FOR AROUND 14 years, the City of Portland has made it too easy to demolish old buildings.
It’s not the Mercury saying that, or the ever-growing contingent of groups railing against changes to their neighborhoods. It’s the City of Portland.
In a low-key “service level update” sent out by the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) on August 31, the city announced a change long sought by advocates: Most property owners who have a piece of land on the city’s Historic Resource Inventory (HRI) will have to wait 120 days to demolish those properties going forward.
That 120-day period is required by state law, the city freely acknowledged in its announcement. But since 2002, it hasn’t been enforced in Portland. Instead, the city has allowed people to remove their buildings from the HRI and get a permit to demolish them the very same day.
As of September 1, that’s no longer the case. The newly enforced delay will apply to the 2,745 “ranked” buildings on the HRI, which prioritizes properties based on their likely historical significance and leaves lower-priority sites without a formal ranking. Thousands more potentially historic buildings won’t be affected (and a four-month waiting period often does nothing to dissuade demolitions).
Even so, some preservation advocates were ecstatic about the announcement.
“This sudden change in policy may be the single largest victory for historic places to come out of city hall in a decade,” Peggy Moretti, executive director of pro-preservation group Restore Oregon, said in a statement. “It’s not a cure-all for the demolitions chewing up Portland’s older neighborhoods, but the delay period affords important breathing room.”
Others had a different reaction: plotting a lawsuit.
A small clutch of Sunnyside neighborhood activists who’ve been railing against demolitions plan to use the city’s rule change as an admission of years of wrongdoing. They say they’ll take the city on in court to create a new system for preserving properties.
“This drum that we’ve been beating says, in essence: ‘The state law is clear. You’ve painted yourself into a corner. What are you going to do about it?’” says Meg Hanson, who helps run a group called the Close the Loophole Coalition (CLC) that has argued Portland’s been egregiously breaking state law since 2002. “The next step is to see if we can build on that momentum, now that we’ve got some credibility.”
The HRI was created in 1984 as a guidepost for buildings that might warrant historic protections. And while a 1995 Oregon law gave owners unprecedented power to remove historic labels from their land, the city for years required a delay before those properties could be demolished.
That changed in 2002, as the city was updating its building code. Suddenly, properties that had been found to have potential historic import could be bulldozed and replaced without opportunity for community input, in what many have since come to call a “loophole.” But with its announcement last week, the city appears to acknowledge that that loophole needn’t have existed, and that state law should have demanded a delay for demolitions.
More than 100 buildings were removed from the HRI from 2002 to the present, according to city records. Seventy-seven have been removed in the last four years alone.
The legal rationale for the city’s change of heart isn’t totally clear. BDS cited a recent Oregon Supreme Court case in its announcement, but that case touched on how owners may remove historic labels from their property, not the waiting period to demolish once they do.
In the past, BDS has said a 120-day waiting period wasn’t necessary for properties removed from the HRI, because simply being listed on the inventory doesn’t amount to a “historic designation,” the terminology used in the state statute. It appears the city no longer has that opinion, but the development services bureau did not answer questions about its reasoning by press time.
Whatever the case, the city may be called to air that reasoning in court.
The CLC’s Hanson says her group hasn’t hired an attorney, but thinks finding one will be easy after the city’s policy change last week. “We’re going to giftwrap this lawsuit,” she says. “We believe it’s a suit we can win.”
The plan isn’t to sue out of spite. Hanson says her group wants to force the city to create a “municipally funded community land trust” that would “purchase property to restore or maintain.”
She says the CLC will also file an appeal with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals to challenge current demolition permits issued on former HRI properties that have skirted the waiting period.
The city’s seen increasing outcry over property demolitions in its soaring real estate market, but it wasn’t until last year that the loophole allowing immediate demolitions of potentially historic buildings received widespread scrutiny.
The inciting incident? Word that two century-old buildings downtown—the Hotel Albion and Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple—had been snatched off the inventory, and demolition was imminent. The buildings are slated to be replaced by a boutique hotel.
“The value of a property isn’t only to that individual owner, it’s to the community,” says Restore Oregon’s Moretti. She objects to a system where “important properties like the Workmen Temple are up for demolition, and the community that’s impacted by that loss has absolutely no say in that at all.”
Still, Moretti says her group isn’t likely to participate in the CLC’s planned lawsuit against the city: “I don’t think that that will be productive.”
That’s fine with Hanson, who says she’ll look for support from around the country as she moves forward with the fight. Asked how many people belong to her group, Hanson declined to say.
“Whether we’re big or small doesn’t matter,” she says, “because we carry a very, very pointy stick.”