Portland City Council Considering Changes to Historic Preservation Plan

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Some of Portland’s top neighborhoods enjoy the perks of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places: no demolitions, no McMansions or endless rows of square condos. It also often means that there is no new and affordable housing.

All of that could change due to a proposal being considered by Portland City Council starting this week, which is in part intended to address the major housing shortage in the area, especially when it comes to affordable housing.

As part of the updates proposed in the draft historical resources code, developers would be able to demolish structures in several other situations, including in individual residential areas in historic neighborhoods designated by the federal government on the National Register, but only if the demolition of the building could create more housing. affordable or for more people. (The full draft of the Historic Resources Draft Code is 262 pages long and also includes revisions to the city’s processes for selecting historic neighborhoods in the first place.)

It’s not just pretty old houses. A long pattern of policies both racially explicit and implicit have shaped Portland’s housing landscape from the start – racial alliances in the early 20th century effectively prohibited people of color from owning land, creating wealth or even reside in parts of Portland like Ladd’s Addition and the Southwest Hills.

In the second half of the 20th century, cheap housing like apartments and duplexes were banned on over 70% of the city’s residential lots, and, until the legislature passed an inclusive zoning law in 2016, there was a citywide ban on cities. requiring developers to create at least some affordable housing in their projects.

The HRCP and its potential changes are just the latest in a series of zoning changes designed to make the city more affordable for more people. Passed by city council in August 2020 and came into effect in August 2021, the somewhat controversial residential infill project has encouraged the construction of many more duplexes (and triplexes and quads) in parts of Portland where they don’t. were not allowed before. Despite these changes, some districts are still effectively exempt from infill: historic districts.

As with other older and nearby neighborhoods, many historic neighborhoods, including Ladd’s Addition, Laurelhurst and Irvington, have at least some exclusionary policies in their past. When neighborhoods like this are protected from change, they preserve that same exclusion, says Luke Norman, co-head of fair zoning for Portland housing reform group: Neighbors Welcome.

“The preservation of history is not inherently racist, but, intentionally or unintentionally, it has been used by some districts in a racist manner,” says Norman. “Our historical codes should honor our diverse history, not allow our whitest neighborhoods to remain exclusive.”

Right now, it takes a long and complex process involving the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and the Historic Landmarks Commission, as well as a city council vote, to demolish a “contributing building” in a historic district (that is, (i.e. any building deemed to add to the district’s historic designation), in a process called a demolition review.

Norman’s group wants to keep the demolition review for local historic neighborhoods, which are subject to city council control, but change it for national registry neighborhoods, which are created independently of local or state government. He recommends an amendment that would allow demolition in National Register Districts in as many cases as possible by state law. For National Register districts, which tend to be closer, well served by public transport and very walkable, such a change could make housing in these areas more accessible to middle-income families and first time buyers.

But housing advocates say many developments in a neighborhood can also inflate property values ​​and contribute to gentrification and displacement. This was a major fear during hearings for the residential infill project, with an eye on low-income neighborhoods like Lents and Montavilla. This could also be of concern in conservation districts with larger BIPOC populations like Mississippi Avenue. (The city defines conservation districts as “important geographic areas at the neighborhood level and regulated with more flexible historic resource protections than historic districts”, meaning they have less protections against demolition and redevelopment .)

Some council observers are skeptical of the real affordability of new developments in historic neighborhoods. Developers of affordable housing, who will not recoup the costs from high rents, often want to get their money’s worth, usually through grants, subsidies and tax breaks. They might therefore find that it makes more sense to develop in areas with low land value, and not in historic neighborhoods.

Another point of contention is the city’s democratic oversight of demolitions, particularly with the Historic Monuments Commission, a city-appointed group of seven who help oversee historic buildings and neighborhoods. Part of the draft historic resources code would expand exactly who can sit on the commission and approve new developments. At present, the rules are rather strict, requiring a local historian, an architectural historian and an architect, along with four other members with relevant expertise.

The HRCP would reject these rules and allow the mayor to appoint members to the Historic Monuments Commission with less direct expertise on historic preservation issues. The new language includes anyone with “professional experience and knowledge in one or more of the following categories: historic preservation, local history, architectural history, architecture, landscape architecture, real estate, economics, construction, community development, town planning, archeology, law, finance, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, management of cultural resources or related disciplines “as long as they have a“ demonstrated interest, skill or knowledge of historic preservation. ”(In the proposed rules , there could also be up to two individual members, and no more than two of the seven members “may be active in the purchase, sale, rental or development of real estate for profit.”)

Requiring only “demonstrated interest” raises concerns for John Liu, a lawyer and former member of the board of directors of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association. “You could have a historic monuments commission of seven people, two of which are full members and the rest are real estate brokers, lawyers, bankers and entrepreneurs,” he said of the changes. proposed. “There is actually no requirement that one person on the HLC be a recognized expert in architectural history. ”

Interest in potential changes is high. More than 100 people have registered to testify at a city council hearing midweek on November 3. A vote is expected later this year.


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