Matt Schumacher

THE OLD FIRE STATION passed out of existence without much fanfare, but with stunning speed.

It was late 2013, and the 89-year-old building near NE MLK and Alberta was at the end of its utility to a booming market. It was time, its owner had decided, for demolition.

Less than three months later, a proposal to build a Trader Joe’s nearby would spark a citywide crisis of conscience as to how Portland should grow and change [“Hall Monitor,” News, Feb 5, 2014]. But the 1924 firehouse garnered little notice when the backhoe came.

On November 15, 2013, the building’s owner, James Adamson, informed city officials he no longer wanted the property at 4867 NE MLK listed on the city’s Historic Resource Inventory (HRI), a guiding document that holds some of Portland’s best old buildings. And by virtue of that de-listing, the city could issue a demolition permit the same day, rather than waiting 120 days as required for most HRI properties.

By November 27, the Portland Observer had run a four-paragraph item about the demolition, under a photograph of the building in ruins. Today, nearly three years later, a gravel lot is all that remains.

Nothing’s special or especially tragic about the loss of the squat fire station, admired for its Tuscan columns and pedimented gables. Scant protections for old buildings have been a gripe of the city’s historically minded advocates for a long while.

More than any big city in the country, advocates say Portland’s historic structures are susceptible to developers looking to swap them out. That’s because of a quirky law the state passed in 1995, giving owners unprecedented sway in whether their properties are considered historically significant.

“Every other state in the country and every other major city in the country designates historic buildings and protects them whether the owner agrees or not,” says Brandon Spencer-Hartle, a city planner with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). “As far as big cities go, we are handicapped.”

That might be about to change.

Last week, the Oregon Supreme Court took a bite out of the “owner-consent” law that history buffs say causes trouble in Portland and beyond. The court ruled that a Lake Oswego ownership trust couldn’t lift the historical designation from that city’s oldest home—a large 1857 farmhouse known as the Carman House that’s given way to rodents and disrepair.

Instead, in a ruling that advocates expect will have ramifications around the state, justices found that only an owner who controlled a property at the time it was designated as historic can opt to reverse that designation. Subsequent owners are powerless.

In the case of the Carman House, that means demolition is prohibited. The Mary Cadwell Wilmot Trust, which owns the property and had sought to have historical protections removed, will have to find another option.

What it might mean for places like that old Portland firehouse—or the thousands of potentially historic Portland properties subject to their owners’ whims—remains to be seen.

“People are mulling through the consequences, particularly in our city attorney’s office,” says Al Burns, a senior city planner with BPS. “It’s just too soon to come to conclusions that would change city instructions.”

One big question the city’s lawyers will want to ask: Whether or not the ruling has bearing on the HRI, the list of roughly 5,000 properties city officials began cataloguing in 1984 as a guidepost for buildings that might have historical import.

Properties on the inventory are ranked by order of perceived significance (with some left unranked). But though many of the higher-ranked sites carry federal or local protections, lots of lower-ranked buildings do not. That’s a problem for some advocates, because the HRI itself provides scant safeguards.

While owners of a ranked HRI-listed property face at least a mandatory 120-day delay before getting a demolition permit—a period designed to foster discussion about possibilities besides demolition—that 1995 state law mentioned above means property owners can easily get their building snatched off the list.

What happens next is a matter of heated contention in Portland.

For months now, city officials have said local laws include a “loophole” that allows demolition permits to be issued right away once a property is taken off the HRI [“Say Goodbye to Two Pieces of Portland History,” News, Dec 2, 2015]—the same thing that happened with the old firehouse.

Others say that shouldn’t be the case. A group calling itself the Close the Loophole Coalition sent out a release last week, pointing out that state administrative rules actually require a 120-day delay for demolition of properties if an owner has recently removed a “historic resource designation.” They say the city’s illegally flouted those rules again and again over the years.

The difference of opinion comes down to semantics. The city maintains simply being listed on the HRI doesn’t amount to a “designation” as required in the law, so the four-month wait isn’t required.

“The city’s position is that the HRI is a document that tells people when things are suitable for designation and not that they are designated,” says Carrie Richter, a Portland land-use attorney.

Richter’s in a position to know. She filed a brief in the recent Supreme Court case on behalf of the advocacy group Restore Oregon, the City of Portland, and six other entities (including the cities of Pendleton and the Dalles). Now that the group’s opinion has prevailed, and properties statewide are less susceptible to having their protections removed, Richter says Oregon’s far better off.

“It’s not just about Portland,” she says. “There are thousands of resources statewide that are designated.”

But it’s also true that Portland’s resources are under greater pressure. Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, talks about the “huge economic forces that are definitely weighing toward demolition” in the city. It’s not that every demolition is bad, Moretti says, but it rankles her to see some of the city’s most unique old buildings on the chopping block.

There are at least three salient (and contentious) examples of this playing out right now:

Downtown’s 124-year-old Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple and the adjacent Hotel Albion (home to the Lotus Cardroom and Café, at SW 2nd and Taylor) are slated to be torn down to make way for a new boutique hotel.

Northeast Portland’s stately, moldering Ocobock Mansion, at 5128 NE Rodney, might face demolition at the hands of developer Vic Remmers. The building’s HRI designation was removed in May, and Remmers reportedly has plans to build at least five new homes in its place.

And in Southeast Portland, Sunnyside neighborhood groups have been railing against the planned demolition of a storefront property at SE 34th and Belmont.

“Not all historic buildings need to be preserved, certainly,” Moretti says. “But our unique character is in large part due to the historic buildings that populate our city.”

Here’s the thing, though: It’s unclear whether the state Supreme Court’s decision will have much effect on any of that. At most, advocates say, it could spur the city to make it difficult (or impossible) for owners to have their properties taken off the HRI. Those properties would still be eligible for demolition after a four-month delay.

The 120-day window “allows for a dialogue and for considering demolition of historic properties as a last resort rather than a first resort,” says Close the Loophole Coalition’s Meg Hanson.

But more often than not, the delay doesn’t change anything.

As BPS’ Spencer-Hartle puts it: “In today’s super-hot real estate market, a 120-day waiting period is oftentimes not enough to save a building.”

Which is why people are pushing for bigger change.

Moretti, for instance, advocates new financial incentives for developers to leave old buildings in place. And in June, members of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission, which advises the city on maintaining historic properties, wrote a letter [PDF] pushing for something far stronger. They want city officials to make revoking the 1995 owner-consent law part of its lobbying agenda in Salem.

“The ease and frequency in which historic properties are being ‘de-listed’ and demolished,” the letter said, “has never been greater.”