Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission
October 27, 2020
Re: Historic Resources Code Project
Dear Commission Members,
The Architectural Heritage Center of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation (AHC) is a Portland non-profit organization committed to the preservation of our city’s history as reflected in its built environment. Through our education programs and exhibits, architectural artifact collections, and advocacy on historic preservation policy, we seek to preserve and foster appreciation for the historic resources that enrich Portland and make it such a special place to live and visit.
The Historic Resources Code Project is a needed updating of city regulations both to comply with changes in state land use rules and to improve local procedures to identify and better protect the changing universe of historic resources in the city. There many improvements included in the Proposed Draft that we support, among them are:
- For new individual historic and conservation landmarks, a more flexible and streamlined process for identification and designation, which will be helpful for the many buildings that may be at or near the age of historic significance;
- For owners of individual properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the option of selecting Historic Landmark or Conservation Landmark status in a streamlined process; and
- For historic resource reviews in Historic and Conservation Districts, increased exemptions for minor building modifications, such as replacing non-historic windows and installing solar panels on building sides/roofs not facing the street.
Support for Conservation District Protections
The AHC strongly supports the proposed increases in protections for Conservation Districts, which would require demolition review for contributing resources. This would replace the current 120-day demolition delay policy, which has saved very few buildings and resulted in the permanent loss of numerous historic resources and displacement of long-time neighborhood residents and businesses in the recent years. We also support the application of either historic design review or community design standards to Conservation Districts. The increased protections afforded to these Conservation Districts will create greater preservation equity by protecting the neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland that tell the story of the African American experience. This will correct a long-standing disparity between protections for historic Black neighborhoods compared to other historic districts. There are districts that have yet to be designated that tell the stories of other historically marginalized communities.
For three decades, the AHC has been involved in efforts to document these cultural heritage sites. The AHC’s former executive director Cathy Galbraith worked with African American scholars, historians, and community members to co-author Cornerstones of Community: Buildings of Portland’s African American History (1995/1997). This study provided essential documentation of the buildings and neighborhoods central to Portland’s Black history. More recently the AHC worked with the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability and members of the African American community to complete a National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation form for African American resources in Portland, which was approved by the National Park Service in July 2020.
Request for Related Provisions
In addition to supporting the extension of protections to Conservation Districts, the AHC requests three related technical enhancements: the addition of two provisions and the expansion of another one.
- Assistance for the application process of designating districts. We request that a provision be added to the designation of Historic Districts (33.445.200) and Conservation Districts (33.445.210) that describes how less affluent neighborhoods can obtain assistance to apply for designation as districts. The Staff Report of the Recommended Draft correctly observes that there are thematic and geographic inequities in the designation of historic resources in Portland. One reason for this is that some neighborhoods have fewer of the volunteer and financial resources needed to compile extensive application requirements, including gathering historic documentation and owner consent.
- Moratorium on city permits during pending historic resource designations. We request a new provision (added to 33.846.030) to prevent owners of sites where a proposed historic resource is under review to obtain permits to alter or demolish buildings or to begin development on that site in an attempt to circumvent anticipated future restrictions. Once the formal process has been initiated for the designation of a historic resource, no city permit allowing construction, alteration, demolition, or relocation relative to a proposed individual resource or within a proposed district should be issued until a final determination is made regarding the proposed designation. With the reintroduction of city designation of historic resources (especially of Historic or Conservation Districts and Significant Resources), owners will be more aware of the initiation and time frames of designation reviews and should be prevented from taking preemptive actions while those reviews are pending. This provision, recommended by the National Park Service, is common in historic preservation ordinances nationally.
- “Demolition by neglect.” We request an expansion of the existing Notice of Building and Housing Code Violations (33.445.060) that would prevent the intentional failure to maintain a historic resource so that it can be condemned as a public hazard and demolished. This is a common provision in historic preservation ordinances nationally and in Oregon (e.g. Oregon City and Salem). Such a provision would require the Bureau of Development Services to issue a citation to the owner of a historic resource for failure to properly maintain the property according to specific criteria, including structural integrity and/or being open to entry by vandals or houseless individuals. The Historic Landmarks Commission would be notified of such a citation and would inform the owner of possibilities for rehabilitation assistance, public or private acquisition, and penalties for inaction. This provision may be particularly relevant to Conservation Districts where new protections and constraints may be perceived as burdensome by some owners of contributing resources.
