City vows to tackle ‘demolition epidemic’ threatening livability
Mayor Charlie Hales is convinced the city needs to act quickly to prevent more historic homes from being demolished and replaced with infill developments.
“The existing system is not working. When historic homes are replaced by one or two new ones, you lose the character of neighborhoods,” Hales says.
According to Hales, staff members in his office have already begun meeting to discuss policy options. He expects to announce one or more proposals soon.
“It will be a matter of weeks, not months,” Hales says.
Hales says he became convinced of the problem during the July 31 City Council meeting that turned into a lively forum on demolition and other growth-related issues. It was originally scheduled so the council could receive annual reports from two commissions that advise on related matters, the Portland Landmarks Commission and the Portland Design Commission.
But preservationists and neighborhood activists alarmed by the increasing number of residential demolitions took the opportunity to present their concerns to the council. And both commission’s supported their testimony, with local architect Brian Emerick, chairman of the landmarks commission, declaring Portland’s livability is threatened by a “demolition epidemic.”
Hales praised those who testified for presenting a compelling case that existing city policies intended to preserve historic properties are not working, especially now that the economy is improving and many people want to live in close-in Portland neighborhoods that contain a large number of older homes that can be replaced.
“It was an excellent hearing. The people who testified made a very reasonable case that something should be done to save historic home and the answer is yes,” says Hales.
Still, there are a number of challenges for Hales.
For starters, a law passed by the 1995 Legislature during the height of the property rights movement prevents the city telling homeowners they cannot demolish their houses or sell them to developers. The “owner consent” law says property owners must agree to any kind of historic designation.
And not all of the homes being demolished are historic. Many of those who testified were upset about relatively newer houses being torn down and replaced with one or more that are simply not compatible with the surrounding ones.
In addition, an advisory committee is already working on the issue, although it may not complete its work until the end of the year. The Development Review Advisory Committee of the Bureau of Development Services has been discussing how to give neighbors better notice of pending demolitions for months. It is also discussing when a major remodeling job is large enough to require a demolition permit.
Jeff Fish, a local developer, leads the Development Review Advisory Committee. He admits work on the issues has been slowed by summer vacations, but still plans to complete the work by the end of the year, when his term expires.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz is in charge of BDS and she supported the committee’s work during the council meeting. Hales spokesman Dana Haynes says the work will be coordinated.
Everyone at the council meeting agreed residential demolitions are increasing although some questioned whether it was a crisis. The Bureau of Development Services issued around 275 demolition permits last year. It is on track to issue more than 300 this year, not counting major remodeling projects that only leave part of the original house without being a demolition.
Emerick warned that the paced of demolitions could increase dramatically in coming years, however. He said that a full 20 percent of existing houses are on lots that can be legally divided for more homes, putting them at increasing risk for redevelopment as the economy continues to improve.
Most of those who testified called the current rate of demolitions an epidemic that is destroying the character Portland neighborhoods. Developer Jeff Fish noted they were a very small percent of the cities existing 150,000-plus homes. He has also said that most of those homes are not worth saving forever, noting that many were not built to last in the first place. He considers most of the infill projects part of the evolution of all cities, which are constantly changing in response to market forces.
Nevertheless, Fish says the city should identify those considered historic and find some way to allow preservationists instead of developers to purchase them when they come up for sale.
There were no shortage of other ideas for slowing the pace of demolitions offered at the July 31 meeting.
The Historic Landmarks Commission presented the council with a white paper that recommend appointing a Demolition Task Force directed by the council and including staff from the Bureau of Development Services and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to work with stakeholders to identify building and zoning code changes. At a minimum, the white paper said all residential demolitions should require public notice and a minimum delay.
It also said any remodeling project that removes more than 50 percent of an existing building should be classified as a demolition. And it recommended the city update the Historic Resources Inventory compiled in 1984, even though it provides no permanent protection to the properties on it.
The Coalition for Historic Resources, an umbrella group representing preservation organizations and activists, agreed. Members also said policies should be adopted to ensure that replacement houses fit into the existing neighborhoods.
Individual witnesses offered additional suggestions. Some said the city should require houses to be deconstructed instead of demolished, allowing construction materials to be recycled instead of sent to landfills. Others said steps should be taken to ensure developers do not inadvertently damage adjoining properties, something they said is happening all to often today.
And they all urged that action be taken now instead of waiting until the council approves the update of the Comprehensive Plan that will guide Portland growth for the next 20 or so years. It is not scheduled to be considered by the council until spring 2015.