Trouble in Green City

Zoning Trumps Design Guidelines in Historic Portland, Oregon

A modern condominium project is proposed across the street from the Montgomery's house in a historic district of Portland, Ore.

Credit: Lee Montgomery

Ten years ago, author and editor Lee Montgomery and her husband, Tom Byrnes, bought a single-family Victorian home in Portland, Ore. Their dream was to restore the 1893 house—located in northeast Portland's historic Irvington—into a colorful, true-to-its-period Painted Lady. Working for the last two years with a professional restoration contractor and color consultant, Montgomery and Byrnes did just that. Today their home has the charm any city would be proud of, the kind of eye-catching window to the past that causes passing tourists to pause and pull out their digital cameras. (The house is featured in the January/February 2009 issue of Oregon Home.)

But there's a fly in the historically accurate color palette. A decade ago, when Montgomery and Byrnes fell in love with the tree-lined streets and century-old houses that define the Irvington Conservation District, their decision to buy the house was strongly influenced by the "Historic Irvington" signs they had noticed throughout the area. "What we're really upset about," Montgomery says, "is we thought the signs meant the city would protect the character of the neighborhood."  

Now Montgomery has realized those signs were just signs. Because despite Irvington's conservation district status, development there threatens to damage the neighborhood's distinctive look.

There was, for example, the recent teardown of a c. 1910 house located across the street from Montgomery and Byrnes's restored Victorian. For Montgomery and other Irvington residents, what adds insult to injury is that the multi-unit two-story condominium project now rising on that site will be a large, boxy building with essentially no reference to the Irvington Conservation District's inventory of historic homes.

Dean Gisvold, chair of the Irvington Community Association land-use committee, says the modern condominium building will "stand out like a sore thumb."  He describes it as "a very modern structure in a turn-of-the-century neighborhood."

Portland's historic Irvington neighborhood

Exactly how does a developer get permission to construct an out-of-scale, out-of-character building in a Portland conservation district?  In a word, zoning. Though a more detailed answer lies in the layers of state, regional, and city regulations that ultimately help determine what does—and doesn't—get built in Portland.

"Land use in Oregon starts at the state level," says Gisvold. And indeed, back in 1973 Senate Bill 100 created Oregon's statewide land-use planning program. That program has been tweaked and updated over the years, but one more-or-less continuous theme is land conservation and the attempt to control urban sprawl through the establishment of an urban growth boundary (UGB) in every Oregon city/metropolis. UGBs separate urban land from rural, limiting growth in rural areas.

In Portland, a regional governmental agency known as Metro is responsible for maintaining that city's urban growth boundary. "So Metro has to comply with the state," says Gisvold, "and cities and counties have to comply with Metro. And Metro has established minimum density requirements that cities and counties have to meet."  Largely, it's those density requirements that unintentionally threaten Portland's historic districts.  

Portland has 13 designated historic districts, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and seven conservation districts (often referred to as historic conservation districts).

Cathy Galbraith, executive director of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation, a Portland preservation advocacy group, points out that "there are no specific design review guidelines to make sure that new developments [in the city's historic districts] exhibit any of the character of their surrounding properties."  In other words, the current angst many Portlanders feel regarding their city's historic districts is not just about what's getting torn down—it's also about what's going up.

"The basic issue in Portland is the interest in accommodating density at all costs," says Galbraith. "One of the primary ways to do that is through infill projects in the established neighborhoods, despite what the impacts might be. So you have very, very intensive zoning in many areas that are really, truly single-family in their nature and character."

Currently, if a proposed development in a historic district meets zoning requirements, there's little residents can do to stop its construction—even when they feel it's oversized or out of character with their community.  

"There are design guidelines," says Steve Dotterrer, principal planner with Portland's Bureau of Planning, "which every project has to follow, and then there's the underlying zoning. And in some ways, the complaint about these specific projects in historic districts is that the underlying zoning is inappropriate."

Most neighbors agree that this new house blends in well in Portland's historic Irvington.

In one thorny, back-and-forth struggle that went on for two years, Irvington residents fought to stop construction of the Irvington Squire, a multi-unit condominium project that was variously proposed at six or five stories. Although the building site is zoned high-density residential (up to 75 feet in height), surrounding properties are mostly two and three-story homes.

Residents wrote letters to the city and showed up at meetings to protest the size of the Squire. This fall, in a major victory for the Irvington Community Association, the Landmarks Commission rejected the Squire, ruling that the proposed building would be out of scale with adjacent historic structures and would not blend in with the neighborhood. For once, design guidelines trumped the zoning code. But in Irvington, that victory was a notable exception to the rule.

"These are some of the perennial conundrums we face in preservation," says Nicholas Starin, a city planner with the Bureau of Planning. "You don't want to mimic the past. You want something to be of its own time, but you want it to be responsive. The solutions theoretically are there in good design—but how do you get that good design?  Thankfully, or hopefully, the city is in the early to middle stages of developing the Portland Plan."

The Portland Plan is the Bureau of Planning's update of its 1980 Comprehensive Plan and the 1988 Central City Plan. The bureau's website describes the Portland Plan as "an inclusive, citywide effort to guide the physical, economic, social, cultural and environmental development of Portland over the next 30 years."  

"[The Plan] will have various components that address historic preservation," Starin says, "but also more generally the issues of compatible infill and balancing values like high density with preserving character."

Could the new Portland Plan really help solve the problem of teardowns and inappropriate construction in historic districts?  "I think people will bring it up," says Galbraith. "I'm not sure the city's interested in dealing with it in a way that would satisfy neighborhood interests."

While Portland's mix of state, regional, and city regulations and zoning is uniquely its own, the trend of out-of-scale structures popping up in older West Coast historic neighborhoods is widespread. "There's certainly plenty [of growth] happening in communities like Portland and Seattle and San Francisco," Galbraith says. "And there doesn't seem to me much interest in considering the impact [of that growth] on traditional neighborhoods. It's a big problem." 

Read more about Portland development or McMansions in historic neighborhoods

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Submitted by KL at: April 9, 2009
Burlington Vermont design and architectural review and historic preservation (including demolition) standards are incorporated in the zoning regulations making them much more than guidelines - they are equivalent to any other zoning regulation and thus have the force of law.

Submitted by Oregon planner at: March 9, 2009
In Oregon the more restrictive regulation always trumps the less restrictive one, as RL mentions is the case in DC. It's true that Oregon's planning system is dictated at the state level, but a local jurisdiction can always make stricter rules. The author implies that historic districts' hands are tied by the state-wide planning rules. This is not the case. Also, it is important not to mistake density requirements for lack of proper design review. There are plenty of examples of historic neighborhoods all across this country that have a mix of historic structures of different densities. In fact, historically, mixing densities within neighborhoods was much more common than it is today. The problem here is not Oregon's land use controls, the problem is lack of proper design review.

Submitted by RL at: January 29, 2009
In DC, the more restrictive regulations are the guiding regulations. Therefore, historic preservation regulations trump other zoning regulations for areas in historic districts. This doesn't seem to be the case in Portland.