Category Archives: Sustainability

An Epidemic of Demolitions

By Cathy Galbraith

Something insidious is happening and Portland’s traditional neighborhoods are seeing the cumulative effects of the growing epidemic of the demolition of single-family homes. There is something at work here…perhaps it’s the combination of house “flippers,” people who like closer-in locations but want a house that’s brand new…BUT how can the costs of acquisition, demolition, and new construction be anything but enormous? Perhaps that’s beside the point. What we do know is that in early-December, 2013 the city had already issued at least 230 demolition permits for the year-to-date. Residents in SE and NE Portland have sounded the alarm bells, knowing all too well that among the impacts are the continuing loss of the qualities that make up a neighborhood’s character and its physical identity.

The epidemic is even likely worse, since the city of Portland defines a “demolition” as the complete removal of a structure. Any number of what most of us would consider a “demolition” before building a new house is something different—if any part of the first house is left standing—like a single partial wall. That wrinkle lets a builder off the hook for public notification of neighbors; permits for these projects can even be classified as an “alteration” or an “addition,” not a “demolition.”

In an era of growing understanding that “the greenest building is the one that’s already built” how can Portland be heading in exactly the opposite direction? Perhaps it’s just another aspect of the “growth is good” mantra that permeates the Comprehensive Plan update…and the perceived city tendency to bend over backwards to allow (some would say encourage) admittedly unusual proposals like the 56 “micro-units” that will replace ONE single family home on NW Thurman Street. The Comprehensive Plan update is intended to address the next 25 years…at the rate we are going, how many houses will we lose just in the next five years?

Portland is a city that’s rightfully concerned about important environmental issues like its “carbon footprint.” In mid-2012, before the demolitions epidemic, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Preservation Green Lab” (based in Seattle) published a study on the environmental benefits of historic preservation, including the finding that for a new house in PORTLAND, it would take 50 years (!!!) to overcome the impacts of its construction. Among its findings, it presumed that Portland would demolish 1% of its building stock over the next 10 years. The study concluded that by retrofitting and reusing them—instead of demolishing and building new energy-efficient ones—it could meet a whopping 15% of Multnomah County’s total CO2 reduction targets over the same 10 years!

There are no easy answers to the housing demolition epidemic, but we will be calling people together soon to attempt to find some resolution. Please watch our website (www.VisitAHC.org) or sign up for our e-news to learn more about this new initiative.

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Survey Seeks Your Opinions on Parking and Design of New Apartment Buidings

Amid growing concern over the lack of parking requirements for new apartments being built around town, the Citywide Land Use Group has prepared a survey on the subject and is now seeking public input.  There are only a few days left to fill out the survey, but it is important that city leaders understand how new apartments, however much-needed, are having a major impact on Portland’s traditional neighborhoods. As an example, we will soon be losing two classic homes over on Hawthorne, all in the name of density. Streets like Division and Williams Avenue have also been seriously impacted by new apartment construction.

But this issue is not just about the parking either. Some of the survey questions get at other issues related to design and zoning and how new construction impacts adjacent and nearby neighborhood buildings.

If you are concerned about such issues, please take a few minutes and complete the survey.

The deadline to fill it out is Saturday, November 10th.

CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE SURVEY

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New Report Sheds Light on Window Retrofits vs. Window Replacement

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has quietly been operating its Preservation Green Lab for a few years now and we’re finally starting to see quantifiable data verifying what preservationists have long believed – replacement windows are not the best option for home weatherization measures. With the help of the Cascadia Green Building Council and Seattle-based Ecotope, the Green Lab has issued this new report which makes it clear that storm windows combined with cellular shades is probably the best solution to weatherizing windows in our older and historic homes.

Portland was one of the cities reflected in this study, so the report should be seen as even more relevant to the owners of the thousands of Portland area homes built with traditional wood windows – most prior to World War II.

So what are a few of the takeaways from this important study?

1. Retrofitting your old windows can give you energy performance similar to that of replacement windows.

2. Nearly all retrofit measures provide a better return on investment than replacement windows.

3. The average initial cost for replacement windows in Portland is roughly twice that of a combination of exterior storm windows and insulated cellular shades. When you combine that with the fact that the average energy savings between these two types of weatherization measures is a mere 2-3 percentage points, you can see why replacement windows are, by far, not the best option.

You can read more about the report on the National Trust’s website here.

One final note for owners of designated historic homes:  Interior weatherization measures like installing insulated cellular shades or interior window panels, probably won’t trigger those historic design review fees that many in Portland are (rightfully) up in arms about.  So not only can you save money and energy, you might also save the hassle and cost of that process.

