Keep Portland Free(er)

The conundrum of historic districts

By Randy Gragg March 22, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

Local architects Joann Le and David Horsley design a lot like their firm’s name, Dao, suggests: they seek an ineffable harmony with nature. 

In the case of the tiny Irvington house we profile, their efforts replaced an old, dilapidated garage with a simple, elegant, 950-square-foot home so reserved in its subtle interplay of wood, glass, plants, and steel, it is barely noticeable from the street. So it comes as a lucky irony that Dao got its city permit to build only weeks before the neighborhood became the Irvington Historic District; otherwise the quiet little home would have had to meet a city bureaucrat or committee’s definition of “compatible” with its neighbors.  

Initiated by Irvington property owner Mary Piper, Portland’s newest national historic district is also its largest. Now anyone who owns property on these 170 city blocks must have any visible change—from building a new dormer to installing more energy-efficient windows—reviewed for its historical accuracy or compatibility. And, for the privilege, they get to pay fees running anywhere from $900 to over $2,000. 

Did all of the property owners agree? Not quite. But to block the historic district, over 50 percent would have had to formally disagree—with notarized letters. Irvington follows Northwest Portland’s 50-plus-block “Alphabet District.” If a group of Buckman preservationists succeed, 67 blocks of Southeast could be next. 

Registering a historic district used to be a powerful tool for preserving—and, often, economically jump-starting—important buildings and small, architecturally distinct neighborhoods. The Pearl District, for instance, might be a very different place were it not for the 13th Avenue Historic District. Established in 1987, it helped protect the old industrial quarter’s august masonry warehouses and provided tax incentives for renovations. But in total, that district covered just 20 buildings—a surgical strike in the name of preservation. The Irvington district’s regulation of more than 2,800 structures is a carpet-bombing aimed at preventing growth and change. In March, the Portland City Council loosened the regulations. (Now, for instance, you can paint your house without a review.) But the larger issue of a few well-organized homeowners imposing stylistic restrictions on wide swaths of the city stands.  

For sure, it’s an unsettling time for Portland’s neighborhoods, with every third block seemingly growing a new apartment complex (usually without parking). But older buildings aren’t necessarily great buildings, and even when they are, who says they are automatically degraded by something new next door? Period styles, high craft, smaller scale, and aged patina of old neighborhoods can gain a richness by the contrast with the new. 

Over the years, I’ve been intimately involved in preservation efforts like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House (now at the Oregon Garden in Silverton) and the Stockyard Exchange Building (which unfortunately no longer stands in Kenton). But these were discrete properties with deep historic importance. Irvington’s breed of historic megadistricts awakens the western libertarian in me. Portland needs to celebrate its history; it also needs graceful additions like Dao’s Irvington project. If I lived in the Buckman neighborhood, I’d join the dozens protesting the proposed historic district with signs in their yards: “Keep Buckman Free.” 

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