Historic Districts: preserving culture or perpetuating segregation?

Multnomah County

Portland historic district proposal receives overwhelming public opinion

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Historic Districts: do they preserve history or perpetuate exclusionary housing? This ongoing contentious debate has captured Portland residents attention since 2017 and is now being brought to Portland City Hall.

Portland City Council held the first hearing for the recommended draft of The Historic Resources Code Project (HRCP) Wednesday Nov. 3, after almost four years of focus groups, roundtable discussions, and public hearings.

This comes after the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) passed a unanimous vote proposing the City reform its rules regarding Historic Districts and take on new amendments which address the identification, designation, protection, and reuse of historic resources.

During the hearing PSC Chair, Eli Spevak addressed the forum saying, “Wielding the power of zoning for Historic Preservation also creates responsibility. We must ensure that the stories elevated and resources protected reflect the wide range of histories found in our city — not just a few.”

Houses in the Alphabet Historic District of Portland Oregon USA on a sunny morning

The hearing coincided with rising tensions and split community views on the matter, as the City publicly recognized that Preservation Districts often result in the exclusion of BIPOC and lower-income residents, further exacerbating the affordable housing crisis.

“The processes by which rules are adopted to protect resources should be local and democratic,” Spevak continued. “With opportunities for public input — like we’re doing here today — and they should be guided by clear evaluation criteria, informed by experts in architectural heritage, equity and racial diversity…”

City planner and Historic Resources program Manager Brandon Spencer-Hartle opened the hearing by outlining HRCP and the project’s proposed code amendments.

The proposal calls for the Council to be able to determine which sites are Historic and authorizes the City to alter existing boundaries.

generic eastmoreland neighborhood 03152016_282911
Eastmoreland Neighborhood, Portland.

Additionally, the recommendation suggests getting rid of existing regulations for Historic Districts which unnecessarily restrict home modifications without oversight.

Over 100 people logged on to hear and participate in public comment regarding HRCP and the proposed amendments, with both avid supporters and those who opposed the recommendation equally sharing their voices.

Johann Hannesson, volunteer and lobbyist for Portland: Neighbors Welcome testified on behalf of the organization stating:

“The Historic Resources Code Project takes vital steps towards making our historic resources and districts more democratic, more equitable, and greater contributors to our housing goals. However, there are gaps in these changes that risk keeping some historic protections as a tool for economic exclusion and preventing some of our highest opportunity neighborhoods from contributing to our housing and equity goals.”

Developer to tear down 92-year-old Eastmoreland home
Developer to tear down 92-year-old Eastmoreland home. July 30, 2019. (KOIN)

Hannesson called on the council to pass HRCP with four amendments, including authorizing council to resize, demote, or remove conservation status for districts with a history of racial covenants, and closing loopholes which currently allow wealthy homeowners to veto council maps by expanding approval criteria for demolition review in National Register Districts.

Irvington resident Woody Mosby said, “One of the reasons we moved to Portland is because it had beautiful Historic Districts that were still affordable.”

Mosby goes on to say “I almost feel that we’ve been targeted as the enemy by some of these groups, like the Portland: Neighbors Welcome. They make me feel not welcome at all.”

Mosby explained that his Historic District neighborhood is diversified, with varying income levels and racial backgrounds represented. He encouraged the Council to rethink the proposal, citing concerns that the unique architecture and design of these districts could be at stake.

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