The 1906 EW Ring House at 2808 SE Belmont was<br />
demolished in February. Photo courtesy Christopher Wilson.

Addressing Portland’s Demolition Epidemic

The 1906 EW Ring House at 2808 SE Belmont was
razed in February. Photo courtesy Christopher Wilson.

UPDATE: On July 31st the Portland City Council heard three hours of presentations and public testimony regarding the state of preservation in Portland. Commissioners promised to return to the demolition issue at a future meeting. 

This Thursday, July 31, the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission will present their annual State of Preservation report to the Portland City Council. Among numerous topics addressed in the report, commissioners will discuss the recent epidemic of neighborhood demolitions. Since the beginning of the year, at least 158 houses have come down in neighborhoods across the city. While the 279 residential demolitions recorded in 2013 exceeded that of any year in recent memory, by year’s end 2014 is likely to surpass last year’s record. By all accounts, this trend has implications not only for preservation of historic buildings, but also for the environment, equity, gentrification, and neighborhood stability.

At Thursday’s meeting, a coalition of preservation advocates will ask the Council to consider a three-pronged emergency request aimed at tempering the demolition craze:

  1. Close loopholes by defining “demolition” as the removal of 50% or more of an existing building;
  2. Require all residential demolitions to adhere to minimum delay and notification requirements; 
  3. Establish a taskforce to identify additional building and zoning code improvements that would ensure demolitions are appropriately managed and that replacement construction responds to neighborhood characteristics.  

Following the formal presentation, Council will hear public testimony related to the State of Preservation in Portland. Because Thursday marks the first time Council has discussed the citywide demolition epidemic, a robust and unified public outcry has the greatest chance to-date of advancing meaningful policy changes. Restore Oregon staff and scores of neighborhood advocates will be there—we hope you will join us Thursday at 2pm at City Hall to advocate for these reasoned policy changes.

Why Demolitions Matter

While not all old buildings can or should be saved, an argument can be made that many—if not most—of the houses being demolished should be retained. The impacts of demolition affect the city in several ways:

Northwest Portland's 1898 Goldsmith House was slated for demolition in May. A group of preservation-minded buyers saved the building thanks to time afforded during a short demolition delay.

Northwest Portland’s 1898 Goldsmith House was slated for
demolition in May. A group of preservation-minded buyers
saved the building thanks to time afforded during a short
demolition delay.

  • Density. Only 9% of residential demolitions result in any meaningful increase in density, and almost half result in no increase at all.
  • History. The average demolished house was built in 1927, significantly earlier than the 50 year cut-off for a property to be considered for historic designation.
  • Environment. This year alone, over 21 million pounds of waste has been created due to residential demolitions in Portland. Only 2% of it was salvaged.
  • Gentrification. On average, replacement houses are nearly twice the size of what existed before demolition. With the exception of high-density apartments, most replacement housing contributes to rising home prices.
  • Neighborhood character. Even when not-so-great houses are demolished, many of the new replacement houses compete with existing neighborhood character. With the exception of a few plan districts, new construction is not required to respond to existing neighborhood characteristics, such as setback or size.

The Need for an Emergency Ordinance

On July 24, the Portland Coalition for Historic Resources (an ad hoc committee comprised of Restore Oregon, Architectural Heritage Center, neighborhood representatives, and preservation leaders) endorsed a slate of emergency recommendations that would go a long way in gaining control of the demolition epidemic. City Council could enact these changes within the next month if they introduced and passed an Emergency Ordinance.

While the recommendations wouldn’t entirely halt the loss of houses across Portland, minor code changes and the formation of a taskforce would be a significant victory for neighborhood preservation. Here’s why:

1904 house at 3614 NE Rodney. <br>Image courtesy Google maps.

1904 house at 3614 NE Rodney. Image courtesy Google.

..

1904 house after demolition. Due to a loophole in the building code, reuse of the basement cavity for a new house proved satisfactory to except this project from demolition delay.

Same house after virtual demolition.
 Due to a loophole in the building code, reuse of the
basement cavity for the new house
proved satisfactory to exempt this project
from demolition notification and delay.

..

April demolition of 3419 NE 35th Place.  Photo courtesy Barbara Strunk.

April demolition of 3419 NE 35th Place.
Photo courtesy Barbara Strunk.

Defining “Demolition”

Portland’s building code does not define “demolition,” an omission that allows developers to strip an existing building to its foundation and call the new building an “alteration” or “addition.” An evaluation of recent permits suggests that the actual number of teardowns may be 30-50% higher than the official “demolition” tally.

Council should pass an ordinance amending City Code Chapter 24.55.150 to define demolition as “removal of 50% or more of a building.”

Delay and Notification

Decades ago the City Council passed code language to impose minimum notification and delay requirements for residential demolitions. This “demolition delay” mandates a 35-day delay and notification for the proposed demolition of residential structures in residential zones. It also allows for an additional 120-day delay at the request of the neighborhood association. However, the code provides an exception for replacement single-family houses; a loophole that allows developers to phase in their multi-unit projects and avoid delay and notification.

Council should pass an ordinance removing Section K.1 in City Code Chapter 24.55.200. While further revisions to the code may be needed, removal of this section is a logical starting point.

A Demolition Taskforce

Neighborhood associations and organizations citywide are grappling not only with the demolition issue, but the issue of oversized replacement housing. Approximately 20% of Portland’s housing stock is on land zoned for higher densities–a fact, that unless changed, incentivizes new development in established neighborhoods. While baseline building code changes will close loopholes and give neighbors more time to prepare for demolitions, a taskforce is needed to identify additional tools to address demolition and the compatibility of replacement housing.

Council should direct the Historic Landmarks Commission and staff from the Bureaus of Development Services and Planning and Sustainability to bring additional zoning and building code recommendations forward in the months ahead.

Possible recommendations may include:

  • Expansion of demolition delay to all buildings, not just houses in residential zones;
  • Downzoning lots in historic neighborhood that are not suited for higher density housing;
  • Applying “Neighborhood Plan District Overlays” in historic areas to set expectations for replacement houses, such as minimum setbacks and maximum building sizes.
  • Implementing a demolition tax to disincentive landfilling entire buildings and to fund a new citywide historic resource inventory.

In the weeks ahead, Restore Oregon–along with many of our partners and friends–will be advocating that City Council support an emergency response to the demolition epidemic. Unless changes are made, upwards of 400 Portland houses will be lost in 2014—the vast majority of which will disappear without any opportunity for community dialogue or proposed development alternatives. Demolition has implications that reach far beyond backyards, and we are hopeful that Thursday proves to be the first of many steps forward in resolving the negative effects of the demolition epidemic.

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