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This seems like a bad idea. While it is possible to imagine tall buildings that "complement" the historic fabric of the district, the more likely result would be buildings that are incongruous and out of scale. I'm all for re-invigorating the district, but not at the expense of the thing that makes it special in the first place.


Clearly just preserving the area as it is has done little to improve the area. But simply just increasing the FAR is not enough either. It is important to have an overall plan and direction for the area as a whole. We need to know exactly what Old Town needs to be. The current state of the area is just waiting for new ideas.

This is no different than Chinatown, can we call that part of town Chinatown with only a shell of Chinese businesses in it?

I have always seen Old Town as being a great place for "beginning." Young start up businesses, young homeowners, young entertainment. Basically, Old Town should be known as the youngest part of town. Giving that area a shot with a younger mindset would allow it to continue its traditional fabric with the mindset of the start up lifestyle. Allowing FAR to be adjusted and moved around in the area is probably one of the only ways to stimulate new building there. But at the same time, there should be a no tear down clause that forces the preservation and reuse of the current collection of buildings in Old Town. UofO and Mercy Corp are great examples of this.

Also by making this a younger area, it would work better with the number of homeless shelters that are in the area. Unlike areas like the Pearl District, younger people are more acceptable of people that are different from themselves.

Brian Emerick

Brian, thank you for bringing such an important topic for discussion into your forum. As a Portland Historic Landmarks Commissioner, I can tell you that this is an issue we have all spent a lot of time grappling with. Regardless of your position, I encourage everyone with a real interest to consider testifying before City Council this Wednesday at 2pm so your voice can be heard.

There are a couple of points worth considering when talking about this issue. First, Landmarks does not support the 'mothballs' position, in fact we want vibrant, appropriate redevelopment. $100 million has been recently invested in the core of the district through Mercy Corps, U of O/White Stag and Smith's Block all approved by Landmarks, proving that skyscrapers are not necessary to revitalize the District. In fact, our position is the value of the District IS it's scale and historic identity. There are a lot of places in the City where you can build BIG. Skidmore Old Town has always had smaller footprints and buildings reflecting the early growth of the City, which is a key defining element of the District. I would argue this allows for more grass roots development because these projects don't require a big corporation and bank along with the high rents that follow to make it happen. They also result in a more diverse organic mix of tenants, making for a richer neighborhood. Yes, property values are not as high because you cannot build 130' half block monsters, but this again makes the area more accessible for everyone vs. rich gains for a few landholders who support the rezone on their 'Opportunity Site'.

The Guidelines we have forwarded to Council are holistic with respect to the entire District. A complete rewrite of the 1987 version, they are extremely progressive going beyond the typical 'protect historic buildings by creating bland deferential new ones'. We are encouraging new development to actually enhance the history and character of the District. This includes allowing the reuse of the City owned 'Ladd Cast Iron Collection' as a pattern library to rebuild many of the buildings demolished after WWII. The beauty of Cast Iron is it was essentially a kit of parts, and therefore is not beyond the reach of a focused rebuilding effort since we still have many of the original pieces.

It should be noted after all this talk that these guidelines actually have little to do with the height discussion. That is driven by the Planning Commission's document that recommends allowing additional height on the 5 ‘Opportunity Sites’ going before Council separately, but at the same session. Landmarks is opposed to the additional height on the basis that it is not scale compatible, but this is not precluded by our Guidelines, which focus on the overall District, not the spot zoned sites. If approved as currently drafted, those sites would need to come before Landmarks on a case by case basis for approval, and could always be appealed to City Council if denied.

Finally, I would close with a note that much of the lack of development in the District on vacant sites is due to the fact that they generate more revenue as parking lots under the existing City rules. All of these lots are owned by just a few entities. This is perhaps a blessing in disguise, as it has protected these sites that once had some of the finest historic buildings on them from misguided development. But now, with urban renewal in full swing and a new vision for the District in place, it's time to introduce some legislature to make redevelopment more logical than sitting on asphalt. Well known local developer John Russell, is proposing ideas to Council about how to make that happen including punitive taxes on parking lots. There are a lot of ways to get there without irreparably damaging the District's character and we look forward to that spirited conversation.


