Portland’s Epidemic of Teardowns


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By: Liz Waytkus

Real estate in Portland, Oregon, like most places in the country, is at a premium right now. While good for sellers it has created a reverse incentive in Portland for tearing down older modest homes and maximizing lot coverage. As hundreds of these homes come down one by one, thanks to a hot real estate market and a fortuitous demolition loophole, neighbors and neighborhood associations are stepping in to save as much as they can, rallying to close the loophole and preserve each neighborhood’s character and heritage.

Portland’s teardown issue unfortunately is not a recent development. Beginning over a decade ago, demolitions have increased as home building has not kept pace with the number of people moving to the area. Like many urban areas, real estate demand has been greatest in the most walkable and bikeable neighborhoods where the bulk of the residential housing stock tends to be no larger than 1200 square feet and ranges in age and style. To take advantage of this demand, developers have been buying up older homes on double lots, splitting them and building the largest square footage allowed.
Doing this once can cause for some unhappy neighbors, but in Portland a staggering 1,836 single family homes have been demolished in the last sixteen years. In 2013, the City of Portland, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability reported 283 development related activties related to residential demolition or roughly one home per business day. There are possibly hundreds more homes that could be added to this list that are not technically deemed a demolition but an alteration with as little as a foundation remaining.
Image (right): Residential demolitions by year. From the City of Portland, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Full presentation can be found here.
“Mid-century homes, like the vast majority of homes, are mostly unprotected,” says Val Ballestrem, Education Manager of the Architectural Heritage Center in Portland. “Most of the current uproar is coming from the older neighborhoods – those with homes from the 1880s-1930s – but in (mostly) mid-century neighborhoods like Reedwood and Glendoveer where there are some of the highest concentrations of MCM (Mid-Century Modern) homes in the city, zoning has left them vulnerable because so many were built on large lots that can be sub-divided. Not only does that mean the loss of individual homes of architectural interest, it also means dramatic changes to the physical landscape of these neighborhoods where replacement houses are more neo-traditional than the MCM homes they are replacing.”
It was in the Winter 2013 issue of the Portland-based mid-century modern home magazine Atomic Ranch, that the teardown issues plaguing mid-century homes in the area was acknowledged nationally. In the first of two editorials, Michelle Gringeri-Brown describes her horror at seeing an empty lot where a modernist ranch once stood. For a magazine that typically celebrates the best of midcentury home design and renovations, it was telling to see multiple advocacy pieces take such prominence in a home design magazine.
Images (right): Before and after photos showing the results of demolition of the same location in almost the very same camera position. Courtesy: Jim Brown, Atomic Ranch.
What Mrs. Gringeri-Brown brought to light was the loophole in the 35-day commenting period that allows developers to skip the 35-day moratorium and go straight to demolition if they filed their demolition permit on the same day as their building permit. As few of the homes in these areas have landmarking protection, the 35-day moratorium was the only defense before demolition outside of sellers including restrictions on a sale or deed restrictions. In addition to lawn signs, some neighbors have gone so far as to buy out developers or launch crowd-sourcing campaigns to save a house.
“There are a few homes in Glendoveer that are attributed to A.Quincy Jones – those are recognized as important by the homeowners (at least I hope so), so they are probably safe from demo – but their surrounding neighborhoods are definitely not, “ continues Val. “The Glendoveer neighborhood has examples of homes built by some notable Portland builders, like Hallberg – who built probably thousands of homes after WWII in our area. Not all are great, but many are. Rummer homes, which are mostly on the west side of town and in Beaverton, are much appreciated and I have not heard of an instance of a Rummer being demolished. Back in Reedwood, however are many homes whose architects/designers are less well known – such as those by Way Lee. He even lived in Reedwood until he died about a year ago.”
Earlier this fall, a group of homeowners banded together to create the United Neighborhoods for Reform and a demolition/development resolution that to date has been endorsed by thirty-six neighborhood associations. The resolution calls for the elimination of the 35-day demolition loophole, establishing a definition of “demolition” and an option for a 120-day delay for neighborhood associations to find alternatives to demolition. United Neighborhoods for Reform is presenting their resolution to the Portland City Council on December 17th as this article was written.

Liz Waytkus is the Executive Director of Docomomo US.
Thank you to Michelle Gringeri-Brown and Jim Brown of Atomic Ranch, and Val Ballestrem of the Architectural Heritage Center for their efforts and insight on the issues in Portland.