December 17, 2019 – Efforts by the AHC advocacy committee and other historic preservation advocates have resulted in additional protections for historic resources in Portland’s multi-dwelling zones. Following almost two years of development, the Portland City Council adopted the Better Housing by Design changes on Wednesday, December 18th.  These code changes become effective in March 2020.  The Better Housing by Design code applies to apartment zones in most of the city outside of the Central City. The historic districts primarily in those zones are the Alphabet and King’s Hill Historic Districts to the west of downtown, and parts of the Irvington and Ladd’s Addition Historic Districts on the near eastside.

Three provisions in the zoning changes were affected by efforts coordinated by the AHC advocacy committee:

  • A disallowance of development incentives if a historic building is demolished was added. Additional building size bonuses and transfers of development rights (for affordable housing, etc.) will not be allowed on sites where a designated landmark or contributing building to a National Register Historic District has been demolished, except in cases where the demolition is approved by City Council.
  • The building size allowed in the largest scale multi-dwelling zone was reduced in historic districts. The definition of the base RM4 zone will allow new development similar to the scale of the largest historic apartment buildings.
  • The zoning map of the Alphabet Historic District was revised. Larger- and smaller-scale zones were rearranged to be more closely aligned with the pattern of scale of historic buildings.

The Town Club in King’s Hill. Photo by Brian J. Johnson

A number of groups joined the AHC advocacy committee in meetings with staff of the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability and staff of each City Council member, as well as testimony at two City Council hearings: the Goose Hollow Foothills League, Irvington Community Association, Northwest District Association, and Portland Coalition for Historic Resources. Supportive written and in-person testimony was also provided by the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood association, Restore Oregon, and homeowners and residents from the affected historic districts.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz sponsored three amendments to the Better Housing by Design recommended draft reflecting the advocacy committee’s position, including the demolition disincentive that ultimately passed. The two amendments that failed to pass would have revised the King’s Hill Historic District zoning map parallel to what was changed in the Alphabet Historic District and would have excluded historic districts from the 100-foot building height allowance within 1,000 feet of a MAX station.

However, the council did add some incentives for historic preservation that were not on our original list of requests.  These only happened because we raised the importance and profile of historic preservation with the City Council:

The prohibition of bonuses when a designated historic resource is demolished was extended to locally designated landmarks and Conservation Districts, where there are currently no demolition review procedures.  This will be an important precedent to request when other zoning rule changes affecting locally designated resources are proposed.

A provision for allowing the sale/transfer of additional building square footage was added for historic resources that need a seismic upgrade.   This should be a benefit for historic preservation and for the affordable housing that is often in historic apartment buildings.

Larry Kojaku, who lead the effort to improve the Better Housing by Design code, offered some “lessons learned” for future advocates for historic preservation:

-Get involved early. About half of the suggested revisions (the rebalancing of zones in Northwest to better match the existing scale of buildings, for example) were recommended by the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) and were not questioned much in the Council.

-Make specific requests. It is hard for the volunteer PSC or the City Council to react to general concerns—but they can make decisions about specific changes.

-Get enough preservationists and interested allies in the room to get Council’s attention. A good idea alone is not enough—it needs supporters.  And we could always benefit from more supporters.  If you can help, please sign up as an AHC volunteer.