"...to preserve and enhance the quality of the district’s historic structures and scale. The vitality and future success of this neighborhood is directly related to reinforcement of a cohesive historic identity and not in blurring the perception of the district."

With all due respect to Brian and the rest of the Historic Landmarks Commission, I find it absolutely absurd that you feel it is your job to "enhance" your narrow vision of what is, or should be considered historical. Something is historical because of the time it was built, the materials with which it was built, the building techniques used and the significance of having a period piece of architecture survive to be viewed today. You absolutely cheapen this significance when you force new buildings to adhere to a period of time that has past. Have you ever been to a really old city and witness how they handle Historic landmarks, structures and districts? They preserve what they have left and allow modern styles to fill in between them, adding layers of texture and styles that reflect the time when these new buildings were built, providing contrast to what we have done in the past. How can you have reverence for something without having a contrast? Go to Bilbao or Barcelona. Or even Philly or Boston for that matter. These places have REALLY old 'historic' things, and look how they are revered by allowing new development, super modern structures and even skyscrapers to be built next to them. These places allow for the historic structures to speak for themselves and become extra special places to see and visit because they become even more unique and awe-inspiring by having other periods of architecture nearby to view; they don't force "fake" historic new buildings, who can't hold a candle to the originals, to pollute the world of the past. And we don't live in a time bubble either - how beautiful would the urban fabric of Old Town be in 100 years from now if there were many periods of "Historic" Architecture to view, things from our age, and even 35 years from now.

What do you think we would have today if there were a Historic Landmarks Commission in place to "preserve and enhance" back when the historic buildings of Old Town were built...?


To all of the critics of the Landmarks Commission, have you ever actually read the design guidelines for any local historic district? They are not about re-creating phony historic buildings, but maintaining a historic district's integrity - its sense of place. If you allow buildings completely out of context in design and scale to infiltrate into a district, eventually there will be no historic district. If there could be just one part of central Portland that is preserved for future generations, in a manner that makes clear how the entire City of Portland developed, Skidmore/Old Town is the place. After all, this is the oldest part of downtown. To use the title of a Landmarks Commission report from 1974 (available for download fom the Portland Planning Bureau) - How do we know it is us, without our past?


Does the planning commission really intend to only "...increase maximum building heights and floor-area-ratios on select sides around the edges of the district..."? Emphasis on 'sides around the edges'. From a 3-D perspective, what effect might this have on the area?

Towers block light and sky. They change the sound. Ultimately, their presence may be justified somehow, but at the same time, they represent a compromise of certain existing, positive qualities. If something like this is done, it had better be worth it to the residents of the city.

It's not unreasonable to consider the addition of some newer, modern architecturally styled, taller buildings to the historic Skidmore/Old Town area. Big Pink is already there as one extraordinary example. The area could probably comfortably handle some more buildings of a height similar to it.

If the idea is to allow the exact location of relatively taller, or tower type buildings within the area to be determined by market demands, by trading FAR between blocks, this could be a problem. If more towers are to be constructed in the historic Skidmore/Old Town area, carefully choosing their location with consideration for the effect they'll definitely have on existing structures and the area as a whole seems essential.


there are only a few blocks where they are looking to add height and FAR on the edge of the district, and it is only to go up to 130 feet i think? this is not the end of the district's identity that the preservationists are claiming. certainly not "skyscrapers" or "towers".

i'd rather have a good 130' tall building next to historic architecture than a parking lot. and to think that the goodmans will build or sell without a zoning change is naive.


Here's the morsel of your story that no reporter in town has the guts to say. Art DeMuro is the chairman of landmarks, but he's also a developer who specializes in historic properties. By limiting what's built in Old Town, De Muro is choosing his own competition. Why no one has ever written about this is puzzling to most people in the development and planning world.

