My View: Historic districts preserve affordability
The March 28 Portland Tribune included a news article and editorial targeting the decision by Eastmoreland to advance the historic district nomination. Both were strongly influenced by talking points from scatter-site density advocates under the banner of 1000 Friends and homebuilder lobbyists — opponents of historic districts. There was little effort to consider the value and importance of historic preservation and related policies adopted in the Comprehensive Plan to shape Portland's evolving character.
A core credo of density advocates opposing historic districts is to embrace the Residential Infill Project. That project indiscriminately triples density in single-dwelling zones, justified by an undemonstrated theory that affordable housing choices will result.
Demolition of viable housing is environmentally wasteful and removes our most affordable housing. Each demolition comes with a loss of green space and tree canopy. Diffuse, inappropriately located density precipitates traffic congestion, neighborhood destabilization, displacement of the less fortunate, and destruction of Portland's rich historical character. For the Residential Infill Project, despite 27 of the 31 neighborhood associations weighing in opposed, there is no neighborhood veto.
The Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board favors the historic district not only for historical values, but to retain the wide choice of house sizes averaging 2,200 square feet above grade. The variety provides for a range of incomes, family sizes, the old and young on lots that can accommodate granny flats and gardens. The greatest threat to Eastmoreland and to many close-in eastside neighborhoods is displacement by mansionization — the removal of smaller houses replaced by larger and much more expensive houses. Historic district designation is, for the foreseeable future, the only avenue for residents to guide growth and buffer the effects of destructive one-size-fits-all zoning regulations, including the radically aggressive Residential Infill Project.
Historic district opposition strategy is to drive wedges: between the board and the rest of the neighborhood; Eastmoreland and the rest of Portland; affordability and privilege; and between density and preservation. Associating "redlining" with preservation smacks of the ugly and abusive tone that some opponents have fostered in social media, emails and ad hominem attacks that ripple through the neighborhood. The door-to-door campaign to oppose the district relies on the false narrative contrasting living free in Portland with heartless historic district regulation.
Preserving and protecting significant history, culture and sense of place is positive for everyone — those living in the neighborhood and for the city as a whole. The historic district nomination process is structured at the state and federal level and enforced locally. For the opposition a veto is built in.
The Portland region is growing. Cities within the regional growth boundary accommodate 20 years of growth by law. Housing costs are driven by many factors associated with housing shortage. Adequate land zoned for housing is not one of them. There are designated centers, corridors and many neighborhoods languishing. The last thing that Portland needs is to demolish and redevelop its historic neighborhoods in the name of affordability, density and a bright future.
In deciding to embrace the opportunity for national historic district designation, the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board considered many issues, including inconclusive results from a board-sponsored nonbinding survey. Although contested, the historic district has widespread support in the neighborhood and unanimous endorsements from the Portland Landmarks Commission and the State Advisory Commission for Historic Preservation. We encourage other neighborhoods to look to their future, establish neighborhood goals and find the means to encourage our government to respect your efforts.
Rod Merrick is an architect, Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association land-use co-chair, and served on the Residential Infill Project Stakeholders Advisory Committee. He wrote this piece with contributions from friends and neighbors.