Portland historic preservation rules get a revamp

Jason E. Kaplan
Adaptive reuse: Washington School in southeast Portland

Preservationists, builders and city officials aim to reconcile the tension between new development and historic preservation.

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Few issues get Portlanders riled up as much as density and demolition.

Pro-density folks cite the city’s sustainability ethic and the tens of thousands of people moving here in the coming years as rationale for the infill and apartment-building craze that has reshaped the city since the recession ended. On the other side, preservation advocates are up in arms about the demolitions that are reshaping neighborhoods with skinny homes and McMansions alike.

Responding to concerns about demolition, the city is working on several projects that will support preservation activity in residential and commercial zones.

An update to Portland’s 2035 Central City plan would alleviate the cost of preservation by giving developers a new source of funding for seismic retrofits. And staffers have been working on the Historic Resources Zoning Code Project to make changes to how Portland identifies, designates and protects historic resources.

The latter project, along with a badly needed inventory of historic assets, will create some additional parameters around demolition, says Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the city of Portland’s Historic Resources program manager. 

“It’s a city of Portland priority, and there are other jurisdictions that are interested in it. We’re recognizing that there are tough decisions that have to be made. And what we would be best served by is a more nuanced and maybe more responsive historic resources set of designations and protections that can offer a couple of tracks for different situations that arise.”

What other considerations can help resolve the conflict between preservation and density? We asked commercial and residential architects, developers and preservationists to weigh in.

“It’s important to restore when it’s appropriate — when the building can be restored,” says Ben Waechter, a Portland architect who has designed several infill developments in single family home neighborhoods; the latest is a modern, attached row house project on a corner lot in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood.

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But many houses weren’t built for “longevity,” Waechter says, and it’s a mistake to imitate the old. “If it’s an empty lot or a house that can’t be restored, there should be a legibility in the history of when things are built,” he says. Staying alert to a few key design principles will help new construction fit into the neighborhood, Waechter adds. “If we are going to increase density it’s important to respect the scale of what’s there, and the setbacks.”

Tom Cody, managing partner of Project, says infill offers an opportunity to think about the adaptive reuse of older buildings as a means to “provide a reprieve from the density as the city becomes more chaotic and busier.”

He points to his Union Way alley project, a $4.5 million complex in downtown Portland that created a shopping arcade stretching from Burnside to Stark streets. The alley connects the Ace Hotel to Powell’s Books in a way that Cody describes as offering “a gesture of civility and purpose.”


His team could have built bigger, Cody says. But that would have required obscuring the light. And light “is one of the primary characters that provides the clarity and continuity of the concept,” he says.

“When you look down the alleyway you see these huge sky lights that run down and emphasize the historic trusses that are going across the structure.” 

The historic aspect is unlike other retail spaces, and therefore mitigates his risk as a developer, Cody says. “If you’re something that’s a creative , unique space, then it’s going to be more valuable. More people are going to want to shop there. There’s going to be more tenants because it’s not garden variety.”  

“A creative, unique space is going to be more valuable.”— Tom Cody

The economics of historic preservation are key to ensuring the success of adaptive reuse developments. Craig Kelly, the developer who remade the White Stag block in Old Town and Washington High School in southeast Portland, says that historic tax credits have been critical to the success of his company, Venerable Properties.

Those tax credits helped bridge the gap between the appraised value of the properties and the real cost to renovate, he says. 

Without them Portland “could not have saved White Stag or Washington High School, end of story.”

Seismic retrofits are one of the greatest expenses associated with holding onto historic properties with unreinforced masonry walls. They cost, on average, an additional $50 per square foot. The high cost is one reason why some small property owners are rallying against a new City of Portland proposal mandating a tiered retrofit program for 1,640 unreinforced masonry buildings. The new policy would offer financial assistance, but not enough to offset the cost, leading to demolition of the building, opponents claim.

On the flip side, renovated and retrofitted historic buildings have tremendous value, especially to the creative class and startups, Kelly says. It’s easy enough to find examples. Urban Development + Partners spent $3.5 million last year renovating an 1880s rooming house for urban mobility company, Moovel. A team of investors spent $4 million to $5 million renovating of the Mariners Building, built in 1881 in Old Town. The building reopened in 2016 as the Society Hotel. 

And Provenance Hotels and NBP Capital have partnered on a 150-room hotel with the purchase of the city’s historic Woodlark Building and adjacent Cornelius Hotel. The adaptive reuse project will connect the Woodlark Building, built in 1912, with the adjacent former Cornelius Hotel, built in 1908.


Preservation doesn’t have to be pitted against development, says Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, the state’s 40-year-old historic preservation advocacy group. Moretti says she isn’t calling for communities to be “preserved in amber.” But, she says, “Place matters. Having that sense of place is what is near and dear to so many people. Portland does need to be very thoughtful about how we grow, and how we can do that in a way that does retain character.”


As Portland tweaks city planning guidelines, Vancouver, British Columbia might offer a model, in the form of architect Gregory Henriquez’s work. His mixed-use projects, which often incorporate lower-income housing and heritage elements, include repurposing an abandoned Vancouver department store in a drug-infested neighborhood.

That project, which incorporated elements of the original 1908 building, transformed downtown Vancouver with nearly 700 units of housing. 

There are fewer philosophical and design objections to densification in Vancouver, Henriquez says, in part because the city’s design aesthetic has been influenced by immigrant populations from more densely populated Asian cities. 

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Buildings themselves are “just part of the story,” Henriquez says. For older places to be useful, he says, they must also be firmly rooted in the needs of the present.

“Given all of the conflicting issues that we’re confronting in whatever city, whether it be homelessness, affordability, sustainability, public spaces, mixed use buildings – whatever the things that you’re grappling with in your city, those have to be balanced against mothballing the past, physically,” Henriquez says. “I’m a real believer of balancing the heritage interests with the real life concerns of the contemporary.”

Kelly, who also builds new construction, challenged area developers with new projects to think about the kinds of buildings that, in 50 years, will be considered worth holding onto. He says he has spent more money and taken smaller returns on some projects because he wants his grandchildren to be proud of what he’s done. 

“Let’s build new buildings where people will say 50 to 100 years from now, ‘That’s a historic building,’” he says. “Why can’t we build new buildings that can stand that test of time, and have some real thought put into adding adequate daylight and interesting exteriors?”

Portland’s existing historic building stock boasts those features in spades. The Historic Resources Code project will help protect those assets; following a series of stakeholder roundtables, public hearings on the new zoning code concepts are slated for Fall 2018.

The proposed update to the 2035 plan offers another bridge between the old and the new: Developers would be able to sell off unused floor-area (zoning codes cap height and floor area) to new development sites anywhere in the central city — but only if the historic building is seismically updated. Commissioners are expected to vote on the updated plan this spring.

Development and preservation are often presented as either-or propositions. But despite the perceived antagonism,the majority of people involved in community planning want to strike a balance between the old and the new, between mothballing and contemprorary exigencies. Portland is slowing moving in that direction. 

“Thoughtful growth, Moretti says, “takes stewardship and consideration and collaboration.”