Having said that, I can see why one wouldn't want gigantic towers in certain parts of Old Town. However, De Muro and his crew are also opposed to anything remotely modern...not only in Old Town but anywhere in Portland.

There are several key projects proposed for this area, and it's funny that DeMuro is opposed to everyone one of them. Yet, developers can't vocally call him out because of the power his commission yields. Why is no one concerned about this?


I'm all for modern and contemporary, innovative architecture, and increasing the height and density in Portland - as a whole, not just in downtown.

However, I don't see an issue with "protecting the character" of the most historic district in Portland. Even rebuilding the district in the original scale of what used to be, a technique used far and wide all across Europe - seems prudent even.

And hey, if a developer and architect wants to reuse the kit-of-parts, then so be it. Has anyone been to Germany? 95% of all the "historic" buildings were rebuilt after being bombed to the ground in WW2.


here, here Stuart. Art D Muro's conflicts of interest are a travesty. It's a shame that the city will allow this to happen.


It's all about Density. We build a Max line through the area , and we need to get people , lots of people near it. The Suburban Model is collapsing , and we have an historic opportunity to build a dense Green Central City. We need more workers and work-force housing right in Downtown. Fussing about some 'imaginary character' that any Histarical district may have, while ROME BURNS is looking backwards[like voting against a very cool Apple Store in NW]

Jim Heuer

There is a big difference between the preservation issues for a "Historic District" like Skidmore/Oldtown and individual historic buildings, like the Ladd Carriage House. In the latter case, the historic 19th Century context disappeared years ago, and it is the building itself, regardless of its context that should be preserved and maintained. In the case of the Carriage House that meant the construction of a 25 story apartment tower next door.

But a historic district is all about how the historic buildings relate to one another and to the people who inhabit and frequent the area. With the ever increasing size of buildings as Portland and other cities grew in the late 19th and 20 Centuries, size and scale came to be as much a marker for historic context as ornament and architectural style. Thus it was on the basis of massing and bulk that the Irvington neighborhood successfully fought the Irvington Squire project as being inconsistent with the applicable design guidelines. An even more serious issue of massing and bulk applies in the Skidmore/Oldtown district. That is the reason for the opposition of the preservation community to "breaking the rules" for 5 "opportunity areas". By the way, two of these are owned by PDC (which should know better), the rest by private interests, including the Goodman family.

In parallel with the debate over the 5 "opportunity areas" is the question of what to do with the infill, even if it is scaled appropriately. We have an amazing opportunity to use the salvaged cast iron facade parts of lost buildings in the area to re-construct those buildings and/or create visually compatible replacements for buildings totally destroyed. As Chase points out, there is ample precedent for this type of reconstruction in Europe where the "old towns" of many cities in Germany, Poland and elsewhere are reconstructions. In the case of the reconstructed Stare Miasto (old town) of Warsaw, the modern dates of reconstruction are noted on plaques above the entry of each building as a reminder that what people are seeing is a reconstruction -- albeit in many cases augmented with original parts salvaged from the demolished originals.

Finally, regardless of one's attitudes to the importance of preserving historically important buildings and districts in Portland, there seems to me to be no justification for attacking individual members of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission. Those of us who believe strongly in historic preservation generally applaud the PHLC's hard work and policy directions in this Skidmore/Oldtown issue, and don't see any dark hand of conspiracy or conflict of interest in its decisions.

Brian Libby

Jim, I appreciate your comments and others who feel passionately about protecting the integrity of the Skidmore historic district. To tell the truth, I'm not sure how I feel on this one. I can appreciate the argument made that a district, compared to an individual historic building, is more about the scale of the urban fabric.