Request to Change District Designation Provisions
We request that provisions concerning the designation of Historic Districts (33.445.200) and Conservation Districts (33.445.210) include delineation of the application process and the procedure by which the majority owner consent required by Oregon State Administrative Rules can be satisfied. The proposed code should specify whether the procedure to establish completely new Historic or Conservation districts differs from that for “promoting” districts from National Register District to Conservation or Historic District.
We further request that legislative land use reviews (33.720.030) and the Historic Landmarks Commission’s powers and duties (33.710.060.D) be changed to assign the Landmarks Commission responsibility for such reviews and for making formal recommendations to City Council on the creation, modification or removal of Historic and Conservation Districts in legislative actions. The Planning and Sustainability Commission may also submit an advisory report to both the Landmarks Commission and City Council. However, only the Landmarks Commission has the expertise to apply the criteria for the designation (and removal) of historic resources mandated by State administrative rules.
This recommending role of the Landmarks Commission would be consistent with prior Portland city codes (1977):
33.120.055 Designation of Conservation Districts. “…The Portland Historical Landmarks Commission shall review all proposals for designation of a conservation district unless the initial request has been made by the commission, and shall submit its recommendation to the city council prior to the public hearing.” (A parallel process is described for historic districts.)
Moreover, in almost all of the 25 U.S. cities with populations larger than Portland’s, landmarks commissions are assigned the primary role in recommending the designation (and removal) of historic districts, as shown in the attached data display.
Concerning a related provision, we request that one of the two approval criteria specified for Historic Designation Removal Review (33.846.040) be omitted:
C.2. “Change in designation. The goals and polices of the Comprehensive Plan are better met by changing the level of designation from historic to conservation, or if the resource is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, by removing the City designation.”
The remaining criterion, which is the same as that applicable to initially designate historic resources (33.846.030.D), should be the only basis for the Historic Landmarks Commission, as the “review body,” to make decisions to demote resources or remove them from the local hierarchy.
Request to Change Reuse Provision
We support many of the proposed incentives for adaptive reuse of historic properties, such as increasing allowances for small stand-alone ADUs. However, we request a change to the historic preservation incentive (33.445.400.C) allowing “Retail Sales and Service and Office” uses in Historic or Conservation District residential zones within 1,500 feet of a MAX station or 500 feet of a street with frequent transit service. Although the proposed provision specifies that there should be no reduction in the total number of dwelling units in a contributing resource, we request that this parameter be modified to specify that where consistent with adopted district plans, at least half the entire floor space must continue to be exclusively for residential use. This would retain more space for housing, which is a higher City priority than commercial uses, and for which there are adequate existing zoned areas in or near historic districts. Maintaining the primarily residential nature of residential zones in those districts is part of preserving their historic integrity.
Request to Change Historic Landmarks Commission Membership Qualifications
We request that the qualifications for Historic Landmarks Commission membership (33.710.060.B) be changed to require the subject matter training, technical expertise, and professional experience consistent with the commission’s duties as defined by the National Park Service and State administrative rules. Because they are not relevant, the fields of real estate, economics, construction, community development, law, and finance should not be included in the professional experience and knowledge requirement. While we support an increased role of the Landmarks Commission in quasi-judicial and legislative land use reviews, this must be accompanied with the training, expertise, and experience commensurate with those responsibilities.
Request for Work Session to Address Technical Concerns
This testimony includes comments on only our highest priority concerns, but there are a number of more technical matters that we request the opportunity to discuss with BPS staff that would inform the development of the Recommended Draft. These more technical concerns include “Bronze level” demolition review criteria and definition of affordable housing (33.846.080.D), historic resource review criteria in Historic Districts (33.846.050, 060), and exceptions to the elimination of minimum required parking spaces for historic resources (33.266.110).
In closing, we would like to remind the Planning and Sustainability Commission that the greenest building and most affordable home is the one that is still standing. By preserving, restoring, and repurposing older buildings, we reduce our carbon footprint, minimize landfill waste, and conserve our natural resources, while telling the many stories from our past. Historic landmarks and districts maintain naturally occurring affordable housing and provide opportunities to increase density without demolition and displacement. Moreover, Portland’s distinctive sense of place attracts residents, businesses, and visitors, and is a major factor in its economic vitality.
We would like to thank the Historic Resources Program Manager Brandon Spencer-Hartle, along with other city staff who have spent two years preparing iterations of proposed regulations and participating in outreach to community stakeholders. With the changes we have requested above, we believe that the historic preservation policies in this project will advance the goals to achieve a livable, affordable, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable city.
Steve Dotterrer, President, on behalf of the Board of Directors
Stephanie Whitlock, Executive Director