North Mississippi Avenue community members have tried to involve the mayor and city commissioners in the Mississippi Avenue Lofts dispute, begging them to stop the Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) from derailing the project.
The controversial four-story development was initially granted approval on May 1 by the city's Bureau of Development services, which noted that it complied 100 percent with the city's zoning requirements. But it was then referred to the HLC—after one neighbor appealed over the project's ability to blend into the neighborhood.
The HLC has been inconsistent in its approach, attempting to override the city's zoning requirements, says Kay Newell, owner of Sunlan Lighting on North Mississippi, and Bridget Bayer, a professional mediator and longtime organizer of the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair (who also happens to be the partner of one of the loft developers, Peter Wilcox), in separate letters to the city.
The HLC's eight members are appointed by the mayor for their experience in areas like architecture, local history, and urban planning—but there are concerns over whether volunteers with other full-time jobs should be making multi-million dollar decisions on the future of the neighborhood. Newell thinks the HLC is betraying the neighborhood—which has voted twice to send letters in support of the project—by pandering to the concerns of a vocal minority.
On May 22 and June 12, the HLC asked the lofts' developers to add shutters, bricks, and cornices to the project, making it blend better with what they feel is the current character of the historic neighborhood. But Bayer says in her letter that these requirements are subjective and supplemental to the city's zoning requirements. She added that the HLC is now involved in "random rule making" and that "every meeting in front of the appointed commissioners is like a crapshoot."
Since the appeal is ongoing and will be decided on July 10, a commission staffer says its members are unable to comment. But in response to Newell's concerns, City Commissioner Randy Leonard—who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, which houses the HLC—says the commission, like the Portland Development Commission (PDC), suffers from problems because it is run by volunteers.
"While I don't know about specific cases, these kinds of citizen-run entities such as the HLC and PDC put volunteer citizens in a tough spot," Leonard says. "They are asked to deal with exceedingly complicated issues and have to balance these with full-time jobs."
"From what I've been hearing in general at the Landmarks Commission," Leonard continues, "I'm concerned about the processes. We're expecting a volunteer group of people to handle multi-million dollar issues and I do not see the formula for success there." City Commissioner Sam Adams, according to a staffer, shares Leonard's concerns.
Meanwhile, the mayor believes a volunteer-based system works, and has appointed "the very best people possible" to the HLC, says a spokesperson.