Roughly 111 people move to Portland every day, the city says. The resulting population boom is pressuring the city to increase density in all neighborhoods, from the richest to the poorest.
But it's the most affluent ones that have more wherewithal to resist the city's controversial Residential Infill Project.
The tool they're using? A historic district designation, a prestigious listing on the federal National Register of Historic Places. The process costs thousands of dollars to complete and, if successful, makes it harder to make changes to homes and other buildings.
Southeast Portland's Eastmoreland neighborhood board is pursuing it, Peacock Lane is in the process and Laurelhurst is considering it, while their neighborhood association board has said it's in favor of the effort. Other neighborhoods are in talks, too, weighing the pros and cons.
Many pursuing it cite fear of lost green space and significant change to the face of their community. A historic designation prompts a public process before a home may be demolished and replaced.
"I paid a premium to live in a neighborhood with trees and lawns, and a lot of livable features, and of course I'm pretty interested in maintaining them," says Robert McCullough, treasurer and former president of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association board and a vocal proponent of the historic district.
"The infill project threatens all of those things," says McCullough, who has lived in Eastmoreland for decades and is also president of the Southeast Uplift neighborhood coalition.
The historic district in Eastmoreland would affect about 1,271 single-family homes. Many of the residents don't want the design restrictions imposed on their property that come from a historic designation; others oppose the exclusionary sentiment they see behind the opposition to infill.
The historic district discussion has caused severe tension between the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association board and residents. The board recently decided to push forward with the historic district application despite a majority vote by neighbors opposed to the designation.
Resident David Simon was upset enough to go through a six-month grievance process. Simon, a lawyer who served on the neighborhood board in 1999-2001, argued it's inappropriate for a city-sanctioned neighborhood association and nonprofit organization to pursue a historic designation, and called some neighbors' hopes of keeping out multifamily units and other housing types as "insidiously discriminatory."
"It's not about historic preservation," Simon argues. "It's about keeping the Residential Infill Project practice out of the area. I think it's wrong. That was the gist of my grievance and the city didn't really answer it."
The city responded to the grievance in January, concluding in summary: "No provision in the (Office of Neighborhood Involvement) standards prevents a neighborhood association board from pursuing a historic district designation."
The National Park Service, which decides National Register listings, doesn't consider motivation behind a listing. If an application meets all the criteria, it's listed, and anyone can decide to do it.
Paul Leistner, a neighborhood program coordinator at the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, has studied the 40-year experience of the city's neighborhood association system.
"It's really important to understand that the neighborhood associations are independent organizations and the city has been careful not to have a parent-child relationship," Leistner says. "Clearly if the Eastmoreland (Neighborhood Association) is operating their board in a way that many of their community members don't like, they can voice and reach out to the actual decisionmakers."
He believes the most effective neighborhood associations have "skilled, wise leaders who act more as facilitators and conveners for their community. If there's division in the community it's best for the neighborhood association not to take a position."
Historic district in housing crisis
The Residential Infill Project, which hasn't yet been implemented as code is still being written, is meant to give a wider variety of options for people of differing income levels, and planners hope to simultaneously alleviate home and rent prices that have risen amid the boom.
"If people are moving to the city and we continue to have children and the population grows, they need to live somewhere, and the main way we have to do that is infill development and making better use of underutilized space," says Eric Engstrom, principal planner at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Morgan Tracy, Residential Infill Project manager, says a historic designation would make it less appealing for developers to build, since the review process adds time and uncertainty, meaning less opportunity for future homeowners or renters in those areas. And, he says, if a unit is built, historic district guidelines likely wouldn't make it very affordable.
"If you don't have the housing supply to keep up with the population growth, you're going to have rising prices," Engstrom says. "It's fair to say that historic districts deserve some scrutiny, considering the housing crisis."
McCullough believes the infill project would bring richer people to the neighborhood, as developers demolish homes and build more expensive replacement units.
"I would like to keep academics in Portland and Eastmoreland. Even though they probably have collectively higher income than the city average, they're poor people by the standards of Eastmoreland," he says.
Notably, a new county-sponsored project that is asking homeowners in Portland to consider using detached accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to house homeless people excludes property owners living in a historic district from participating. Organizers say it's because of the extra time it would take because of the design and materials review process.
Options for historic districts
Although a historic district designation would certainly make it more difficult to build in, it's not impossible.
"I think there are some people who believe it will stop density or (different types of) housing units … that's not something that we at the city believe the historic district would do," says Brandon Spencer-Hartle, planner at the Bureau of Planning & Sustainability.
