After months of outcry over the speed at which old buildings can be demolished, the city is planning to enact new delays on demolitions beginning tomorrow, the Mercury has learned. Under that change, the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) will force many property owners wait 120 days for a demolition permit after they take their property off the city's Historic Resources Inventory (HRI).
For years, property owners have been able to get a demolition permit the same day they took their buildings off the HRI, a list of roughly 5,000 properties that the city has said might have historic import.
The new policy isn't the weightiest change—after that four-month waiting period, property owners will be free to bring in a wrecking ball—but the policy tweak amounts to a victory for advocates who've been pushing a delay for months now. And the shift amounts to a tacit suggestion that the city's been running afoul of state rules for more than a decade.
As we reported earlier this month, those rules dictate that there needs to be a 120-day delay after an owner removes its “historic resource designation” from their property. The city has argued that merely being listed on the HRI doesn't amount to a "designation." With the new change, it appears officials are backtracking on that position after years of issuing immediate demolition permits.
Matt Grumm, a staffer for Commissioner Dan Saltzman, confirmed the upcoming change this morning. Saltzman oversees BDS.
While Grumm says the changes are slated to formally take effect tomorrow, he noted: "I told staff if anyone comes in today to yank a house off [the HRI] and demolish it, let me know."
The newly-enforced delay will apply to only "ranked" properties on the HRI, which prioritizes properties based on their likely historical significance, and leaves lower priority sites without a formal ranking.
News of the change came as welcome news to members of the Close the Loophole Coalition, which has repeatedly demanded Portland officials enact a 120-delay for months.
"So we can claim victory?" said coalition member Meg Hanson, told about Grumm's comments. "That's great to hear, but there's still work to do."
Hanson acknowledged the new waiting period is "still just a delay," meant to foster discussion between property owners and neighbors who want to save a property. That process recently wound up saving the Ocobock Mansion in Northeast Portland, though there are still sour feelings in that situation. Often the delay only pushes back an inevitable demolition.
"I'd be more excited if it was new and it wasn't something people have been demanding for a couple years," Hanson said.
“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."
The "loophole" for demolishing HRI properties came especially to light last year, when two historic downtown buildings were yanked from the register. But the city was forced to more closely examine the issue earlier this month, after the Oregon Supreme Court issued a ruling limiting the unique influence Oregon property owners have on whether their buildings are labeled as historic.