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My View: City's demolition epidemic must be curbed

Portland is in the process of losing one of its greatest assets: the character of our older neighborhoods.

From Eastmoreland to St. Johns, there is an epidemic of demolition, with the city losing an older home each and every day. While all of them may not be worthy of preservation, many are made of superior materials and craftsmanship than the buildings that will replace them, and they are strong candidates for rehabilitation and reuse.

Often the rationale for demolition is the goal of increased density or energy efficiency. But data published by the city demonstrates that Portland’s demolition spree is gaining us very little. Let’s take a look:

• Density. Only 9 percent of residential demolitions result in any meaningful increase in density, and almost half result in no increase at all.

• Environment. This year alone, more than 21 million pounds of waste have been created due to residential demolitions in Portland. Only 2 percent of it was salvaged for reuse.

• History. The average demolished house was built in 1927 and defined by authentic craftsmanship and old growth lumber.

• Gentrification. On average, replacement houses are nearly twice the size of what stood there before. With the exception of high-density apartments, most replacement housing contributes to rising home prices.

• Neighborhood character. Even when not-so-great buildings are demolished, many of the new replacement homes clash with existing neighborhood character. With few exceptions, new construction is not required to respond to neighborhood characteristics, such as typical setback or size.

On July 31, a coalition of historic preservation advocates presented the Portland City Council with a three-pronged plan to address the demolition epidemic:

• Define “Demolition.” Portland’s building code does not define “demolition,” an omission that allows developers to strip an existing building to its foundation and call it an “alteration.” An evaluation of recent permits suggests that the actual number of teardowns may be 30 to 50 percent higher than the official demolition tally. The council should pass an ordinance defining demolition as removal of 50 percent or more of a building.

• Ensure a Delay and Notification Period. Current city code 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, loopholes exist that allow developers to get around the delay in most cases. Without that delay period, neighbors have no opportunity to seek alternatives to demolition, which in recent weeks have included the outright purchase of targeted historic properties. The council should close the loophole and require delay and notification for all residential tear-downs.

• Convene a Demolition Task Force. Neighborhoods citywide are grappling not only with demolition, but the issue of oversized replacement housing. Approximately 20 percent of Portland’s housing stock is zoned for higher densities that incentivizes new development to chew its way through older neighborhoods. A task force would identify appropriate zoning changes and additional policies such as a landfill tax, minimum salvage rate or a streamlined process for emergency relocations.

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 year’s end, at least 400 houses will be lost.

If this continues unabated, many celebrated neighborhoods will cease to exist as we know them. It’s time for the council to demonstrate their leadership on the

issue.

Peggy Moretti and Brandon Spencer-Hartle are members of Restore Oregon, a statewide historic preservation nonprofit organization. Visit www.restoreoregon.org for more information and events.