The Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association’s board is weighing national historic designation as a tool to preserve the neighborhood’s character and stem systemic demolition – but some neighbors have concerns about requirements and ramifications
By Kathy Eaton
Photos by John Butenschoen
In February 1910, the Laurelhurst Company posted an ad in Portland’s Chamber of Commerce Bulletin listing 30 reasons for investing in Laurelhurst, extolling virtues such as winding streets that preserve its natural beauty, rich soil that will have fine lawns, flowers, and trees, a splendid park of 31 acres, and excellent transit access. “It will have everything objectionable excluded,” was reason number 17, and the ad concluded “It is the Addition with Character.”
A century later, the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association’s 12-member board is considering national historic designation to preserve the neighborhood’s character and particularly to spare existing homes from demolition and replacement with structures that don’t honor its history. There’s not universal agreement among Laurelhurst neighbors on the best way to protect the character of the neighborhood, or on how to balance future growth with competing density goals being driven by the city.
After president Dick Kuhns took office in May 2016, the LNA board formed an exploratory committee to consider historic designation. Presentations about historic designation were delivered to Laurelhurst residents at general meetings convened in the fall of 2016; articles appeared in the Laurelhurst monthly newsletter; and information was posted on social media sites Nextdoor Laurelhurst and Facebook. In February 2017, the committee recommended national historic designation to the LNA board, which agreed to pursue it on condition of first obtaining neighborhood support. Concurrently, a group of residents concerned about the requirements and ramifications of national historic designation formed Laurelhurst Forward and welcomed neighbors to voice their concerns and suggest other options to protect against demolitions. When proponents placed lawn signs (“Laurelhurst Historic Character, Progressive Vision”) listing their website, Laurelhurst Forward countered with their own signs, “Our Home, Our Dreams: Say No to National Registry.”
Divisiveness ensued among Laurelhurst neighbors, who watched the debate over historic designation unravel in the Eastmoreland neighborhood. Proponents of historic designation and opponents share a desire to stop demolition of homes in Laurelhurst. Both groups have encouraged neighborhood involvement, promoting discussion among neighbors to fully consider consequences of the choices facing them.
The exploratory committee reported that over 30 homes had been demolished in Laurelhurst over the past decade. City-wide, there have been roughly 2,800 demolitions since 2005, according to committee chair John Liu. The data included officially permitted demolitions and “demolitions by loophole,” which didn’t require a permit as long as a developer retained a small part (even one wall) of the original house. Proponents of historic designation argue that when developers demolish existing houses, the replacement homes are frequently very large and more expensive, preventing families who could afford the original house from buying its replacement. In summary, the neighborhood becomes more expensive, less inclusive and less diverse. Liu, whose home was crafted in 1911 from quality materials, advocates protecting it for future generations. While proponents claim that designation is the only way to stop future demolitions, opponents argue there are other tools available that could be explored by working with the city.
Victor Roehm, who informally chairs Laurelhurst Forward, advocates slowing down the historic designation nomination process to fully consider other alternatives to stop demolitions in the neighborhood. Attaching covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) to individual property titles is one mechanism to require demolition review and ensure replacement homes are compatible with the neighborhood’s character. Attaching CC&Rs to individual property titles now would offer property owners protections during the application review period. It could be an expensive and time-consuming process, according to LNA president Kuhns, who doesn’t view using CC&Rs in Laurelhurst as a viable alternative to a historic district. Real estate attorney and Laurelhurst resident Scott Pratt recently agreed, “As a substitute for historic status in Laurelhurst, CC&Rs would be impractical and unworkable. I also see serious legal questions regarding enforcement of CC&Rs in Laurelhurst.”
Roehm strongly advocates delaying application for national historic registry until the LNA board considers options such as conservation districts and local historic districts, which could achieve the overarching goal of obtaining demolition review. The group argues for a transparent process based on educating the community and debating the issues, including identifying what problem needs to be solved, the restrictions associated with historic designation, and identifying which process best achieves the desired outcome. Roehm also advises that no funds be expended on consultants or application fees until a vote is conducted among residents that clearly supports designation.
Laurelhurst resident Blake Beanblossom, who moved to Portland from Chicago five years ago, expressed concern about proponents using fear-mongering tactics to promote national historic designation. He believes statements in flyers and online are unsupported by data or evidence to support proponent’s claims.
