Will The Historic District Stop Demolitions?

It seems as if demolitions are all around us, and we tend to focus keenly on the houses that are being demolished by developers. We all care when this happens. However, the historic district designation is an over-reaction to what is a relatively small problem, and is a fundamentally unfair “solution.” Between 2003 and March 2015, 16 out of 1674 homes in Eastmoreland were demolishedThis is less than 1% of the homes in Eastmoreland that were affected by demolitions, and only two within the original Eastmoreland plat – for which we now have 4 homes and 4 new families. At this rate, it would take more than 1000 years to replace every home in Eastmoreland.

Let’s compare that to the actual historic change in our neighborhood. As documented by the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association (ENA), far more dramatic change has occurred in our neighborhood in the past, and over much shorter time periods. For example, in one 9-year period (1935 – 1944), 370 new homes were built. Every decade since 1900 has brought a variety of home styles – and some were undoubtedly quite different than anything that had gone before, and perhaps greeted with dismay rather than welcome. But it has brought us what we have and love today – an eclectic home mix of Dutch Colonial, Cape Cod cottage, contemporary, French, ranch, bungalow, English cottage, split level, Tudor, variations on each of these, and more.

The proposal to designate Eastmoreland as an historic district seems less about preserving an era or style of housing – since that does not characterize Eastmoreland – and more about simply stopping change.

While the historic district designation will stop or slow the demolition of homes that are found to be “contributing" resources to the historic district, it will place a disproportionately high burden on homeowners who wish to remodel or alter the exterior of their homes – including increasing the cost and time to remodel – all to stop a small number of homes from demolition.

Further, historic district designation provides no protection against demolition of homes found to be "non-contributing" to the historic district, so again, imposition of an historic district and its impacts on exterior alterations seems an overly-broad “solution” with unnecessary and costly impacts on over sixteen hundred homeowners.

A fairer way to address demolitions is exactly what the city of Portland is proposing in its Residential Infill Project: to significantly reduce the allowed height and size of new homes built in single family neighborhoods, including Eastmoreland. For example, under the city’s proposal, on a 5,000 sq. ft. lot, a new home would be restricted to a maximum of 2500 sq. ft. (not including the basement and garage). This would discourage some developers from demolishing existing homes – because the new house would not be allowed to be as large as is currently permitted, the likely sales price would be reduced and so would the attractiveness of buying a house to tear it down. And, it would ensure the new home is consistent with the scale of surrounding homes. We should be directing our energies to ensuring the City adopts this proposal, rather than imposing an historic district.