Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Portland has tools, but it is reluctant to crack down on owners

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Many Old Town buildings are owned by groups or people who have little financial incentive to renovate or redevelop. Other cities have been more aggressive in dealing with abandoned buildings.In Cincinnati, a decaying historical neighborhood called Over-the-Rhine was littered with abandoned buildings. In 1996, the city passed an ordinance requiring owners of vacant buildings to take out a vacant building permit and meet minimum maintenance standards for their properties. Each year, owners must renew the permits and the price doubles — encouraging owners to renovate or demolish their buildings.

In New Jersey, state officials adopted an alternate building code so that many old buildings don’t need to meet the same construction standards as new structures, making renovation of vacant buildings more feasible.

A number of cities have creatively dealt with vacant buildings in close-to-downtown neighborhoods similar to Old Town/Chinatown, says Ilana Preuss, vice president of Smart Growth America, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood reinvestment.

New Jersey’s efforts were among the most successful, Preuss says. Once property owners of vacant buildings saw they wouldn’t have to build stairwells and windows that met current construction codes, they became more willing to take on rehabs. According to Preuss, the year after New Jersey put its two-tiered codes in place, money dedicated to renovating old buildings doubled.

But a necessary first step, Preuss says, is leadership. In depressed neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine, nobody wants to take the risk of being the first to renovate. Somebody, she says, needs to track down all the Old Town/Chinatown owners of vacant and underutilized properties and get them in the same room together, believing that they can coordinate their renovations.

“In many cases it takes one champion building owner who renovates their building, who starts leading the pack and shows how much revenue they create for themselves,” Preuss says.

Tools to crack down

According to Mike Liefield, enforcement manager for Portland’s Bureau of Development Services, the Rose City doesn’t require registration of vacant buildings and doesn’t maintain a list of vacant buildings.

Peter Englander, Central City manager with the Portland Development Commission, notes that progress was made in getting buildings redeveloped in Old Town’s east end before the recession. Now, he says, a new combination of “carrots and sticks” needs to be put in place.

But Englander says the city needs to be careful about starting a process that might end up with buildings being condemned. He points out that two of the last buildings condemned in Chinatown — the Grove Hotel and Cindy’s Adult Bookstore — created major problems for the city. Cindy’s was torn down and the controversial Right To Dream Too homeless encampment has taken up residence in its place. The Grove was bought by the city, which is still trying to find a buyer, even at a discount.

Preuss says that at some point cities have to get serious about enforcing building codes on abandoned structures, which generally means placing liens against the properties.

“I don’t think anything changes without stricter enforcement,” Preuss says. And, she adds, that often means ensuring there are enough city inspectors to do the job, and that some old buildings get torn down. Due to budget cuts, Portland’s BDS has been forced to trim its roster of building inspectors in recent years, and only investigates buildings when a complaint is made about them.

“Enforcement is only as good as the amount of funding that gets puts into it,” Preuss says.

Mike Liefeld, BDS enforcement manager, says that if city officials decided they wanted to crack down on abandoned buildings, that could be done. “We have the tools to do that,” Liefeld says. “It’s not what we have done.”

Undermining neighborhoods

Old Town developer Julie Garver does not like the idea of a Cincinnati-like vacant building permit. She notes that in Cincinnati, many old buildings were torn down when property owners refused or were unable to renovate and saw the prices of their annual vacant building permits climbing.

Walter McMonies likes the idea of a Cincinnati-like vacant building permit. The Portland real estate attorney owns a number of older buildings in Northwest Portland and has written extensively about the problems of un-reinforced concrete. He financed a voluntary seismic upgrade at the Trinity Apartments. He says he loves old buildings, but has little patience for abandoned ones.

“I think we need to make people aware that they have an obligation to update these buildings,” McMonies says. “Vacant buildings are a blight. They’re dangerous because homeless people break into them and start living there. They undermine the value of neighborhoods.”

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