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After 4 Years(!) Let's Finish HRCP

It was early in 2017 that the State of Oregon adopted new rules governing how its cities and counties should identify and protect historic resources important to their communities. It’s taken until now, December, 2021, for Portland to work through an arduous process of drafting changes to City Code to implement these “new” rules – a project dubbed HRCP (Historic Resources Code Project). Thousands of pages of testimony, hundreds of hours of “listening sessions” and oral testimony have gone into the effort.

After two tries, a citizen group's nomination of the South Park Blocks to the National Register of Historic Places has been approved by the State Advisory Commission on HIstoric Preservation.  It now awaits approval by the National Park Service.
The South Park Blocks, Portland's Newest Historic District

The writer of this blog has actually read the more than 270 pages of proposed Code changes in each of the three (count ‘em, three) completely different drafts drawn up by the project team over these 4 years. During that time, cynical developer interests have convinced many Portland folks that it is Historic District designation that is responsible for their housing cost stress – and only if we demolish all those old houses and buildings can we get more affordable housing. This false narrative has poisoned the discourse and pitted historic preservation against its natural allies in the affordable housing and environmental camps. This has resulted in a tug of war over the language in the multiple drafts of the Code changes.

Now we are nearly at the finish line. The “Recommended Draft” has been presented to City Council. A flood of testimony has been submitted to Council, including much inspired by this website. Some of it has supported the great parts of HRCP. Much of it pointed out the major weaknesses of HRCP – not the least of which was its failure to comply with the very State of Oregon rules it was intended to address in the first place.

Three of the Commissioners have heard the voices of those who support HRCP in concept but are concerned about the details. They have largely ignored the inflammatory voices attributing evil intent to those promoting protections for Portland’s great historic places, and focused on fixing the real problems in the HRCP document including concerns relative to the approval process for affordable housing structures in historic districts. This has resulted in the publication of eight proposed Amendments to be considered in the Dec. 15 public hearing by Council -- Amendments which we generally endorse.

The Portland Coalition for Historic Resources has drafted a position paper on these amendments. Read it here. This website has additional information on how to testify on the amendments and explanations of why #3, #5, and #6 are the ones we urgently need Council to adopt.

Perhaps the most controversial of the amendments is #5, which requires that before Council votes on a new or altered historic district designation it must hear formal recommendations from both the Historic Landmarks Commission and the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC). You might wonder why this reasonable balance of historic assessment and urban impacts would be controversial… Indeed, the State Rules and national practice require it. But opponents of historic districts have pushed the HRCP drafters to put exclusive responsibility onto the PSC, none of whose members are required to have any historic preservation expertise – in the hopes of thwarting any future districts. This is bad for Portland, a city that has over 33,000 buildings over a century old – some of which are deserving of historic protection either individually or in coherent groupings called “districts” and currently have none. Amendment #5 simply MUST be passed for HRCP to have real meaning.

It’s long past time to get this HRCP job done. Adopt these sensible amendments and vote on the whole package in January. Portland’s creaky City Government has enough problems on its plate. Let’s get these vital code changes passed and move on to our unaddressed urban crises.

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