Not the Time to Weaken Demolition Protections!
Is it a coincidence or yet another example of systemic racism? For the last 2 decades the Portland Black community, including Oregon Black Pioneers and others, has been working with the State Historic Preservation Office, and our local Architectural Heritage Center to document Portland places important in telling the story of Black history and culture in Portland. Last year, a “Multiple Property Submission” was approved by the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places which documents scores of historic resources that are potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places for their connection to Black history. Now the HRCP proposal looks to weaken historic protections just as the city is looking to start protecting resources important to the Black community
So far 4 of the sites identified in the Multiple Property Submission have actually been nominated to the National Register. That is good news. BUT 3 others have been pre-emptively demolished by their corporate owners. (The latter are the “Bradford Houses”, on land now owned by Washington-based investors, which stood at 1745, 1803, and 1811 NE 1st Avenue. The 1803 and 1811 houses were especially important as having been built by and for Black families way back in 1885 – likely the first such residences in the Pacific Northwest. All three were identified as potentially historic in the Multiple Property Submission, but had yet to actually be protected by the City of Portland, even with a listing on the Historic Resources Inventory.)
And now as Black history sites are taking their place alongside those of the Chinese and Japanese communities by being designated for historic protection, our developer-financed City Council is leaning toward making demolition of historically designated resources easier. We ask again: “Coincidence?”
The first action in this movement was a recent vote by City Council to allow the demolition of the Yamaguchi Hotel, the former Blanchet House, despite arguments by the Japanese American Museum of Oregon and Restore Oregon that there was potential for rehabilitation and restoration… and that this was a benchmark case where a historic building important to the Japanese American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities had been allowed to deteriorate by its disinterested owner so as to be able to claim that “no economic use” existed for the building.
Now, in the proposed new City Code on Historic Preservation (HRCP), the City Council is preparing to vote on demolition rules for historic resources that are even more flexible – allowing still more owners to bet on the demolition option to develop sites that should be preserved for future generations. [If you feel strongly about this issue, see the Get Involved page on Protection in this website!]
Strangely, the opponents of Historic Preservation would encourage more historic designations of African-American and other culturally important resource, but claim that “too many” instances of historic resources have been designated for their connection to “over-represented” communities – suggesting that this is a “zero sum game”. They seem to be arguing that we can have only so many historic resources designated, and that we should de-designate and (probably) demolish some, so that others can be designated for other cultural communities. Why this de-designation should be required, we aren’t told. And their proposals for laxer demolition restrictions will notably apply to all of the newly designated sites important to the story of the Black community in Portland. There appears to be no recognition that Portland has a horrible record of using land use decisions (usually unrelated to historic preservation actions and driven by development) to displace and disperse the Black community and erase its history.
This isn’t the first time in recent history that historic preservation regulations have been twisted by Portland authorities to disadvantage People of Color. Way back in the 1990s Portland designated 6 Historic Conservation Districts, containing a large fraction of Portland’s Black community. Though these districts were designed to stabilize these areas and encourage new investment, notably they were set up with historic design review restrictions (a downside to designation), but NO eligibility for State or Federal tax benefit programs (the upside denied to them)… and almost no protection against arbitrary demolitions.
To its credit, the new HRCP attempts to correct the problem of demolition in Historic Conservation Districts that threaten the physical integrity, beauty, and economic viability of these racially integrated areas, but the State of Oregon continues to refuse its tax benefit programs to be extended to them as well. The State claims lack of staff resources to process the applications and (really oddly and counter-factually) that all historic districts are peopled by the wealthy! But that is a subject for another, future blog post. To speak out on greater protections for Historic Conservation resources, click here!