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Jim Heuer

The frustrations with the Ankeny/Burnside plan are really a piece of the larger issue of how to promote appropriate development within all of the Skidmore/Oldtown and Chinatown Historic Districts. The "prescriptive" approach Mr. Kunowski refers to is the set of design guidelines which establish height and massing limits consistent with the existing buildings and which further encourage architecturally compatible designs alongside the existing structures.

There is a perfectly good set of design guidelines paid for by City money and reviewed favorably by the City Landmarks Commission that is crystal clear on what is and is not allowed in the District. The preservation community had been told prior to that point that it was a lack of clarity and ambiguity in the old design guidelines which prevented development in the area. OK, so that got fixed. But rather than adopting the guidelines, the City proposed the idea of "opportunity sites" for the District. Simply put, the opportunity sites were to be major chunks of the Historic District where the rules would be suspended and the owners would be allowed to put up pretty much anything they wanted -- certainly much taller structures than what would otherwise be allowed.

These "sites" Mr. Kunowski makes reference to in his post. The preservation community fought the concept of these "sites" and the city -- with its Mayor under an ethical cloud at the time -- pulled back and did nothing.

Behind all the semantic fog -- "performance based" vs "prescriptive approach" -- is the simple fact that land owners in the District have been waging a quiet war for years to increase the value of their properties by forcing the city to back away from the accepted standards for new development in the Historic District. The key here is that it's property value not "multi-faceted visioning" that's at the core of the problem. One imagines that a "performance based" approach is just another way of saying that we need to break the District design guidelines to allow taller buildings.

Back in 2010, I did a back of the envelope calculation comparing property values from Portland Maps.com in these two Historic Districts with that just outside and came to the conclusion that the property owners in the District would enjoy roughly a $150 million increase in property values if they were allowed to build to the full height allowed in the "modern city" to the south. This financial incentive explains why they have been willing for something like 20 years to accept the returns from surface parking business rather than attempting to move forward with development under the current height and design rules. As the potential for profit from breaking the District rules gets greater with each passing year, there is never any incentive for immediate development under the current rules.

Of course, if the owners at some point were to come to the simple conclusion that they will never be allowed to build a 150 or 250 foot tall building in the District, and they may as well maximize the value under the current guidelines, you'd see bulldozers ripping out the old parking lots the next day.

Now, taking as a given (which I realize many readers of this blog will not) that Skidmore/Old Town is worth preserving, not just as a bunch of old buildings but as an urban ecosystem that thrives and encourages investment to fill in the many blank spaces, it can be argued that the very scale, size and massing of those old buildings must be an essential ingredient of that emerging ecosystem. In that context, the "opportunity sites" which would allow "transition" (read much bigger) buildings to be built in the District are the last thing we need.

While the project that Mr. Kunowski describes appears to have many admirable elements, it would have been nice to hear a focus on working within the existing and well defined guidelines for new construction in the district rather than giving further encouragement to those who would eliminate or dramatically weaken them.

It would have been even nicer to hear some reference to the possible re-use of the very large collection of cast iron building components salvaged during the great demolitions of the 1950's and 1960's. There is a tremendous opportunity to recreate some of the fabulous buildings so unwisely demolished using the actual, original materials from which they were constructed!

The Architectural Heritage Center prepared a much-too-unheralded plan for reusing the salvaged cast iron during the summer of 2010. You can see details at http://cipdx.visitahc.org/CIpdx/Future/RestorationAll.html. While it may be too late for the U of O students to take it into consideration (if they even knew about it), I'd hope that the AHC's proposals will reach a wider audience as development in the District continues.

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