At the same time, because of past decisions made by the landmarks commission that I didn't completely agree with in terms of the philosophy/approach behind it, and because I generally favor density in just about any case, I'm reluctant to say a small handful of buildings right downtown on the waterfront can't go taller.


who said towers are needed to rejuvinate the area? what we need are buildings that provide an active streetscape with retail, restaurants and cafes and which contain a mix of uses in the floors above to keep the area busy at all times.

you can increase the density the same amount as towers by just constructing shorter and squater buildings with the same volume and leaseable space.

look at the mercy corp building as an example of a low rise modern design that is in the scale of everything around it. a building like belmont street lofts or the similar one on division i think would be great buildings in this neighborhood (and personally i'm not a fan of their aesthetic). its ridiculous to make this particular issue into "modern" vs "historic/traditional" style war because its all about scale and size.

i'm all for towers and skyscrapers but they dont need to be everywhere. you can get the same number of units in a tall skinny tower as in a lower building that fills the whole block.

its not like our city is afraid to build towers afterall we've got a whole neighborhood solely dedicated to brand new modern towers, its the south waterfront.


thank you jw for bringing up the issue of stimulating activity and making the district useful again. When people here seem to talk about the preservation of historical districts, they talk of them as relics of our past and not as fabrics of our present.

Though I would argue with you on the notion of building squat towers in the manner you have referred to them. That type of building could be found throughout the Pearl District. Each one of those structures are squat full block towers which is something I would be against for this district.

I am fine with building 10-15 story buildings on the north end of the district or along the river or at the south end of the district, if it means it is a viable idea for a developer, then I see no harm in it. Keep in mind there are already two towers in that district. But the towers....well lets be honest, 10-15 stories is not a tower and forcing them to comply with smaller footprints would be good for the district. But in the end, buildings are not the true issue. The issue is how to reactivate the area without losing anymore of the integrity of the area.

Now keep in mind who Old Town's market is, homeless, young adults, Mercy Corp, and UofO which has about 300 students there. Plus with two MAX stops in the area and a weekend market that happens there. These are the elements that need to be built on.

So go on and argue about what the area should or shouldnt look like, but that will never address the true needs of the area.

And if you are wondering, yes, use the stock of historical facades that we have in storage to rebuild smaller scale buildings. I see no reason why we have yet to do so, that falls under the category of reuse and it design that comes from an era of detail rather than something "Disney" produced.

All I am saying is that the area needs to focus on what its true target is and that is younger people and the homeless because they are already there.


There is not actually enough cast iron from any one building to do much reconstruction. You would have to use a lot of fiberglass. I participated in a studio focusing on this district and the cast iron last spring, as a graduate architecture student at the UO here in Portland. That's what our research showed, at least in the collections managed by the city if I recall. So mainly we're talking about like a dozenish buildings here with full out the cast iron.

And I don't know what you do about the homeless people. Even though when you're actually down there, it's not so bad. But when you talk to anyone who's not down there, that's all they think of are the long lines of homeless people. Maybe get them off of Burnside somehow?

This neighborhood will always be compelling because it has such great bones. Too bad it fell into such disrepair.


a building like belmont street lofts or the similar one on division i think would be great buildings in this neighborhood... its ridiculous to make this particular issue into "modern" vs "historic/traditional" style war because its all about scale and size.

I agree, it is about scale and size. The problem is even if a building is the correct scale and size, the Landmarks Commission will pitch a fit about it not "fitting the aesthetic" of the area. Well designed, modest infill (10-15 story max, modern, neo-classical, whatever) would fit here in Old Town, bring up the density, meet planning goals, and fit the scale of the place without overpowering it. It's a real shame that something that would be Good For The Area gets trashed, rejected or watered-down by a group that basically calls its own shots and answers to nobody. How is that a productive process? How is that good for the city at large? The city needs to take a serious look at the role of the often self-righteous Historic Landmarks Commission and its ability to hold back good, solid projects because of aesthetics. "Out of scale" and "too tall" are objections that we can all agree on because good design needs to take those into account, but repeated rants of "too modern", "too boxy", "too much glass", etc, despite projects that fit scale and size-wise are bad for the financial bottom-line of the city, which in turn hurts us all.

Jim Heuer

The role of the Historic Landmarks Commission in the Skidmore/Oldtown debate has been to engage a team of preservationists and historians to produce design guidelines that reflected the best thinking across a spectrum of perspectives on historic preservation. The team also produced a very well thought through guidelines document, which was reviewed in detail by the Commission and approved with a number of changes suggested both by the Commission members and members of the public -- including property owners in the District.

