About Historic Districts – without the Name Calling!
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
It’s time to retire accusations of “Racism” when we talk about historic districts in Portland. Inflammatory language obscures the real issues, demonizes thoughtful discussion of important community issues, and raises the temperature past the point of sensible problem solving. Unfortunately, members of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission and even representatives of the otherwise sober institutions have indulged in such language, directing it toward concerned Portland residents who reasonably question some of the City’s policies. Alas, “name calling” does not constitute debate.
Driving this shouting match, in large part, is concern over the future of “middle housing” in Portland. A great many Portland folks have become convinced that if we can just build more middle housing, i.e., duplexes, triplexes, and 4-plexes in single family zones, our affordability problems will be solved. The narrative continues that Historic District regulations prevent the construction of more middle housing and seriously contribute to our crisis of housing affordability. Unfortunately, neither assertion holds water.
Portland Residential Infill Project (RIP) has greatly expanded the potential area where duplexes and triplexes may be built – pretty much anywhere in single family zones. While that may seem like a huge change for the city, the fact is that prior to the passage of RIP, some 45,000 single family residences already sat on lots zoned for higher density. Yet few of these homes were being demolished each year for middle housing – the majority of the roughly 300 house demolitions each year were for much larger replacement single family homes. The real estate market has a way of frustrating a search for affordability solutions especially with rising demand for ever-more-expensive single-family homes and a continued influx of affluent buyers from higher cost West Coast urban areas.
Now attention has turned to Historic Districts, as if regulations affecting a little more than 3% of Portland’s non-park land area constitute a major obstacle to more affordable housing. The argument is that restrictions on demolitions in Historic Districts prevent these areas from taking their “fair share” of new middle housing. This is wrong for a number of reasons:
Historic District regulations defer to the zoning for how many housing units are allowed in residential buildings – and the HRCP proposal would expand that to eliminate ALL limits on housing units in Historic District buildings as part of the “incentive” provisions, going well beyond the RIP limits. In fact, middle housing is being built in Historic Districts, but typically on empty or split lots due to the high cost of buying existing structures for demolition.
Traditionally, during periods of housing shortage, single family houses were converted to multi-family uses. This was especially true during World War II, and many examples exist in Ladd’s Addition, Irvington, and Piedmont to this day. There is nothing preventing a return to such internal conversion in any single-family house in a Historic District as real estate economics and/or subsidy programs make it feasible.
ADU (Accessory Dwelling Units) provide a useful means to introduce density into Historic Districts without demolition. Irvington sets an example where more than 60 ADUs have been built since the District’s designation, leading the city’s neighborhoods. Relaxed requirements for accessory structures in Historic Districts in HRCP promise to promote continued progress in this area.
Demolition restrictions in Historic Districts apply only to “contributing” structures. All other “non-contributing” structures, typically anywhere from 15% to 25% of all buildings in a district, are subject to demolition and replacement. We estimate more than 3200 standard 5000 square foot city lots are occupied by non-contributing buildings in historic districts. This suggests that the availability of sites for demolition is far, far from being a meaningful constraint on replacement construction. Still, the cost of the demolished house or building must be added to the cost of new construction – a challenge for affordability throughout the city, historic district or not.
But perhaps more powerful an argument is that the marketplace simply has not supported the high cost of new middle housing construction. As one stark example, each unit in a recently built duplex in the Irvington Historic District, constructed on a long-empty lot, is currently listed for over $800,000, well above the City’s already breathtaking median price for single family houses in the city of Portland of $557,854 (per Zillow).
One line of attack on Historic Districts is that property owners in affluent neighborhoods “designate” their neighborhoods as historic, whether that is true or not, and escape the move to more middle housing thus keeping out “others”. We’ve explained above why any kind of historic district designation will NOT prevent development of middle housing – at least not in the long run. But the use of the term “Bogus”, applied to historic districts designated by greedy (presumably “racist”) neighbors, is itself bogus. One of Portland’s greatest challenges is that we do have huge numbers of potentially historic areas that retain their original look and feel. After all, Portland has over 30,000 buildings over 100 years old! See the first blog post in this series for more details.
Yet age alone is not sufficient for formal historic district designation. An example, often cited as an instance of the “problem” of historic districts, is the proposed Eastmoreland Historic District. Only about half of the area originally proposed by the neighborhood association for protection was actually allowed to be nominated – the State Historic Preservation Office ruled that large swaths of the neighborhood simply had been modified too much to justify protection. Of course, Eastmoreland is also an example of how a group of neighbors cannot simply “designate” their neighborhood – the National Register of Historic Places has strict standards for historic significance, but also has owner consent (owner objection) policies that have stymied that proposed nomination for several years.
The dystopian future envisioned by Sightline Institute and other opponents of Historic Districts seems to anticipate a large number of neighborhoods pushing through nominations and blocking progress across the city. To that we respond:
Under the new Goal 5 Rules and HRCP, Portland City Hall can grab the reins (for the first time in over 40 years) and do a thorough inventory of our historic resources. From that, an assessment can be made of where historic value is concentrated – either for architectural or cultural reasons. It is unlikely that once that determination is made, neighborhoods would elect to challenge that evaluation by nominating areas that are judged by a sound, formal inventory as not sufficiently historic for designation and protection at this time. The cost in volunteer time and money is simply too great.
The last time the City of Portland assessed the potential for historic district designation was in 1978. At that time Irvington and Laurelhurst were both identified as prime candidates for designation. Irvington received Historic Conservation District status from the City around 1995, and full National Register District status in 2010, 32 years after originally being considered for designation. It took Laurelhurst nearly 40 years (and thousands of volunteer hours) to get to National Register designation. The designations for these two historic districts, which were pursued by the neighborhood associations in the absence of any help from the City, were hardly “snap decisions” and would not have been pursued without long-previous validation by the City’s own inventory review.
That 1978 assessment of possible districts included Multnomah, Sellwood, Buckman, and St. Johns. None of these has been designated (although a nomination for Buckman was defeated by an objection campaign). Further, the passage of 43 years since that previous inventory means that thousands of structures have aged into now being considered potentially historic. Equally important, recognition of the importance of previously un-told histories will result in still more potentially historic places being identified in a new inventory.
As a percent of City land area, there is still room for more historic district designations, if done thoughtfully. Portland’s roughly 3% of land area historically designated compares to 4.4% for New York City, for example (for Manhattan itself, the number is 22%!) Altogether, Portland’s buildings 75 years old and older occupy 28% of City land area. Certainly, the economic and ecological advantages of preserving the most significant share of that building stock can justify more than 3% city area being historically designated.
Given the above, we’d argue that it's well passed time to have a thoughtful discussion of the role of Historic Districts and how they can power Portland’s continued economic vitality, attractiveness to new residents and tourists, and sustainability. That discussion should be based on a thorough update of the Historic Resources Inventory. The existing HRCP proposal is nearly there relative to Historic Inventory procedures, designation and protection of Historic Districts. But it needs changes that give the Historic Landmarks Commission a much stronger role in their designation, greater clarity in the process for designation, tightened standards for de-designation, and strengthening the criteria for demolitions in existing and future Historic Districts.
Further, City Council needs to recognize the need to take a pro-active role in historic preservation and to fund sufficient staff in support of the operations of the Historic Landmarks Commission and the expansion and long-term maintenance of the Historic Resources Inventory. (Currently the City funds one position in the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability devoted to historic resources. By comparison, the City of Seattle, with roughly the same population and a younger building stock, funds 6 positions with that role!)