Portland to Significantly Revamp Historic Preservation Code

The City of Portland has about 10,000 buildings, bridges, cemeteries, landscapes, and other resources that have been designated as historic. Of those, about 5,000 are "documented" on the City's Historic Resource Inventory, which was created in 1984 but has not been amended since then. The remaining 5,000 or so resources receive various levels of protection as "designated" historic resources. Some, but by no means all, of the documented or designated resources are also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The City is currently planning a major rewrite of its historic resources code to change the rules about how historic resources are inventoried, designated, and protected. Generally speaking, the proposed changes will expand the Historic Resource Inventory, make it easier to add and remove resources from the inventory, and lower (and in some cases eliminate) the thresholds for owner consent required by Oregon law. According to the City's description of the project, the changes will increase protection of historic resources against demolition, but at the same time increase incentives for adaptive reuse and rehabilitation.

The proposed changes also bring some modernity to historic resource regulation. For example, the changes would adopt exemptions for renovation of historic resources for things like solar energy systems, electrical upgrades, seismic protection, and replacement of non-historic windows. The changes would also eliminate parking requirements for historic buildings and "reduce barriers" to transferring unused density from historic buildings to other projects.

The City claims the changes will streamline the regulatory process for smaller projects, while requiring more rigorous review of larger projects. Given the natural tendency of land use regulation and review to become more complex rather than less, color me skeptical that streamlining objectives will be realized in practice.

Land use regulation to preserve historic resources is one of those ideas that makes sense in theory but is rarely implemented well in practice. Most people would agree that truly noteworthy and monumental historic buildings and structures should be protected, but the criteria have become so broad over time that our regulations protect things that are notable only to the most dedicated devotee of some obscure historical event or trend. The end result is that we preserve the minutiae of the past at the expense of modern progress. Keeping the Pioneer Courthouse, the St. Johns Bridge and Lone Fir Cemetery are important, but we can let the office buildings, houses, signs and landscapes of the past go in favor of newer, better facilities that better serve modern uses. And the interference with property rights that results from protecting the minutiae engenders frustration with over-regulation that erodes support for protecting the truly noteworthy.

The City is accepting public comments on the proposed changes through April 12, 2019. Learn how to submit comments, ask questions, get more information, or get on an email list here. Also, you can find information about whether a particular property in the City currently has any historic resource protections at www.portlandmaps.com.