Very few of us have had time to go through all the complicated documents that are part of the current decision making process. For those who want to spend an hour or so digging into the Commission's recommended guidelines, you can get to them at:
The Commission made it clear that they wanted guidelines that were well laid out so that developers working in the district wouldn't be blind-sided after their design work had started. From my point of view, the Commission has done an admirable job of that.


I think it's unfortunate to see people so willing to gamble with the future of this district because of the (perceived) shortcomings of THIS landmarks commission.

It seems to me that allowing higher buildings in the district is a "thin edge of the wedge" issue. So, it's 5 sites and 130' now. If this change is allowed on the basis that it doesn't pencil out to build shorter on those sites (and my understanding is that this is one of the major arguments for doing it), and then for whatever reason--collapsed economy, anyone?--those sites aren't built out within a few years, is the next argument going to be that we need to go to 300 feet? Or--if the 5 sites do get built, and there are remaining surface parking lots in the district, will the argument be that the remaining sites aren't viable for development without more height? Once you mess with the boundaries of that historic district, you should probably be prepared to see the whole thing go.


Lots of talk, but the situation is not as dire as these posts. One development would turn this very small area around. Do whatever needs to be done to get Uwajimaya on that massive parking lot (or wound) in the middle of the district. Everything else will follow whatever form this development is built in.


the uwajimaya site is not within the skidmore fountain/old town historic district. it is in the new china/japantown historic district.

either way, i don't think developments of this size will hurt skidmore/old town. it is not as homogenous as the preservationists make it seem, and the height/FAR request is a modest one that has more benefit than cost.

the cast iron bits and pieces are nice gestures, but are insignificant when discussing what is best for our urban environment.


The on-going efforts of the City and public-private interests to protect, enhance and develop the Skidmore-Old Town historic district are highly commendable and long overdue. There is no doubt that the many years invested in this effort involved the broadest array of community involvement, and participation that garnered the appearance of support for the process and amendments that were presented to the City Council on the 12th of November. The value and significance of the district to the citizens of Portland is well established, and noted across the board of the historic preservation community.
Given the district’s accolades, it is somewhat puzzling that a 19th century historic district is being developed with 20th century stimulus tools in a 21st century economy. As noted by the Planning Commission, 9.29.08, “The code amendments are intended to increase opportunities for development in the district while at the same time increasing restoration and renovation opportunities for historic buildings.” In other words, an economic trickle-down approach that promotes new development first, with the intent that it will stimulate historic preservation. Not only is this prescriptive approach an inverse of the performance model needed for the district, there are no similar models to be found across the nation to support this approach, none. This is not the cutting edge land-use policy that Portland is know for, and the unintentional consequences of the proposed amendments will result in a significant diminishment of the district’s integrity, sense of place and context.
It is not surprising that the Planning Commission’s Code Amendment letter of transmittal to the City Council states that “this recommendation to allow additional height and floor area on five opportunity sites at the periphery of the historic district is in conflict with the views of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.” The driver of this amendment initiative is new development, not historic preservation.

While the SHPO's comments on the issues are non-official but advisory they believe that their role in this matter as cited by the amendment proponents is "inappropreate". The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the National Park Service and the Architectural Heritage Center have all written to the Council that there is a clear and present danger that the amendments will compromise the integrity of the district. Mary Oberst, Oregon's First Lady and NTHP state representative testified before Council reiterating the Trust's persepctive.

A fundamental re-conceptualization of the issues should be undertaken, which would then come back before Council when there is a more true consensus on the matter. Understanding that such a request may not be acceptable, I believe that it is worth the consideration to simply remove the district from listing as a National Historic Landmark through the Section 213 (16 U.S.C. 470u) process of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended and put the sham of this action to rest, you can't have it both ways, new development of that proposed and integrity of the district. Not even the most capable and talented architect could design their way to an accetable solution in the current context.

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