Preservation Pub Recap: Portland’s Demolition Epidemic


Recently, Restore Oregon hosted two Preservation Pubs to discuss Portland’s demolition epidemic. Both were open to the public and we were impressed by how many thoughtful, passionate Portlanders participated. We heard lots of requests for the information, resources and contacts that we talked about in our presentation, so here is a very brief summary of what we covered followed by the prezi presentation and who you can contact to express your support for our recommendations to City Council.

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

The 1906 Ewing House at 2808 SE Belmont was demolished in February. (Photo courtesy Christopher Wilson)


This qualified as a remodel or alteration because the original basement cavity remains. The new building will carry forward the original's construction date of 1904.

This qualified as a remodel or alteration because the original basement cavity remains. The new building will carry forward the original’s construction date of 1904.

Portland is on track to witness the loss of 400 houses in 2014. Our current demolition epidemic is hardly emblematic of a city that prides itself on careful planning, environmental stewardship, social equity, and a unique sense of place. By understanding the issues, we can identify thoughtful solutions.

While  demolition might be an appropriate option for certain vacant and severely neglected buildings, many (if not most) recently-demolished buildings in Portland were occupied and functional prior to their removal.

The impacts of demolition affect the city in several ways:

  • Density. While we support planning efforts to increase density in the city’s urban core, the fact is the spate of demolitions in Portland has NOT resulted in significant gains in density. In fact, less than 9% of residential demolitions result in any meaningful increase in density, and almost half result in no increase at all.
  • Affordability & Equity. On average, replacement houses are nearly twice the size of what existed before demolition. Most replacement housing contributes to rising home prices.
  • Environmental Impact. Widespread demolition has a significant environmental impact. The question has been asked, “why recycle cans and bottles and throw away entire buildings?” The typical demolished house is 1,200 square feet and generates 115 pounds of demolition waste per square foot, of which 60% is recycled and only 2% is salvaged. We’ve created this info-graphic to illustrate the impact of demolition waste.
  • History. The average house demolished in Portland in recent years was built in 1927, significantly earlier than the 50 year cut-off for a property to be considered for historic designation. Fewer than 3% of homes demolished in the city between 1996 and 2011 were built after 1964.
  • 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.

Although Portland’s Building Code includes provisions for managing demolitions, delays and notifications are waived for dangerous buildings, accessory structures, or single family houses to be replaced with another single family house.

Historic designations can offer some protection. We should note that the demolition trend in Portland has not affected properties listed individually or as part of a district on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, Restore Oregon, and the citywide Coalition for Historic Resources have endorsed a three-pronged action plan to address the demolition epidemic.

  • 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.” The actual number of teardowns is 30-50% higher than the official “demolition” tally. City Council should pass an ordinance defining demolition as the removal of 50% or more of a building.
  • The demolition delay ordinance mandates a 35-day delay and notice for the demolition of residential structures in residential zones. While neighborhood associations have the power to extend the delay an additional 120 days, a loophole allows most demolitions to be exempted from the rule. City Council should pass an ordinance applying delay and notification to all residential tear-downs.
  • Following the adoption of these two critical code changes–defining demolition and mandating minimum delay and notification–City Council should convene a demolition taskforce charged with identifying appropriate zoning changes and additional policies such as a landfill tax, minimum salvage rate, or streamlined process for moving a house when necessary.

What you can do: We need to demonstrate that there is significant voter support for protecting neighborhood character and reducing demolitions of historic properties. Let city officials know this is important to you by contacting them with your support for the three recommendations outlined above:

These recommendations were presented to the Portland City Council on July 31st. The recorded session is available for viewing


Restore Oregon’s presentation from the pubs is viewable below without narration.


And here are some more links for those of you who really want to dig in:

Find My Zoning (Portland)

Portland’s Historic Resource Rules and Benefits

Historic Conservation Easements (held by Restore Oregon)

Oregon’s State Historic Preservation Office

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  1. Demolition Recommendations Headed to Council | Restore Oregon - November 21, 2014

    […] and neighborhood advocates over the course of the past year. Restore Oregon has been active in the conversation and every local media outlet has covered the topic in recent months, making demolitions a topic du […]

Statewide Partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation