An Update on the Proposed Buckman National Register Historic District

In the city of Portland there is a dearth of methods by which a neighborhood can work to protect their historic integrity. One of the only options is to seek a historic designation. With this in mind the Buckman Historic Association has been working tirelessly for more than two years to draft a nomination for a portion of the neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places. This movement was in response to several redevelopment projects in Buckman that were whittling away at what was the first suburb in East Portland.

In recent months their work has come under fire, mostly from those concerned about the exorbitant fees charged by the City of Portland for their historic design review.  Such fees could apply whenever a major exterior building alteration is proposed.

In response to various news reports, the BHA has released the following announcement about where things stand with their proposed historic district nomination:

When the effort began to form a historic district in Buckman, we had two main goals.

1. Improve neighborhood pride and cohesiveness
2. Protect our neighborhood’s historic resources and unique character through demolition review and design review.

After much feedback, we find that many residents are opposed to the concept of a historic district, mainly because of current design fees and the design review process. Additionally, we have discovered that demolition review only delays demolition, and does not halt it. We had also hoped it would be possible to develop our own design guidelines for the district. The city, despite having standards that are hard to interpret and, therefore, hard to enforce, does not want any help in developing new design review guidelines.

In the meantime, the Buckman Historic Association has committed to work with other Portland historic districts and historic preservation groups to campaign against the outrageous design review fees. We can’t say how long that might take and our success cannot be guaranteed. However, the historic association and volunteers have put in countless hours towards this project and the nomination is nearly complete. We are on track to have the application ready to hand in on March 1st. We don’t want to see our efforts go to waste, or to have to start over from the beginning at some future point, but we also see that continuing as planned would be harmful to the neighborhood.

A solution has appeared!

We have a chance to preserve our work, while also taking some time to pause, to bring the community together and to address the issues causing in ways we all find agreeable.

Our work can be submitted as a “Determination of Eligibility” (DOE), rather than as a nomination for a historic district. This gets our work on record but does not have the restrictions of a historic district. In the meantime, the state, and possibly the landmarks commission, would review and evaluate the DOE. No regulations would be imposed by the city. No design reviews. No demolition reviews. No new fees. If approved as a DOE, it would not become a full nomination until we initiated that process, which would involve outreach and the same review timeline as a historic district.

The Buckman Historic Association and neighbors opposing the historic district have joined together to share our views and to work towards finding solutions. Over the next few months, we’ll send out information, announcements and updates as we talk to our local politicians and plan gatherings, workshops and events. And as we head towards elections, the Buckman Neighborhood Association and other organizations around the city will host candidate forums and we encourage you to attend and participate.

As homeowners and renters, we all care about our community and are invested in seeing that Buckman is livable, safe and vibrant. Our neighborhood may not have the big houses and broad lawns of some of the other historic neighborhoods, but, as Portland’s first suburb, Buckman has a diversity, history, proximity and character that, very likely, drew you here, too.

It’s a shame that the BHA effort faces opposition to what is the only current  solution for protecting this historic Portland neighborhood – a solution suggested by the City to the BHA. We should also recognize that buildings and neighborhoods don’t have to be opulent expressions of the gilded age in order to be historic. In fact, the city we live in and love was mostly built on the backs of those who lived in neighborhoods such as Buckman, Eliot, and Brooklyn. It’s time such neighborhoods received proper recognition.

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24 Comments

Filed under Historic Preservation, Infill Development, Local History

24 responses to “An Update on the Proposed Buckman National Register Historic District

  1. Pingback: Buckman Historic Association Update « Buckman Voice

  2. Greg

    I’m very happy that the BHA has listened to the concerns of the community, and wants to work on building consensus. I wonder why you think it’s a shame that people are opposed to the poorly documented, exorbitantly expensive Historic Design Review process in Portland.

  3. Greg, It’s not a shame that folks are opposed to the high fees. It is a shame that the City tells those concerned about losing the historic character of their neighborhood, that if they want to protect it, they need to have historic designation. All the while such designation means that there will be excessively high historic design review fees – imposed by the City.

  4. Chris Shaffer

    It’s a shame the protests are necessary due to the city’s high fees; and it’s a shame that historic designation is the only way to prevent developers from destroying our history.

  5. I support a historic designation for the neighborhood where I grew up and am now looking forward retiring in. Buckman is part of the original City of East Portland, as our structures age they season with their unique history. Preservation today will add value tomorrow and for our children’s children to enjoy. If the City of Portland’s design reviews were not so costly, and which reason, would you support this designation. If the answer is yes, then that is what needs to be changed, not the rejection of the historic designation. We need to gather together and get those fees altered. It can be accomplished.

  6. Ms. March

    Sorry that things have not gone well. I like the idea of residents of Portland’s historic districts banding together to “campaign against the outrageous design review fees” fees that force people to avoid design review that could have really used the extra advice.

  7. preservation = appropriation

    Buckman residents wised up before it was too late. A community standard is fine, with nearby residents having some input over major projects. But an ordinance that for all intents and purposes stops any changes at all? Completely wrong. For anybody on the fence on this issue, be aware: this ordinance isn’t just about preventing a modern monstrosity from going up next to y0u. It is about trying to create a museum. Read the ordinance 33.846. It can be, and is, used to deny any change to a house that isn’t totally original, even if it is done tastefully and in-period. To borrow from Albert Camus- Houses serve people, people don’t serve houses. Buckman residents- don’t acquiesce until the process is fixed to actually give home owners reasonable control over their houses!

  8. “preservation=appropriation”, sorry to say that you are wrong. People make alterations in historic districts all the time in this city. There is absolutely no intention of creating a museum out of Buckman and your histrionics do little but stir up needless fear about such historic designations. I would remind you and our readers that the pursuit of a historic district in Buckman was done on the advice of the City of Portland which told this neighborhood (as it has told countless others) that without historic designation there is no way to protect the very neighborhood character that draws people to the neighborhood in the first place.

    • You are absolutely correct! We need to preserve the unique character of the Buckman neighborhood. Once too many contemporary Star-trek cube shape residential and commercial structure dot the area, the historical significance will be lost forever.

  9. preservation = appropriation

    portlandpreservation,
    If you are at all familiar with the criteria being used for approval/ denial of projects in historic districts, then you are being completely disingenious in your above statement. I am trying to stir up conpletely legitimate concerns about historic district desigantion. Your response (using the word “histrionics) makes me think I hit a nerve. To make my criticisms a bit more concrete, please be aware of a this very real situation: I live in a historic district (I only learned after moving in, since it is the newest one). I want to add a front porch to a craftsman house. Most craftsmans have a front porch. I want to do it in a very period fashion, completely in scale with the house and completely in harmony with the neighborhood. It would make interaction with our neighbors that much more frequent and build neighbirhood cohesiveness. In a preliminary conversation with one of the people in charge of design review, I was told that there was no real chance of approval because a front porch was not part of the original design. So, portlandpreservation, please tell me how this is not essentially trying to create a museum? How is what I describe “trying to stir up needless fears”?

  10. preservation = appropriation

    One more question, portlandpreservation- what exactly is “historic integrity”? Is it about neighborhood character (ie residential vs mixed used vs commercial)? Is it about the physical characteristics of the neighborhood? Is it all of these things? It seems to me it is a fairly vague concept that is hard to pin down exactly. The problem is that when you are withdrawing property rights, which a Historic District defintely does, than you need to have very specific aims and a clear distinction about what can and can’t be done within the district BEFORE the residents of that district can make an informed decision. You also need to make these restrictions very public so that those moving in can know exactly what they are getting in to. The majority of Irvington residents have no idea what has been put into effect on their homes. I’m sure you will say that they had a chance to voice their opinion on the matter. However, read all of the propaganda on the Irvington Community Association website that was put out before the decision. It’s aim was clearly to try to play down the restrictive aspects of the designation and play up the “preservation of the neighnorhood character” and prevent large scale projects with their associated demolition of historic properties. Wouldn’t you agree that the same ends could be acheived by allowing the neighbors of a project to have input on large projects in their midst? Also, pray tell, why on Earth is it OK for a city bureaucrat with the powers of a museum curator, in league with a community asociation, to tell a homeowner that they can or cannot have a certain window or door or a new dormer, or a porch for that matter?

    • Chris Shaffer

      I can definitely say that “allowing the neighbors of a project to have input on large projects in their midst” would *not* achieve the same ends. You can give input all you want, but that won’t stop developers from bulldozing neighborhoods.

      Also, city bureaucrats tell people what they can and can’t do with their property all the time. They’re telling me I have to put in a new sewer. They require me to meet code when I update my electric. That’s not inherently bad as you imply.

      I do agree that clearer description of guidelines and restrictions is a good thing.

  11. preservation = appropriation

    Chris,
    Those examples of city input both have do with safety, don’t they, not asthetics, so they are completely different. What we have with this type of preservation is a government-enforced asthetic. So, again, why is it OK for the city and the unelected commnity association to tell me what style of door or window that I can have? I have yet to meet a preservationist who can give me a satisfactory answer to that question. Instead its’s always a vague answer about “historic integrity”. If you are going to take away property rights (and make me pay for that privelege, no less) you better have a good answer.

    Thank you for agreeing that the guidelines are unclear, though.

    • Chris Shaffer

      Yes, the examples I gave were safety related. However, there are many other examples that are aesthetic. These include density, height, and setback. There are also restrictions on building type, such as commercial vs. residential, that have an aesthetic component. Governments, and quasi-government organizations like homeowners associations, routinely regulate based on aesthetic considerations. I think this is a good thing, and wish it were done more. Communities without zoning restrictions and unregulated development result in the vast wasteland of suburban sprawl. I am strongly in favor of local government incentivizing and regulating aesthetics.

      I think the real problem is the excessive fees and unclear guidelines, which must be changed to really support the goals of historic preservation.

      In regard to the issue of whom is given power, “the city” is “us” and if you’re unhappy with how “the city” does something, you have the same recourse to change it as any other citizen. I concur that ceding power to an unelected community association is not ideal. I would prefer that role be taken on by an elected body representing the residents and property owners in the district. That’s how it was handled in the historic district I lived in back in Iowa.

      • preservation = appropriation

        “the city” is us, sort of. We all know that special interests can and do have outsize influence relative to their numbers when the lawmaking process is opaque. I would say that in the case of historic district designation, the process was opaque. Also, regarding your additional examples of height, setback, and density, those are all primarily practical issues that affect traffic, parking, and the like, and the aesthetic considerations are of a much more general character affecting light, etc. Also, those restrictions are put in place when buildings are being built, not retrospectively. If the historic district was only restricting changing a building’s height, setback, etc, than I wouldn’t argue. But as you know, they are being used to restrict far more than that, purely for aesthetic reasons. This country was founded on the principle that we try to maximize freedom unless it is something that is infringing on others. So again, please answer the question, why is it OK for someone else to tell me what kind of door or window I have as long is it does not pose a risk to someone else?

        If the process was as you described it to be where you came from in Iowa, with an elected body representing all parties, than I would have a lot less of a gripe.

  12. Chris Shaffer

    I already answered this, but here goes again.

    It is OK because we, as a community, decide that aesthetics are important.

    • preservation = appropriation

      “We, as a community”?! Did everyone vote? Was everyone aware of the restrictions about to be imposed? You know the answer is No. The community association obfuscated on the issue and only emphasized the prevention of demolition, not the ridiculous restrictions about to be enforced. So, no , we as a community did not agree that minute regulation of minor asthetic factors was OK. If the Historic District regulations were put to a direct vote, something I would love to happen, I am confident they would not pass as is. That is the real problem, people (the ones who were even aware of the issue at all) thought they were agreeing to one thing when in fact, the preservationists were doing a bait and switch.

      Chris, please answer the question in a meaningful way: why does my window matter to YOU. Please don’t give me some general response about “aesthetics are important”. I actually agree that they are important, but in a general sense, like keeping scale, because those affect how much light makes it to the ground and to other structures. But why do YOU care about minor aesthetic factors on other peoples houses, and why should your opinion have the force of law?

      • Chris Shaffer

        Your window matters to me because of the way it looks. Aesthetics do matter, and they are the reason I support historic preservation. If you believe that aesthetics aren’t important, then we don’t really have any common ground here. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

        Yes, it is we as a community that are making this decision. There are different ways that communities communicate and make decisions. The historic designation process is one of those. Clearly, there is community discussion and decision making – if there wasn’t, the promoters of the historic district wouldn’t have agreed to pause the process and work together with opponents to fix the problems with the Portland design process.

