Residents’ message: Change demo rules
City Council hearing could produce action ‘soon,’ Hales says
Dozens of Portlanders told the City Council last week that poorly regulated growth is destroying the city and their neighborhoods.
The complaints ranged from unannounced demolitions of single-family homes and the construction of incompatible replacements to oversized buildings along established corridors, new apartments without enough on-site parking and a lack of protection for historic properties. Other issues included equity, gentrification and the carbon footprint of demolitions and new construction.
“This is a Portland moment. People will look back and say, this is the moment when we will decide the future of our city and beloved neighborhoods,” warned Cathy Galbraith, executive director of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center, a local nonprofit preservation organization.
Mayor Charlie Hales, Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Commissioner Steve Novick seemed surprised by much of what they heard. Fritz promised to request $20,000 to fund a pilot project to update part of the city’s 30-year-old Historic Resource Inventory during this fall’s budget adjustment process. Hales told those in the room they will see action “soon,” but didn’t offer details.
Commissioner Nick Fish and Commissioner Dan Saltzman missed the session, which stretched on for around three hours.
Northeast Portland resident Jennifer Moffatt thought that Hales, Fritz and Novick got the message. She is fighting to save the 1911 Markham House at 3206 N.E. Glisan, next to where she lives. It has been bought by a developer who is interested in building two new homes on the site.
“They clearly heard the same comments and common theme from everyone there. They seemed to realize this has gotten ahead of them and they need to act,” Moffatt said the next day.
Galbraith wasn’t sure the council will act quickly enough, if at all.
“We’ll certainly lose a large number of houses as the months roll on,” she said.
Epidemic or not?
The council had not scheduled a hearing on growth issues. But by coincidence, two city commissions that advise on development policies and projects were scheduled to present their annual reports at the July 31 afternoon session. Preservationists and neighborhood activists alarmed by the rapid increase in demolitions and infill projects used the opportunity to pack the Council Chambers and voice their concerns.
“You can’t fault developers for following the rules. There needs to be better rules,” said Galbraith.
As it turned out, both the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and the Portland Design Commission also raised such issues in their reports. Local architect Brian Emerick, chairman of the landmarks commission, told the council that a “demolition epidemic” is threatening the character of Portland’s neighborhoods. Guenevere Millius, a Portland businesswoman who chairs the design review commission, said the city lacks policies to ensure that new developments fit into their surroundings.
Emerick seemed to score points with Hales, Fritz and Novick when he quoted from a July 2014 Bureau of Planning and Sustainability report that had not been widely circulated. It said the average home demolished between 1996 and 2011 was built in 1927. The demolished homes averaged 1,119 square feet in size and were replaced by homes nearly twice as large. The report also noted that single-family home demolitions sent nearly 20,000 tons of waste to landfills last year. And it said most demolitions are occurring in gentrifying parts of town, displacing residents who cannot afford to buy the replacement homes.
Emerick also said that nearly 20 percent of all existing houses in Portland are on lots that can legally be subdivided, putting them at risk for purchase by developers who will tear them down and build two or more replacement houses.
Witness after witness repeated those themes and warned that the worst is yet to come. “Scrape and build developers” are exploiting the existing rules, said Fred Leeson, vice chairman of the Architectural Heritage Center.
Local builder Jeff Fish argued that demolitions are not at epidemic levels, noting Portland has more than 140,000 houses and only 300 or so are likely to be demolished this year. Novick repeated the argument, pointing out that it will take around 500 years to replace the city’s entire housing stock at the current rate. The argument did not convince those who testified, who countered that even one or two demolitions and infill projects can destroy the fabric of a neighborhood.
Several proposals were made to at least slow the pace of the demolitions. The landmarks commission gave the council a white paper that calls for a mandatory 120-day delay on all demolitions, defining any remodeling projects that remove 50 percent or more of a house as a demolition and the creation of a demolition task force to consider such issues. These ideas were echoed by another preservation group, the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources.
Even Fish said he was working to define the difference between a demolition and major remodeling project as chairman of the Development Review Advisory Committee of the Portland Bureau of Development Services, which issues demolition, remodeling and construction permits.