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Historic Preservationists to Attend Upcoming City Council Meeting

At the Wednesday, March 7th, 9:30AM meeting of the Portland City Council, historic preservationists from around the city are planning to gather in support of reforms to the historic design review process and fee structure. This comes in the wake of recent concerns raised in the Buckman neighborhood (and elsewhere) over the exorbitant fees for even minor exterior changes to a building in a designated historic district.  Preservationists are encouraged to show up and show City Council that these places matter – even if you don’t wish to testify.

There’s more information at this Facebook event site.

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Public Comments on the DRAFT Portland Plan Due by December 28th – Where’s Historic Preservation?

Written public comments for the draft Portland Plan must be submitted by December 28th. Bosco-Milligan Foundation executive director Cathy Galbraith presented testimony at a recent public hearing on the Portland Plan, expressing concern that nowhere in the document is the term historic preservation even mentioned.  In fact, there is only one reference to “historic resources” to be found in the draft document – a big disappointment to those who have worked tirelessly over the past few years to keep the conversation about historic preservation moving forward.

In addition to concerns over the lack of mentioning historic preservation, here are some other excerpts from the Bosco-Milligan Foundation’s comments about the Portland Plan draft. Please consider sending your own comments to the city before the 12/28 deadline.

Entirely absent from the Plan is any acknowledgement of the existing Historic Resources Inventory

The issue of “community character” in the traditional neighborhoods is a concern that was raised time and time again in the earlier Portland Plan workshops. The omission of this concern throughout most of the Plan is an oversight that needs to be addressed now.

The Plan’s segment on Complete Neighborhoods cites (page 101) the need to “increase housing in areas with services” while ignoring the earlier description that these areas are primarily built out. 

We do want Portland to at long last be a leader in social sustainability (page 10) – as important as and equal to environmental sustainability that has been the focus of much of the city’s efforts. Avoiding displacement and understanding and preserving historic and cultural connections should be an overriding goal of any equity agenda. The once-celebrated Albina Community Plan (1993) led to the start of displacement in N/NE; it was well-intentioned, but has long been described as “aspirational.” What’s relevant for the Portland Plan is that many of the lofty “action steps” that have gone unfulfilled in the Albina Community Plan read much like those in the proposed Portland Plan.

The Plan includes a city role in “helping to catalyze complementary local development” (page 25) for expansion of PCC Cascade, and “Develop new land use investment approaches to support the growth & neighborhood compatibility of college and hospital campuses in the comprehensive plan update” (page 47.)  Our concern is the expansion through demolition and displacement that has been typically practiced by these institutions. A more important first step should be the public deliberation and adoption of institutional “master plans”, before it’s presumed that college and hospital campus expansions will be undertaken without detriment to the surrounding neighborhoods.

The historic preservation community, property owners in Portland’s Historic Districts, and developers are now assertively raising the issue of the city’s unreasonably high historic design review fees, in particular; the $3,000+ application fee for individual landmark designation has already proven to be a disincentive for designation, with a total of two such applications in the past nine years. Portland’s historic design review (and landmarks designation) fees are higher than all other Oregon jurisdictions and higher than for any comparably sized municipality throughout the U.S.

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Latest News on the Old Waverly Baby Home

As Portland Preservation reported last month, plans are underway to redevelop  the old Waverly Baby Home at 3550 SE Woodward in Portland. Although not designated as historic by the City of Portland or any other entity, this building has major historical  significance, and not just because the main building is of a fine architectural quality. Perhaps more importantly, this building has a lengthy social history as a home for orphans and other children. So it is sad to report that demolition plans for the site are moving forward.

Earlier in the week we learned that the current owners of the property (Trillium Family Services) have applied for a demolition permit for the building. The building is listed on the City’s Historic Resource Inventory (HRI) with a rank of II, so we thought that there would at least be a demolition delay, but alas no such luck. Apparently Trillium has asked to have the building removed from the HRI, and according to City regulations, that is all they have to do – ask. Once the removal from the HRI is processed, the demolition will likely be allowed to proceed without delay.

Regardless of what you think about the plans for the new development on the Waverly Baby Home, doesn’t this seem like a wasted opportunity? Couldn’t they have come up with a plan that was far more creative and neighborhood friendly, as well as sensitive to the historical significance of the site? Shouldn’t there be some sort of mechanism in place to prevent such needless demolitions from occurring? And how sustainable is it to demolish a rather massive brick building to replace it piecemeal with single family residences? It could take years for the new development to fill out, in the meantime we will have lost another small chapter of our past.

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Threatened with Demolition: Portland’s Old Waverly Children’s Home

Architect's rendering of the new Waverly Baby Home from the November 22, 1931 Oregonian.

