By Lee Perlman
For the Hollywood Star News, July, 2010
A proposal to make the Irvington neighborhood a National Historic District moved forward last month, surmounting a few bumps along the way.
At a June 4 meeting at the Irvington Tennis Club, the State Historic Preservation Committee voted seven to one to forward the proposal to The State Historic Preservation Office and then to the National Park Service. If both approve, the district, and its regulations, could be in place by year’s end.
If approved, the new district would stretch from Northeast Broadway to Fremont Streets, Seventh to 27th avenues, contain more than 2,800 structures, and would be the largest such district in the state. Within it, owners of “contributing structures” (those built between 1891 and 1948, in the style of this period and not subjected to major remodels) would need to go through reviews to demolish such buildings or make changes other than routine repairs on the exteriors. Also, new construction would be subject to stronger design review than exists today.
These provisions worried some people who showed up for an informational meeting the night before the hearing. Laura Imeson, who said she heard of the proposal for the first time a month before when she received an official notice, feared the regulations are intended to stifle new development. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for nine years, and I love it,” she said. “But part of what I love is that I can walk to stores and the pub.” She said she had friends who might want to subdivide their property for redevelopment and said, “It’s really selfish to say, ‘We have our large lots. Let the rest of the city deal with density.’” In testimony before the Committee the next day she asked, “What problem are we trying to solve here? We need a mix of renters and owners; and if this is trying to keep renters out, it’s wrong.”
Historian Jim Heuer tried to reassure her, “There is nothing in this that would interfere with stores, or your ability to go to the pub. This is not a matter of density – we have apartment buildings dating to 1912” that are contributing structures. “But we don’t want a four-story something plopped down without thought to design. This is a special place. Lot lines, setbacks, street trees are all important. We need to keep a sense of what we’re about.”
Land-use attorney Chris Crean raised concerns about whether routine changes on houses would require public reviews, and how much this would cost. David Skelton of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability said that routine maintenance would not require permits, only changes to contributing structures would require review, and only if they were to the exterior and visible from the street. In answer to a question, he noted that due to a recent change in the code, solar panels can be added to the roofs of historic homes if they are placed in back. Crean argued that the code seemed to indicate that exterior painting was subject to review, while Skelton and Ian Simpson of the State Historic Preservation Office assured him it did not.
This inspired another owner to complain that he was concerned about the uncertainty and lack of clarity in the proposal. “This is the dark side of bureaucracy,” he said.
Simpson noted that he had received only a handful of letters clearly opposing the district. Since a majority of owners would need to oppose it to derail it, and since each would have to submit a notarized document to this effect, the proposal is unlikely to be defeated in this way, he said.
The proposal did get a critique from its official reviewers. Lisa Mickel of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability commented that the proposal as submitted by the Irvington Community Association claimed the district would be “the largest, most diverse and intact” such district in the state, but failed to back up the statement. She also argued that the application could use more text and photos in some places. At one point Commission member David Liberty questioned the inclusion of Irving Park. Commission member Judith Rees of Ladd’s Addition said her neighborhood had some of the restrictive covenants Irvington had claimed were unique to their neighborhood’s development. “Each neighborhood tends to see itself as the best and the brightest,” she said. “Overstatements about some things make people doubt the accuracy of others.” Others called the official end of the district’s historic period – 1948 – “arbitrary.” (The rationale was that Irvington was developed as a streetcar suburb, and the streetcar era ended then.)
The biggest controversy concerned the district’s southern boundary. Overall, Simpson noted, 84 percent of the neighborhood’s structures are contributing, an unusually high percentage. However, the percentage is much lower along the southern edge, and along Broadway only about one-third are contributing. Rees, for one, suggested setting the boundary at Northeast Tillamook Street, which she noted was the original limit of the original platt.
ICA consultant Kirk Ranzetta and project leader Mary Piper argued that contributing developments in the historic period ran well south into Sullivan’s Gulch. Some of the non-contributing houses retain their original features, Ranzetta said, but have storefront additions that might be removed someday. Commission chair William F. Willingham said that major arterial streets are natural boundaries. With Rees dissenting, the Commission voted to support the application as submitted.
Liberty commented that he used to live in the Lloyd District and found its level of activity “overwhelming, but I could walk in Irvington and my senses were calmed.” Recently a new development near his old home had created “a giant wall you’d have to look at every day.” If such a thing occurred in Irvington, “It would really detract from the district,” he said. “I’m really glad to see this.”