We recently learned that plans are being floated to demolish two historic homes on SE Hawthorne Boulevard  near 27th Avenue. Apparently, the owners of the properties at 2607 and 2625 SE Hawthorne are considering building an 80 unit apartment building with 20 parking spaces. Rather than delve into the ongoing debate about new apartment buildings and their lack of parking, we felt it was equally important to draw attention to an issue repeatedly facing historic preservation and neighborhood advocates: In Portland, no matter how great the building, if it does not have some sort of formal historic designation, there is little protection against its demolition. In fact, in most instances there is not even a public notice or delay before demolition can occur.

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The possible demolitions  and new apartment construction on the north side of Hawthorne near 27th is not the only redevelopment project in that area. Many residents of the adjacent Buckman and Hosford-Abernethy neighborhoods are still in shock at the massive new Safeway store nearby and Rivermark Credit Union tore down their old  facility so they could build one that was newer and greener. Down the block on the south side of Hawthorne, plans were bandied about a few years ago for a new mixed-use building that would replace the Artisan Dental Lab building – an interesting building from 1973-74 that designed to fit into its treed landscape.  All of this adds up to some pretty significant changes to one of Southeast Portland’s most popular streets. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but because many of the older buildings on Hawthorne do not have historic designation, the ongoing apartment building boom we are witnessing might soon lead to further loss of historic architecture along the boulevard.

When it comes to big changes to the historic streetscape, Hawthorne is not alone either.  Nearby Division Street is in the midst of dramatic changes as new apartments are being built, old houses torn down, and in a few instances older buildings re-purposed. Interest in living in this area has probably never been higher than it is today. But it is important to recognize that the older buildings along Division, many of which were once residences and some which still are, are part of what has given character to an otherwise very automobile-centric street. If we lose too many of these “character” buildings, what we like to call neighborhood fabric, we run the risk of sterilizing the neighborhood to the point that it is no longer unique – the very reason why many find it so attractive in the first place. What is to become of the place once that happens?

To offset the impacts of such redevelopment, Irvington and Buckman have worked to list some or all of their neighborhoods as National Register Historic Districts. Because of the city’s no designation, no protection mantra, this is one of the few tools Portland residents have available to them. While noble in intent, such historic listings are simply not practical for many parts of the city. Should that mean that those areas where neighborhoods couldn’t gather the money or the political will in support of a National Register listing are then OK to sacrifice? We should also mention that adding a bunch of additional historic districts would place a huge burden on city staff that reviews development applications. So if the only solution is one that really isn’t practical isn’t it time we consider a new solution?

We can all agree that not every building can or should be saved. We can all agree that cities change too. But perhaps it’s time we also find some sort of agreement on how we can accommodate our growing metropolis while preserving the patina that draws us here. Any suggestions as to  how we might accomplish that? Perhaps neighborhood associations should have a greater say? After all, according to city code (Chapter 3.96) they were created “for the purpose of considering and acting on issues affecting the livability and quality of their Neighborhood”.

The two buildings on Hawthorne have no historic designation by the way. So unless we solve the  “no designation” conundrum soon, we may have to add them to the lengthy and growing list of lost Portland architecture.