Danny Hellman

Neighbors from around North Portland's Mississippi Avenue crammed into the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission conference room again on Monday, July 10, to hear the board's final decision on a controversial mixed-use condo project.

The city's Bureau of Development Services had previously approved the Mississippi Avenue Lofts project, but a neighbor—citing issues with the size of the building, and the use of an alley as a loading zone—appealed to the Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC). For the past few months, the HLC had been sending the Mississippi Avenue Lofts developers back to the drawing boards to appease the neighbors' concerns.

Monday's meeting was the developers' last chance for approval. If the HLC sided with the appeal, the lofts developers would be forced to take their project to the city council. Splashing new drawings on an overhead projector, the project's architect showed off a four-story building with a steeped back roof, so it looked shorter from the street. The front of the building appeared to be three connected buildings—two with siding, and one with brick—to break up the façade. The architect also showed drawings comparing the lofts to the neighborhood's historic buildings; the lofts, he showed, were similar in size to what's already in the neighborhood.

Neighbors against the project, who testified after the architect, were still skeptical.

"[The front] does appear to be broken up, and that's good," said Gloria Morgan, the neighbor who filed the appeal. "But the back doesn't look broken up, and the sides don't look broken up. I don't think there was any mass taken away."

The HLC, she pointed out, had asked the developers to "come back with a building that either looks like a three-story building or is a three-story building," Morgan said. "As we see it today, it's just clearly a four-story building."

Other neighbors conceded that the developers had made plenty of changes, but the "development simply does not blend in with the historic buildings in the district," as neighbor Roger Goldingay argued.

Several of the six HLC members at Monday's meeting seemed to agree with neighbors who were still concerned with the building's size (the project is within the property's 45-foot height limit). "I think that this [design] gives us something we could live with," said HLC member Richard Engeman, a historian. "I think there ought to be some zoning changes, but that's not in our purview. I do feel the building is way too big."

The HLC has gotten plenty of flak lately, from people—like local developers and commentators at the PortlandArchitecture.com blog—who say the commission is overstepping their duty when it comes to new construction, as evidenced by the drawn-out process over the Mississippi Avenue Lofts. The volunteer board is supposed to ensure that new projects in historic areas, like the lofts, are compatible with existing structures.

Developer Randy Rapaport—in the audience during Monday's meeting—thinks the HLC has been overly critical of the lofts project (which has the support of the Boise Neighborhood Association and the Mississippi business association) and another project, the proposed Apple store on NW 23rd.

After asking architects for that retail project to redraft the ultra-modern design—swapping out metal siding for stone, for example—the HLC still took issue with the store's backlit Apple logo. On Monday, July 10, Apple's design team was slated to return to the HLC, but the commission's vice chair announced at the beginning of the meeting that their project was "postponed until further notice." Apple has reportedly dropped the project.

Rapaport—who told Portland's Daily Journal of Commerce on June 30 that the mayor should "reformulate" the HLC—says the HLC "should loosen up a little."

"I don't think the HLC should be weighing in on the aesthetics of a new building," Portland Architecture's Brian Libby wrote about the Apple store situation. "I like historic architecture enough that I don't think it needs help standing on its own next to modern architecture."

In the end, the HLC didn't chase away the lofts project—instead, they approved the new design unanimously.