Last week we mentioned that the old Waverly Children’s Home (3550 SE Woodward) was slated for demolition, as plans are in the works for a new development on the site.

On Monday evening, August 8th at 7PM, the Richmond Neighborhood Association will be hearing more from the developer about his plans for 18 new home sites. If you are concerned about this development, I encourage you to attend this meeting and learn more.

The Richmond Neighborhood Association meets at the Waverly Heights Church, 3300 SE Woodward.

This recent article in the Portland Business Journal, provides some insight into the project.  In the article I was surprised to read that apparently it’s a bad thing that Portland’s walkable neighborhoods are filled with older homes. Aren’t older homes one of the big reasons that our older neighborhoods retain their interest and charm? Sure they need to be maintained, but so will any new construction – eventually. And most likely anything built today will not last nearly as long as the 80 year old Waverly Children’s Home main building.

I’m surprised that the developer has not considered the possibility of listing the home in the National Register of Historic Places. While a listing in the National Register is not guaranteed, the building today still retains much of its historic integrity and my guess is that it is certainly still eligible for listing. Such a listing might make a redevelopment project involving reuse of the building eligible for significant tax credits. That could go a long way toward the cost of upgrading and restoration work. It is possible that such a scenario would also still leave plenty of room for several new homes to be constructed.  Such an action would meet zoning code – negating fears of any conditional use controversies, it would add housing density, some new construction to appease those that simply must have new, and would preserve an important historic southeast Portland landmark.

The wife of Oregon Governor Julius Meier laying the cornerstone for the newly opened Waverly Baby Home. Image from the Oregonian, November 29, 1931.

We decided to crunch some numbers on the historic building, to show the impact of such a demolition. Using the embodied energy calculator, found on thegreenestbuilding.org, we estimate that the amount of energy it will require to demolish the existing structure and build 18 new homes, will be equivalent to the energy in 837,285 gallons of gasoline. This number accounts for the embodied energy in the existing building, the energy it takes to demolish and the energy it takes to building the new homes. Even with generous recycling of the existing building, there would still be a significant amount of energy used in demolition – energy that could be saved and applied toward renovation instead.

Let’s all hope and work toward a better solution to the future of this historic building.

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Several Demolitions Planned in Southeast Portland

We hear fairly frequently about buildings being demolished around the city because they have no protections against such action. Indeed this is the case for most properties that do not have some sort of historic designation  - like a listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Earlier in the summer it seemed there was a lull around Portland in the demolition world, but my how quickly things change. In just the past few days we have learned of several major demolitions that will affect southeast Portland neighborhoods.

1. Waverly Commons – 3550 SE Woodward

The former Waverly Baby Home fills most of an entire block, from SE 35th to SE 36th Avenue, between Woodward and Brooklyn Streets. While the original building has been added on to over the years, the original 1931 building retains both historic and architectural significance. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Sutton & Whitney, perhaps best known for the Weatherly Building on SE Grand Avenue at Morrison. Sutton & Whitney also designed the Hollywood Arcade building next door to the Hollywood Theatre, and sadly,  lost to a fire in 1997.

Plans are now in place to redevelop the entire property on which the old Waverly Baby Home stands. In its place are to be 18 lots for new residential construction. Such a redevelopment is supported by the zoning, so there is little that can be done to save the old building. Apparently the possibility of using the original structure as part of the new development was too daunting for the developer, although they claim that almost all of the old building materials will be re-used in some capacity. While such a re-use is environmentally sensitive, still it is not to be confused with historic preservation. There is more information about the proposed new development here.

The Waverly Baby Home is listed in Portland’s Historic Resources Inventory with a ranking of 2, noting its architectural and humanities-based significance. Unfortunately, all such a ranking does is to create a demolition delay for the building – it will not keep the demolition from occurring. Perhaps there is still a way to convince the developers to keep at least the old structure and use it as a centerpiece for the larger project?

2. 1606 SE Claybourne St.

Located just west of Milwaukie Avenue in the Moreland area, two older homes are slated to be demolished for a new development – the Claybourne Commons.  21 lots are proposed for this site, located just behind The Woods music venue, in a mix of residential and commercial development. It’s too bad that the developers couldn’t save at least one of the homes, integrating it into the new development as has been done recently with a project on SE Division.

3. 626 and 700 SE Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard (39th Avenue)

It is not known what is in store for these lots, between Stark and Belmont, along one of Southeast Portland’s main arterial streets, but we’ve been told that the two houses (dating to the early 1900s) on site are fenced off. Looking at PortlandMaps.com revealed that demolition permits have been applied for. It is fairly typical in Portland that the public receives no notice of demolition for properties unless they have some sort of protection. Interestingly, in the case of these two old homes, there are currently demolition delays in place. This is unusual since they have no formal designation, but is likely because the property owner has no immediate plans to replace the homes with new development. Portland has a policy of no net housing loss, and the demolition delay is one tool used to prevent needless demolition. Unfortunately, such a policy is ultimately toothless. Wouldn’t it be great is someone found a new home for these two vintage Portland houses?

