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Activists want bigger, faster effort by city to save neighborhoods


Neighborhood and preservation activists who are hoping the city will act quickly to slow the increase of residential demolition and replacement projects are going to be a little disappointed.

Mayor Charlie Hales said that preserving neighborhood character is a top priority during his recent State of the City speech. He also has promised to appoint a task force to address the issue. However, the two specific initiatives that have been proposed to date could take years to complete.

Both initiatives are included as budget requests from the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. One request is for $332,000 to pay for an 18-month Single Family Development Review Program. The other is for $133,000 for the first phase of a multiyear project to update the city’s Historic Resources Inventory. The funds are requested for the annual budget that begins July 1. They must be approved by the City Council for the projects to start.

Activists repeatedly have testified before the council that there is no time to wait. They include representatives of the grassroots United Neighborhoods for Reform, the Architectural Heritage Center and Restore Oregon nonprofit organizations, and the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.

Residential demolition and replacement projects are increasing as the economy improves. According to the most recent figures, the Bureau of Development Services is expected to issue 370 demolition permits this year, up from 281 in 2013 and 312 in 2014. That does not include permits for major renovation projects that replace the majority of existing houses.

The activists complain that the replacement houses are almost always much larger and more expensive than the original houses, reducing the amount of affordable housing and changing the character of the blocks where they occur. Many of the projects are happening in a limited number of desirable close-in neighborhoods, increasing their impact.

Home builders say they are only responding to market demand for new houses in those parts of town where people most want to live. They say the replacement houses are larger and more expensive than the original ones because that is what buyers are looking for these days.

The Single Family Development Review Program is intended to respond to those concerns by exploring possible size and design restrictions on the replacement houses, among other things. According to BPS, the money would fund 2.6 full-time-equivalent positions and the bureau would dedicate another two FTE to the project. It would require extensive public outreach and engagement in almost all neighborhoods.

The Historic Resources Inventory project is intended to update a list of historically significant properties in the city that was first compiled in 1984. In addition to being out of date, the original inventory did not survey many properties in East Portland, which the request says is “underappreciated as a cultural resource to the city.” The current inventory only includes one property east of 82nd Avenue.

Both requests say that grants also will be sought to increase the funding available for the projects.

Other issues the activists want addressed include the way houses currently are being demolished. Most are simply knocked down by heavy equipment and hauled off to landfills. Complaints include hazardous materials being released into the air, including asbestos and lead-based paint particles, and the loss of reusable building materials. The activists argue the city should require that the houses be deconstructed by hand with strict environmental controls.