Several times during the session, Hales and Fritz urged those in attendance to participate in the Comprehensive Plan update process. The update, which the council is scheduled to consider next spring, will shape the city’s growth for the next 20 years. Several speakers said the council needs to take action on the issues now, however. The also said the draft update, which aims to accommodate 200,000 more people by 2035, is too pro-growth.
Although the City Council has been confronted with design and parking issues before, the demolition issue was new to them. It is being handled by the Bureau of Development Services, with advice from Jeff Fish’s committee. A few months ago, BDS reinterpreted a rule to prevent houses from being demolished without notice if developers applied for both a demolition permit and multiple construction permits at the same time. BDS also recently began giving developers door hangers they can voluntarily distribute in neighborhoods where they plan to demolish a house.
Neighborhood activists and preservation advocates argued those changes have not been sufficient. They say a house can still be demolished without notice if a developer applies for a demolition permit and a single construction permit at the same time — even if the developer plans to ultimately build more than one replacement house. And they say demolition notifications should be mandatory to make sure nearby residents can protect themselves from possible hazardous material contamination.
Not all of the houses being demolished are historic. Neighbors and activists are also upset about newer houses being purchased by developers, torn down and replaced with one or more larger dwellings. Some of the houses demolished in recent months have been in relatively good condition, while others had not been well maintained. Southwest Portland residents are mad the city sold an unused water tank to a developer last year. And some residents in Northeast Portland are upset that a 70-year-old red cedar tree might soon be cut down to make way for a second house on a large lot.
The council session happened on the same day that residents in the Eastmoreland neighborhood failed to save a small single-family home from being demolished. Renaissance Homes purchased the ranch-style house with the intent of tearing it down and building two new homes on the lot. Six neighbors agreed to pool their money and buy the home, but they and Renaissance could not agree on a sales price.
Home demolitions are increasing. Last year, the city Bureau of Development Services issued 273 demolition permits — more than the 270 issued in 2006, shortly before the housing bubble burst. The number is expected to top 300 this year, and that does not count homes that are torn down but classified as remodeling projects under city policies.
Residents in some parts of town — such as the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood in Northeast Portland — have been protesting demolitions for years. A lot more people are talking about the issue now because of several recent high-profile controversies.
One that made international headlines involved Google executive Kevin Rose, who took out a demolition permit for a Willamette Heights house that he and his wife bought for $1.3 million. Thousands of people signed an online petition protesting Jones’ plan to replace the 1892 house with a new one. The couple relented by the end of last month, however, and sold the house at 1627 N.W. 32nd Ave. for $75,000 more than they paid for it.
Before that, more than a dozen neighbors in Northwest Portland pooled their resources in May to buy a 1902 house from a developer who planned to replace it with multiple homes. And in April, neighbors in Eastmoreland bought a house from a developer who planned to replace it with two homes. Since then, the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association has tried to prevent the demolition of two other houses.
The Historic Landmarks Commission — which addressed the demolition issue most directly in its report — normally toils in near obscurity. It is charged with providing leadership on maintaining and enhancing the city’s historic and architectural heritage. Among other things, it is expected to identify properties in town that have historic or cultural significance or special architectural merit. The commission also coordinates the city’s historic preservation programs and advises the City Council and other agencies on historic preservation matters. And the commission is supposed to be actively involved in the development of design guidelines for historic design districts.
The commission has eight members. None of them can hold elective office. The members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
The annual report covered other commission priorities, including the need to update the Historic Resources Inventory of approximately 5,000 significant properties that was compiled in 1984. Another priority is the need for the city to approve design guidelines in two historic districts targeted for redevelopment, Skidmore Old Town and new Chinatown/Japantown. And the report says the city should help preserve and use historic unreinforced masonry buildings that do not meet earthquake standards.
The report also identified specific properties in Portland that deserve special attention, including the original Blanchet House, Portland Fire & Rescue Engine House No. 2, the Multnomah County Courthouse, Centennial Mills, the Pacific Gas and Coke Building, the Morris Marks House and numerous older Portland Public Schools buildings that have no formal historic designation.