        Maybe if it was put to a vote, it wouldn’t pass “as is.” Again, you’re making a straw man. I’m not arguing for passing “as is” and I never said I held that position. I agree that we need to fix Portland’s design review process first.

        Another straw man is asking why my opinion should have the force of law. I never said that, and you’re putting words in my mouth. I said I believed that the community – all of us, not just me – should make the decision. That’s how and why laws are made – to express the shared opinions of the community.

  13. preservation = appropriation

    The situation in Buckman is a better example of how the process should work. It didn’t work that way in Irvington. It appears that part of the reason that many Buckman residents have paused is because of recent experience of Irvington residents who have come up against the restrictions imposed.

    Thank you for directly answering the question. You’re right, I don’t agree that others’ opinions on minor aesthetic considerations should prevent me from making reasonable changes. Of course, you are entitled to your opinion. Hopefully, the community, through a more direct querying of its overall opinion on this point, can have a say on this issue. That is my main complaint- that few people had a true idea of what a historic designation meant in the practical sense, and therefore did not truly agree to such severe restrictions. In the case of Irvington, at least, I think the preservationists were more than happy to keep those restrictions from being the focal point of the debate, to the extent that there was any debate at all.

    • preservation = appropriation

      Overall, I would not argue with restrictions if they originated in a more democratic fashion. On that point, are you or is anyone else aware of how the design review process can be altered short of a citywide referendum?

      • Chris Shaffer

        I’m not really sure. I think, based on what I read, that an appeal to the city council might work. I’m hoping the AHA and others can figure it out.

  14. The city of Portland is no different from hundreds of other cities and counties in Oregon, and across the US…historic landmarks and historic districts are established, and a set of rules are implemented and applied by public entities to meet the goals of the historic designation – - to preserve the historic resources and their settings. In Portland, our “public entities” are the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (that handles designations) and the bureau of development services (that handles permits and reviews.)

    No, it’s not typical at all to have historic preservation functions broken up among two agencies, but this division was a City Council bureau organization decision that dates back a bit. What is, however typical, in ALL jurisdictions, is that professional staff – - who have the appropriate skills and education – - are responsible for communicating with prospective applicants, providing advice and ultimately producing staff decisions or reports for decision-makers, to arrive at a Yes, No, or Yes – with Conditions.

    I myself have served in this staff review function in another jurisdiction – staffing a Landmarks Commission and a Planning Commission (but not for the city of Portland.) reviewing particular applications and producing reports for consideration by decision-making boards is a “balancing act” – between what is being asked for, how it might change the historic building, how does it measure up to the adopted review-standards, and are there other alternatives that would achieve the property owner’s purpose…each application is site-specific, and generic speculation about “what if” on blog posts don’t serve much real purpose. But – I myself never told any applicant, nor have I ever heard another professional staff-person tell someone “there’s no way you can achieve your purpose, no matter what you propose.” I say this in relation to the post about a desired porch…We all know that buildings have and will change over time, and the comments about wanting to “freeze Buckman as a museum” are simply unfounded. The Buckman debate is at the level where there are plenty of generic “what ifs” being tossed around, and a number of alarm bells are being pushed. EVERYONE agrees that Portland’s historic design review fees are too high, especially for smaller projects. We are working to do something about that – - and will be at City Council on Wednesday, March 7th – trying to do just that!


    Cathy Galbraith
    Exeucutive Director
    Architectural Heritage Center/Bosco-Milligan Foundation
    cathyg@visitahc.org

  15. preservation = appropriation

    Cathy,
    Your response is a reasonable one. Nevertheless, by submitting to a Historic District designation, those “generic what ifs” are no longer debated. What happens is once the District is established, the restrictions come down and all decisions become arbitrary rulings by a staff that doesn’t have to answer to anyone. Yes, they may be trained. Yes, they may be reasonable people. However, they just might not be reasonable. If they aren’t, there is no recourse. There needs to be accountability to the community for decisions rendered. And your statement that “we all know that buildings can and will change over time” doesn’t ring true. In fact, it seems that the express purpose of a Historic District designation is to prevent such changes. If you look at a Historic District nonimation, which I am sure you have, you see that many buildings are designated as “non-contributing” for just such minor changes, changes that would not be allowed once a district is established.

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