Portland is rewriting its historic preservation rules to reassert local control over what’s worth protecting and what’s just old.

The city has for a quarter-century used the National Register of Historic Places as the main arbiter of what’s protected from demolition or radical renovation.

But that approach has been unpopular with preservationists, who say adding a property to the register is too slow and costly to effectively protect all the buildings worth saving.

And the process has become steeped in politics in recent years.

Affluent neighborhoods, including Eastmoreland and Laurelhurst, have nominated themselves as historic districts to avoid the home demolitions and infill development proliferating in the city — much to the chagrin of affordable housing activists, who said those neighborhoods were trying to subvert the city’s density goals.

Historic district proposal hits a nerve in Eastmoreland

The neighborhood association has pushed for a nomination to ward off home demolitions and greater density. But dissenters say it’s unnecessary and restrictive.

While the federal government places no restrictions on the use or demolition of a property on the National Register, the city does — alterations are strictly policed, and demolitions must be approved by the City Council.

The issue is that the city has little say in which properties make it onto the national list.

“We want to be able to make local decisions,” said Brandon Spencer-Hartle, the manager of the city’s historic resources program.

The proposed code would let the city designate its own landmarks and districts, a practice that was abandoned years ago when a new state law required owner consent for any historic designation. That would have required a rewrite of the local rules that never happened.

Protections for districts and buildings already listed on the National Register wouldn’t be affected by the new rules, which could go to the City Council by the end of the calendar year.

The proposed code wouldn’t be much comfort to those who want their neighborhood preserved in amber or hope a historic designation would prevent crowding.

It would eliminate parking requirements for designated historic resources, and it would allow owners to, for example, divide single-family houses into several apartments.

The rule would also allow property owners to build additional structures on the property — such as adding cottages or apartments to empty land next to a historic building. And some historic commercial buildings could be used for a business, even though they’re in a residential zone.

That’s important because it helps make historic preservation financially viable, said Lincoln Tuchow, a board member of Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center, which generally supports the changes.

“That’s the most easy way we can have our cake and eat it too,” he said. “We can increase density without a mass of demolitions.”

It would also open historic buildings to more people than would be able to use them if they were private, single-family houses, Spencer-Hartle said.

“These special places that are worthy of being subject to historic protections should be used and enjoyed by as many people as possible,” he said. “The more people that enjoy them, the more successful the program is.”

The new city code would create two levels of protection, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of the National Register.

The less restrictive “conservation landmark,” or “conservation district” for a collection of buildings, would leave property owners a route to demolish buildings if they make up in some way for the historic loss, and they could make many architectural alterations without going through a lengthy review process.

The more restrictive “historic landmark” or district would require City Council approval to demolish most historic buildings and alterations would have to go through a city review.

The city also plans to update its Historic Resource Inventory, a list of historic properties that hasn’t been updated since the 1980s.

Properties on the inventory are subject to a 120-day demolition delay, but owners looking to demolish buildings have overcome the delay by removing the property from the list. The regulatory rewrite would eliminate the ability of owners to remove their properties from the list.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is taking comments on the proposal at portlandoregon.gov/bps/hrcp.

— Elliot Njus

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