BY FRED LEESON
Chances are good that David Bagwell didn’t anticipate the path awaiting him as he started working with a designer on plans for a two-story addition to the rear of his 1926 Dutch Colonial home in Irvington. In the end, he found himself involved in what may be a precedent-setting case for additions to residences in some other neighborhoods, as well.
Because his house sits in the nearly two-year old Irvington National Historic District, Bagwell’s plans required a historic design review by the Portland’s Bureau of Development Services.
“We worked with the city,” which approved his plan, “and we think the city is correct,” Bagwell testified before the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission this week. But the Irvington Community Association filed an appeal, contending that the city staff crafted an approval criteria that doesn’t exist in the city code.
In its written decision, the city ruled that Bagwell’s plan was acceptable because it was mostly not visible from the front of the house. Since the house itself was not a designated landmark – only a contributing element to the neighborhood historic district – the city concluded that the impact on the district, rather than the house, was the determining factor.
The city staff reached its conclusion because it believed the district was created under federal rules “based solely on an evaluation of its historical character conducted from the public right-of-way,” according to the city ruling.
Members of Irvington’s land use and historic preservation committees begged to differ. Jim Heuer, one of the preservationists who helped create the district, said photographs from the public rights-of-way were only part of the nomination material, along with “complete aesthetic statements that included more than the front.” He also noted that part of the historic district “experience” would be views of the rear of the house by people who lived nearby.
“We have to allow a certain amount of alterations,” he noted. “This is not a museum district.” But he thought the proposed 600-square foot addition was too large and too incompatible with the rest of the 1840-square foot residence. Rather than use the “drive-by” criteria, Dean Gisvold, chair of the neighborhood land-use committee, said the city should be evaluating additions to historic properties using a “hierarchy of compatibility” standard included in the city zoning code for municipally-designated landmarks and historic districts.
Under that guideline, additions are to be evaluated for compatibility with the “original resource,” then with adjacent properties and with the rest of the district. “If the interpretation of criteria is wrong, then the decision based on it is also faulty,” Gisvold testified.
After considerable discussion, the landmarks commission reached a consensus that a contributing element of a national historic district should be considered the original resource, not the entire district. This approach gives the city more discretion in judging the merits of a rear addition even it is invisible from the sidewalk. Tim Heron, director of the BDS planning staff, said the ambiguity in the city code could be remedied in a future revision.
And what of Bagwell’s planned addition? To the untrained ear, the debate over the “resource” to be considered must have seemed dense and perplexing. “It just seems to me that we have a matter of opinions” about the design of his addition, he said.
The landmarks commission seemed comfortable with the scale and massing of the proposal, but offered some suggestions about more historically-compatible window locations. Bagwell and designer Don Rouzie said they would work with the city staff and present a revised plan next month.
In the end, the homeowner is likely to win approval. And, until some future code revision clarifies the standing of individual contributing buildings in national historic districts, the city planning staff wins a better understanding of how to manage similar applications in the future.
Fred Leeson is board president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center in Portland.