Construction of accessory dwelling units is permitted in a historic district and some homeowners have taken advantage of it in the Irvington Historic District. There are 1,599 finalized ADU permits in Portland, while there are 50 so far in historic districts. There are 31 in Irvington, 10 in Ladd's Addition, four in Alphabet, four in South Portland, and one in King's Hill. There aren't any ADUs in any other districts yet, but others also aren't single-family zoned.
"There's nothing in the historic district rules that preclude some of the middle housing, even ADUs or duplexes or other forms of housing, other than just the potential added cost of that layer of review," says Engstrom.
Spencer-Hartle explains that the infill project can find creative ways, such as internal conversions, to achieve the maximum number of units that the project aims for on one lot: three units city wide and four within the proposed overlay zone, an area targeted by the city as ideal places for infill.
Internal conversions are something that the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association board doesn't object to as they consider pursuing historic designation, but wish that the Residential Infill Project's proposed overlay zone was more area specific.
Whatever neighborhood associations see as the future of their neighborhoods, they will have to grapple with a city that believes "our future is a more dense future," says Michael Cox, Mayor Ted Wheeler's spokesman.
"Can we preserve those things that we love about this city," Cox asks, "while we continue to grow more dense and more diverse? I think the mayor's concern is that we have this discussion ... and when we do, we reflect upon what our values as a community are."
The Residential Infill Project
The Residential Infill Project, still in a concept stage, aims to increase density in the city by adjusting zoning rules to accommodate a forecast of 123,000 new households by the year 2035. It targets Portland's single-dwelling zoning rules in particular, to allow for more duplexes, triplexes and accessory dwelling units.
The city says that the current housing stock, which is mostly single-family homes on individual lots, presents a barrier to greater diversity, and that increasing variety of housing supply would appeal to a broader spectrum of households.
Stopping the application
The only way to stop a National Register application is by getting a majority of property owners in the proposed district to object via a notarized objection. Since it's an opt out process, those who choose not to answer are assumed to be in support. Eastmoreland has collected nearly 800 objections out of more than 1,000 needed to stop the process and can submit them through July, the assumed time that the National Parks Service will make their final decision.
According to statisticalatlas.com, Eastmoreland is second to Forest Park as the wealthiest neighborhood in Portland. It cites the median household income as $118,000 and is more than 90 percent white, according to 2010 census data of the neighborhood.
Recent changes to the state "Goal 5" rules will give more options for neighborhoods looking to preserve history.
The city is implementing more tools for historic preservation at a local level so that jumping to the National Register of Historic Places isn't the only consideration. However, the options will take time to come online.
Read more about the rule changes and what they mean at a local level here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/627102?
And specifics about Eastmoreland here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/623285
Paul R. Lusignan, historian at the National Park Service, weighed in on using the National Register as a tool:
While our program supports preservation as a worthy goal, the National Register is just one tool that can be used to affect preservation. The decision on how to utilize that tool, in our opinion, is best left up to the local decision makers. The National Register has from its beginning been a tool to further preservation causes. The wasteful government programs of the 1950s and 1960s that ran bulldozers through the middle of historic neighborhoods without consideration to their impact were seen as deeply harmful to the character of many communities. Communities that now wish they had a stock of such in-demand historic buildings to support new urban redevelopment. National Register designations were seen as a way of acknowledging the value of such over-looked resources and perhaps rethinking federal project and funding priorities. The National Register continues to be used as a tool to help in the fight to preserve livable communities. Historic District designations have in many instances helped to turn around deteriorated neighborhoods and turn them back into thriving areas. In some, but not all cases, helping maintain property values as residents change their perceptions of certain areas or neighborhoods. As with all development and "progress," however, some preservation efforts have led to unfortunate changes in local demographics or settlement patters. Gentrification is often used to highlight the double-edged sword of preservation in certain communities. Preservation, if done correctly, is a balancing act that needs to consider all of these factors in deciding how to proceed. ... these are simply questions too difficult or nuanced for the National Park Service to effectively consider when evaluating the historic character of a property, and again perhaps a task best left to local decision makers rather than the federal government in a small office in Washington, D.C.
With regard to owner objection provisions, when first written the National Register regulations had no provisions at all for owner objections to listing. Nominations were simply prepared and taken under consideration by the National Park Service after a complimentary notice to the owners and local officials. When the regulations were amended to account for the objection of private property owners to affect listing when a majority objected it was simply more efficient and clear to place the burden of comment on those who objected to a particular listing. As, under federal law, National Register designation did not place any restrictions on private property owners rights, this was seen as appropriate. In the great majority of cases this has never been a major issue with the program and alternatives have not been considered. Oregon's unique state laws have placed an unforeseen wrinkle in the process, providing NR-listing with additional effects. This question of fairness in ownership provisions has come up in a limited number of Oregon cases, most of which have been answered though additional consultation and clear communications of the real impacts of listing.