My View: Historic districts not about racism
Tom Christ's recent commentary alleging that supporters of the proposed Eastmoreland Historic District are masking elitist and racist motivations is misrepresenting the impacts of Portland's demolition surge and the role of heritage preservation in shaping our future.
Arnold Cogan, who helped draft state land-use laws under Gov. Tom McCall, recently told Governor Kate Brown, "Those who are using Oregon's land use planning legacy to oppose the Eastmoreland Historic District are being intellectually dishonest. The opposition's tactics are a distortion of what land use planning is all about… In fact, Oregon's land-use goals value historic districts and support these designations. I find it extremely unfortunate that some are distorting the principles of sound land-use planning to oppose historic districts and, furthermore, to imply that those who favor them are discriminatory and racist."
It is notable that much of Portland's modest, affordable housing stock already exists in historic neighborhoods. These are areas with diverse, multi-layered histories that are protected and preserved by mere virtue of being part of an historic district.
Stephanie Whitlock, executive director of the Architectural Heritage Center that supports the Eastmoreland designation, said it is inaccurate to portray historic districts as racist or having anything to do about redlining: "This is a sadly outmoded perspective on historic preservation, which at its root seeks to uncover and bring to light the different voices and experiences of all people in our society.
"Our organization has been deeply invested for many decades in preserving the history and historic properties of diverse communities across Portland, past and present, from Old and New Chinatown to the Jewish community in South Portland, and presenting these histories publicly.
"A substantial project we have worked on since the mid-1990s has focused on the documentation and preservation of properties associated with African American history in Portland. We have published a book on the issue in two editions, produced grade-school curricula, and have written two National Register nominations for relevant single-family houses associated with African American history. A current project we are working on will determine the qualifying criteria for more of these buildings to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places," Whitlock said.
The former founding director of the Architectural Heritage Center, Cathy Galbraith, has for over two decades been behind the local fight to protect African American properties. Since 2014, at least 60 of our African American-related buildings have been demolished and the pace is only accelerating.
As Ms. Galbraith wrote recently, "Many of our African-American building resources are small and modest, providing renters and homeowners alike with affordable housing; these are the very houses being targeted for demolition and construction of huge and expensive new replacement houses. This is gentrification, and it is in full swing."
Christ is closely associated with 1000 Friends of Oregon and with his wife are leaders in the effort to discredit the Eastmoreland Historic District nomination and the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Board as sponsor of the nomination. 1000 Friends of Oregon in concert with the Homebuilders Association, are engaged in an ongoing campaign to remove protections from residential historic districts and to ban single family zoning for neighborhoods in Oregon in the form of HB2007.
Christ's attack on the proposed district also tries to minimize the role of demolitions in reducing affordable housing options. Tearing down a $350,000 or $400,000 house virtually assures that the new, larger replacements will cost two or three times more. Creating a historic district can allow demolition hearings for contributing structures. Zoning can be changed at the local level to allow more density. For example, zoning has changed many times in the King's Hill Historic District and no one asked permission of any federal agency. So redlining a neighborhood to prevent further density is already prohibited. Residents in Portland's historic districts understand the need for affordable housing. They welcome accessory dwelling units and reconfiguring larger older homes into duplexes. We do not achieve those enviable ends by unjustified name-calling.
Fred Leeson and Tracy Prince are board members of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation that owns and operates the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland. You can contact them and learn more at: visitahc.org