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Breaking News: City to Host Portland Plan 2035 Meetings Focused on Historic Preservation

This news is fresh off the press. Mark your calendars now for these important meetings in May and June specifically addressing historic preservation and Portland’s efforts to plan for how the city may look in 2035.

Historic Preservation and The 2035 Portland Plan 

The Bureau of Planning & Sustainability has now scheduled the Historic Preservation-specific sessions we have all been waiting for. After many months of discussion and many Portland Plan meetings on an array of other subjects, please mark your calendars and plan to attend two VERY important symposia on Historic Resources.

#1 FRIDAY, May 20th, 9:00AM – 12:00 Noon
1900 SW 4th Avenue (City of Portland Development Services building))

#2 FRIDAY, June 17th, 9:00AM – 11:30AM
1900 SW 4th Avenue (same location)

The intent of session #1 is to identify historic preservation policy issues, from the views of important stakeholders including the Landmarks Commission, property owners and developers, preservation advocates, and others.

Session #2 will present the findings from the first session, with the objective of arriving at Historic Preservation Policy documents for inclusion in the Portland Plan.

This is our opportunity to define the future of historic preservation in Portland.

Bosco-Milligan Foundation executive Director Cathy Galbraith will be participating in these important meetings. We hope to see many more preservation advocates there so your voices can be heard.

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On Old Buildings, Demolition, Deconstruction, and Reuse

In her seminal work The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argued “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation – although these make fine ingredients – but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings.”

Most people would probably agree with Jacobs, at least to some extent, yet we continue to lose old buildings daily in Portland.  While undoubtedly some areas of town are able to absorb some such losses others are extremely fragile and have already perhaps lost too much. In these areas do we just let them go or should we work to ensure their continued existence?

It is with this in mind that this recent article in the Daily Journal of Commerce, about building deconstruction in place of demolition, caught our attention. This is likely a touchy subject so we’ll preface things by stating that building deconstruction and salvage is certainly preferred over demolition. We greatly appreciate the work carried out by area deconstruction and salvage organizations. But at some point however, an elephant enters the room that must be given attention: Why deconstruct (or demolish) in the first place?

Former apartment buildings at NE 6th and Couch. These buildings are now in the advanced stages of deconstruction, to be replaced by a half block mixed-use building

In the above mentioned DJC article, a local contractor estimates the cost of deconstruction at five times the cost of demolition. If this is indeed the case and the developer really does wish to reduce the environmental impact of the project, couldn’t they have taken the money set aside for deconstruction and applied it to a renovation of the existing buildings? It is noted in the article how fantastic and of high quality many of the building materials are from the two apartment buildings being deconstructed at NE 6th and Couch. If that’s true and there is a presumably a significant pot of money available for deconstruction purposes, couldn’t those two elements have contributed to a creative and interesting new development that integrated the existing buildings with new construction, preserving building materials and energy on the one hand, and a little bit of the old neighborhood on the other?

Preservation economist Donovan Rypkema has long asked “Why invest money to tear down and reconstruct what’s already there? Historic buildings by and large have water lines, gutters, and streets already in place. Older ones, designed before cars were the dominant mode of transportation, instill surroundings with strong pedestrian orientations. If our future is aimed at reducing our reliance on automobiles, using buildings planned for human access is the smart place to start.”

Rypkema has argued that “Razing historic buildings results in a triple hit on scarce resources. First, we are throwing away thousands of dollars of embodied energy. Second, we are replacing it with materials vastly more consumptive of energy. What are most historic houses built from? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are among the least energy consumptive of materials? Brick, plaster, concrete and timber. What are major components of new buildings? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. What are among the most energy consumptive of materials? Plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum. Third, recurring embodied energy savings increase dramatically as a building life stretches over fifty years.” 

In another recent DJC article about the Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland, County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury is quoted as saying “If you have a building, why not renovate it?” While the commissioner was specifically talking about the courthouse, she makes a very valid point.

Why not?

Postcard of the Multnomah County Courthouse from the Bosco-Milligan Foundation Collections

As we’ve already stated, such work conserves energy and materials, but it also preserves something else less tangible – that sense of place that makes Portland interesting and special. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about our city less in terms of what we can construct that’s new, justifying such work through our admirable recycling and deconstruction efforts, and instead begin to move toward a truly more sustainable model in which we reuse what we already have – not just materials but places too.

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