But thanks to a rule change that has amended Oregon’s Goal 5 land-use policy and adopted by the Department of Land Conservation and Development—which now basically see historic places as a natural resource worth preserving—there will be an important new baseline of protection for over 11,500 National Register properties in the state, as well as new options for local governments to preserve the historic buildings and neighborhoods.
“The implications are profound,” Restore Oregon executive director Peggy Moretti told me in a phone interview late last week. (Her organization spearheaded lobbying for the change.) “It’s the best thing to happen to historic preservation in Oregon in 20 years.”
The new rules do a few things. First, they specify that for any property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there must be a demolition review first.
“For folks here in Portland used to hearing about historic districts and hoops they have to jump through, they know we already do impose protections here on individual National Register-listed properties and districts,” explains Morretti. “But for most of the National Register-listed properties in the state, there was virtually no protection. Even in Washington and Clackamas counties there were no minimum protections at all. Demolition delay was all. And delay is not protection. You can just wait out the day. We’re excited there is finally this minimum standard. This change doesn’t prevent demolition but there has to be a public process where they consider the value of what they’re proposing to replace a historic place with against the benefit of retaining that historic place.”
The Goal 5 rule change also makes it easier to create local historic districts that are not National Register-listed districts but still have some kind of designation like “conservation district.” It also removes the biggest roadblock to such initiatives by clarifying that (1) only a simple majority of property owners need to consent to that designation, and (2) that taking an inventory of historic buildings is not a form of designation. This frees cities to update their historic resource inventories without requiring owners to consent.
“We haven’t inventoried our historic resources since the ‘80s because there was an assumption it triggered owner-consent rules,” Moretti added. “Now we know it does not. Taking stock is not the same as designation. So a community can take inventory and it doesn’t require owner consent. Portland can feel comfortable allocating funds to an updated historic-buildings inventory. And that’s important. How many decades of buildings do we have that have reached the age of 50 to become historic but have never been inventories? And it’s the same across the state. This change enables cities to take stock of what their historic assets are and plan for it.”
Also rewritten as part of Goal 5 is an allowance for local jurisdictions to apply additional protections to National Register listed properties or districts, but only after a public process. This gives property owners a role in customizing design guidelines or other regulations for their district.
“I think it was intentionally not defined too tightly,” Moretti said. “Out in rural communities they might approach that differently from Portland, which already has a historic landmarks commission. We’re trying to approach this with flexibility for different communities and jurisdictions so it works for them.”
I asked Moretti what the rule change did not do, or to put it another way, I asked her if a doomed historic building like the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple would be more likely to get saved with this change.
“Unfortunately I don’t think it would have mattered,” she said. “It did not fix the fact that our historic designation process is just broken. This thing we call owner consent, we’re the only state that does that. I think we need to find ways to significantly revise that, because it really gets in the way of fulfilling the mandate to protect historic resources. And ‘protect’ doesn’t mean everything's safe. Buildings like the Workmen Temple or the Governor Building at Second and Stark should not be lost. Those are significant buildings that should not be coming down without significant dialogue. They’re more than private properties. They’re community assets. There should be more of a public process in determining based on objective data whether they’re historic or not, and whether they should receive protection.”
“A property is either historic or not,” she added. “It’s not up to the owner’s whim. What is discretionary is whether it’s protected or not. It either meets the criteria of significance or it doesn’t.”
She characterized the Goal 5 rule change as making lemonade out of lemons, or a step in the right direction. But ultimately, Moretti continued, “There’s lots more work to do. We have an agenda that includes looking at the backwards historic-designation program in Oregon. We need a state historic tax credit. We need more historic designations. There needs to be more ways to incentivize preservation. We need to add density and retain affordability while still retaining our historic fabric: the places that make Portland not look like anywhere else.”
Moretti also sees a danger to Portland’s historic buildings coming from our ever-greater density. “I predict we’re entering a period of more commercial buildings,” she said. “It won’t just be houses. It will be good commercial buildings: the two-story buildings up and down our transportation corridors. There’s a danger they’ll say, ‘we’ve got to go tall.’ That’s a good idea generally speaking, but do we want to lose every bit of those historic Main Street buildings?”