Our Opinion: City must balance history and change
After months of skirmishes that played out on lawn signs and social media, the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association voted earlier this month to pursue a historic designation.
The vote roiled the Southeast Portland neighborhood, whose 5,800 residents include some of the most wealthy and powerful people in the city. And it raises questions about the wisdom of seeking to preserve the past in a city that needs new ways to house its residents.
The conflict deeply divided the 721-acre neighborhood that is home to Reed College, the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden and Eastmoreland Golf Course.
On one side are residents who want to maintain the historic character of a neighborhood that features stately homes, tree-lined streets and lots of open spaces. Their solution is an official National Historic District designation.
On the other side are residents who fear that such a designation would restrict what they could do with their own property.
Even many of those now backing the historic district concede it wasn't their first choice.
Through the city-sanctioned Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association, they have lobbied the city for regulations to restrict demolitions and higher housing density. A year ago, then-Mayor Charlie Hales (an Eastmorelander himself) made a pitch to reduce allowable density in the neighborhood, but couldn't get the City Council to go along. That, in turn, led the association to look to the historic designation for protection.
Two-thirds of the neighborhood's 2,066 homeowners responded to a recent poll on the question, with 51 percent opposing the district designation, 48 percent supporting it and just 1 percent undecided.
Despite the narrow majority of "no" votes in the survey, the association went ahead and voted to apply for a federal designation with the National Park Service as a historic district
That, however, is not the end of the conflict.
Some neighborhood residents are continuing to collect notarized objections to the designation.
While it's unclear what the final status of the district will be, there are obvious lessons for the city and the region.
First, the city's neighborhood association system is ill-equipped to deal with historic designations. Residents on the losing side of Thursday's neighborhood association vote feel like their voices weren't heard and have no recourse at City Hall, and instead must appeal to a federal bureaucracy nearly 3,000 miles away.
Second, historic districts need to catch up with the times. The laudable idea of preserving historic homes in the region emerged long before home prices were skyrocketing and a premium was placed on density. A historic designation is at odds with the city's promotion of creative infill, through granny flats, tiny houses and multifamily housing.
Many of those in Eastmoreland were motivated by a sincere and legitimate desire to preserve the character of a truly historic neighborhood and slow down controversial demolitions.
But the historic district proved to be a blunt tool that smacks of privilege.
The city cannot allow the well-heeled and well-connected to use historic districts as a dressed-up version of old-fashioned redlining, to keep less-desirable (in this case, lower-income) residents from moving into a neighborhood.
We urge Mayor Ted Wheeler (who oversees planning) and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly (who is in charge of neighborhood involvement and the Bureau of Development Services) to kick off a conversation about the balance of history and progress before the next neighborhood follows Eastmoreland's divisive path.