City council voted four-to-one yesterday to approve the demolition of the Dirty Duck building—even though the city's own staff recommended preserving it.

The Portland Development Commission, which has owned the property since 1999, is handing it over to the Blanchet House of Hospitality so they can build a new three-story facility there, to replace their aging digs on the same block. Blanchet showed up to the hearing with a full cadre of supporters, including the two men who founded Blanchet as PSU students 50 years ago.

They told a moving story: Blanchet fed 300,000 meals last year alone, they've been looking for a new site for twelve years, and they're a neighborhood fixture. "People know that location, they know Blanchet," said board member Brian Ferschweiler.

The Landmarks Commission, the city's study of the property, and the city's own lawyer said the potential use of the lot should be ignored. The thinking goes like this: if the city demolishes a historic landmark based on who wants to build there, that sets a precendent to base future demolitions on the moral worthiness of the occupant. This could lead to a "domino of demolition," testified Peggy Moretti of the Historic Preservation League of Portland.

Tim Heron, a land use specialist with the city's Bureau of Development Services, was in charge of delivering the staff report that concluded that demolition was not a good idea. He said setting this precedent "inherently undermines the preservation of a resource."

(L-R) Joe Pinzone and John Smith of SERA Architects, and Blanchet board member Dan Petrusich testify before city council.
  • (L-R) Joe Pinzone and John Smith of SERA Architects, and Blanchet board member Dan Petrusich, testify before city council.
Even lead architect Joe Pinzone with SERA joined in Blanchet's group hug: instead of focusing on the architectural plans, his 15-minute PowerPoint was peppered with charitable stock photography from Blanchet's web site and a picture of a man sleeping on a sidewalk. "Where was that picture taken?" asked City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. Tokyo, apparently.

Pinzone also used the same argument that effectively derailed discussion at the January 11 Landmarks Commission meeting: he said that the Dirty Duck building was wrongly included in the historic district nomination. "The main reason the district exists is for Chinese culture," said Pinzone. "There's nothing Chinese about this building." He also called out the fact that it's listed as a "secondary," rather than a "primary," contributing structure.

Tanya March, a historic preservation specialist at PSU, called him out. "A secondary resource is not like maple syrup, with different grades," she said. "'Secondary' just refers to the building's age: primary resources are older than secondary ones." In addition, she said, "seven other buildings in the district are without Asian heritage." As far as architectural qualifications? "You're not just preserving the buildings of the elite and rich," said March. "It's about how the neighborhood works."

Pinzone backpedaled in his rebuttal, saying the point about secondary resources was valid. Changing tacks, he appealed directly to the council members: "You are the gatekeepers," he said. "That you are not capable of expert humorous to me."

Tim Heron with the Bureau of Development Services spent the majority of his first testimony explaining to the council members how a demolition review process works (this is the first the city has seen since the process was introduced by former Portland Mayor Vera Katz). He came up again at the end, intending to fix some of the errors that had been perpetrated during the discussion—but was cut off by Mayor Sam Adams. "Now we get to ask you questions," the mayor said.

He didn't get to ask many. After a minute or two, City Commissioner Randy Leonard initiated a motion to proceed with a vote. Everybody except Amanda Fritz voted, after obligatory overtures to the worth of the review process, to demolish the building. "For me this does not set a precedent," said the mayor. City Commissioner Dan Saltzman cited the building's lack of Chinese heritage as a reason for his vote.

"Most city council members cited some inaccuracies," said Heron after the hearing. "I wanted the opportunity to address them, but I didn't get it." Now, as a city employee, Heron's job is to revise his report to agree with the council's decision.

"I think they heard us," says Art DeMuro, chair of the Landmarks Commission. "We're gaining respect in an advisory role." Nevertheless, he says, "I presumed that they would approve the demolition. It's difficult to separate the applicant and its use."

Blanchet can't start on their move until a building permit is approved. That second part of the review process is what reassured some council members that they weren't involved in setting a dangerous precedent. But the path looks pretty clear at this point. Welcome to the other side of the block, Blanchet House!