“Building a wall around the neighborhood doesn’t feel right socially,” said Beanblossom. “Whatever plan is ultimately implemented needs to be flexible and functional.”
A member of Laurelhurst Forward, Beanblossom supports delaying the application for national register district to first explore options and consider alternatives.
Local conservation districts
Since the early 1970s, Oregon has applied local regulations to the national register, and in 1975 Oregon became the first state to offer financial incentives to protect these properties, according to Brandon Spencer-Hartle, historic resources program manager at the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS). He draws a distinction between national register designation of districts and landmarks, which is under the purview of the National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Department of the Interior, and local conservation districts or landmarks designated by the city. Ladd’s Addition and Irvington neighborhoods are two nationally registered districts on Portland’s eastside. In 1993, six local conservation districts were formed from the Albina Community Plan, which recognized the architectural styles and community desire to protect their heritage for future generations: Eliot, Kenton, Mississippi Avenue, Russell Street, Woodlawn and Piedmont. In 1995, Oregon’s state legislature enacted a stringent requirement of 100 percent owner consent for conservation districts and local landmark designation. In 2017, the unanimous consent requirement was replaced with a formula of 50 percent plus one vote to pursue nomination for local historic designation.
Demolitions and design review
Demolition review began in Portland in 2004 with the stated goal of protecting national register historic resources. Requiring a $14,000 application fee, city council holds multiple hearings for proposals that potentially result in demolishing contributing individual historic designation property. The council has agreed to some proposed demolitions and disapproved others. In addition, the steep fee can be a deal-breaker for property owners and developers. Two exceptions where demolitions can be approved include properties that could face significant economic hardship if they’re not demolished, e.g., in the case of fire or landslide, or if demolition results in a better match with goals identified in the city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan.
Since receiving national historic designation in 2010, Irvington has been subject to design review for both contributing and noncontributing properties. Approximately 15 percent of properties in Irvington are noncontributing because they’ve been remodeled or replaced and no longer conform to the historic character of the neighborhood. A similar percentage of noncontributing homes would apply to Laurelhurst, according to Liu. The secretary of interior sets forth standards (best practices) to ensure that properties stay on the national register once they are approved. The NPS very rarely rescinds national historic designations, according to Spencer-Hartle.
Revised rules: local designation
On January 27, 2017, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission made changes to the state rules which govern protection of historic resources.
The new rules state that listing a resource (historic property or historic district) on the National Register of Historic Places would trigger demolition review, but not design review, unless and until a local public hearing is held. Under the new rule, Laurelhurst could work with the city to develop neighborhood-specific design guidelines that would be potentially more flexible than those used by Ladd’s Addition or Irvington.
Spencer-Hartle estimates that new city regulations on local landmark and conservation district designation will be in place by July 2018. If LNA moves forward now with an application for national historic designation, it will be difficult to undo protections later. He advises the LNA board to begin documenting significant features that warrant historic designation of Laurelhurst, including its unique and varied architecture, Laurelhurst Park, Coe Circle and iconic arches, whether they pursue local or national designation. Ladd’s Addition and Irvington evolved from initial conservation district designation which ultimately helped pave the way for subsequent national historic district designation, according to Spencer-Hartle.
Seeking consensus to preserve
Laurelhurst residents are divided over its proposed historic designation, as Portland struggles to balance increased density and affordability in what some officials refer to as a housing crisis. On April 11, LNA board members voted to ask all residents to indicate their support or opposition to national historic designation. They added a third box for residents to mark “undecided” and provided space for written comments. Board member Constance Beaumont, who formerly worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and moved to Laurelhurst 13 years ago, clarified that this is an informal effort by the LNA board to gauge neighborhood sentiment. It is a non-binding survey given the association’s bylaw requirement that almost all LNA decisions must be made by the board.
The May newsletter, hand-delivered to all Laurelhurst residents, will specify instructions for completing and submitting declarations. Declaration forms will also be posted on the LNA website, www.laurelhurstpdx.org, and made available at the association’s May 30 general membership meeting. Results gathered from declarations, petitions, emails and written correspondence will be delivered to the newly elected LNA board for consideration on whether to proceed with historic designation. Ultimately, a binding vote-by-objection of property owners will be conducted by the Oregon Historic Preservation Office when and if a nomination is submitted.