Written by Val Ballestrem
If there’s one thing Portland is known for, it’s public process. Since the 1970s, city residents have increasingly been able to participate in discussions ranging from tree policy to historic design review and just about anything else one can imagine. The latest (18 months, to date) citywide efforts are aimed at creating a “strategic plan” for the city for the next 25 years. It’s been our focus at the Bosco-Milligan Foundation – Architectural Heritage Center, to make sure that historic preservation remains on the table as an important component of the updated (to 2035) “Portland Plan.”
In late 2009, the city began the first phase of the Portland Plan process. Initially, 13 “action areas” were identified including Neighborhoods & Housing; Sustainability & the Natural Environment; and Design, Planning & Public Spaces. The goal was to get a handle on current conditions and issues throughout the city. Through a series of meetings led by Mayor Sam Adams, residents were polled on the various action areas. Following responses to these surveys – answered both online and during the public meetings – the 13 action areas were reduced to nine. Unfortunately, historic preservation was tucked into the category of “Urban Design” and was not highly visible. We noted that no survey questions related to preserving historic resources or Portland’s celebrated neighborhood character.
Seeing that historic preservation was far down the city’s list of important issues, BMF/AHC followed up this series of meetings by hosting a program and discussion “Historic Preservation & the Portland Plan” in early 2010. The goal of the program was to help area residents better understand where historic preservation could and should fit into the larger plan for the city. For example, we maintain that historic preservation should play a more important role in the city’s sustainability efforts.
The second phase of the planning process began in the spring of 2010, with the goal of determining where we want to go as a city. During this phase, people began expressing the desire for a more walkable city. Often referred to as “20 minute neighborhoods,” it remains our contention that many of Portland’s traditional neighborhoods already provide the blueprint for such neighborhoods, where most or all necessary services are within a 20 minute walk from home. The challenge then is to balance projected increased density in these neighborhoods with their preservation.
As we enter spring 2011, the Portland Plan process is now well into its third phase. With the sheer number of meetings, workshops, and other events for this program – and the various other City of Portland public process activities – it seems historic preservation has nearly fallen off the map. Given that more than 60 percent of the structures in the city are at least 50 years old, historic preservation needs much more focused attention. With that objective in mind, the BMF/AHC recently hosted another Portland Plan event focused on historic preservation, and more fully identifying ways in which residents can try to influence how the plan will address historic preservation. City staff was on hand to provide an update on the plan status, clear up the complexities of multiple plan-related layers, and give insight into next steps for the coming months. We noted that the city’s own summary of the 2009 survey included the finding that many respondents said that historic preservation was overlooked.
Throughout this ongoing process and as part of our Partners in The Field effort, BMF executive director Cathy Galbraith and I have attended numerous public meetings to ensure that the final plan includes connections between historic preservation and many of the Portland Plan’s objectives. We hear that historic preservation will finally have its own focus at two upcoming meetings on urban design. In early May, residents will also have a chance to again comment directly on preservation and its place in the community, this time as part of another round of public process meetings focused on Portland’s “Central City.” This area includes downtown and many of the oldest neighborhoods in the city.
Drafts of the Portland Plan are supposed to be rolled out in the fall, with another round of review and hearings still to be scheduled. While it may seem at times like one never ending series of meetings (the update to the City’s Comprehensive Plan will follow the update of the Portland Plan), when it is all completed, we hope that historic preservation will be rightfully recognized as an important tool for sustainability and livability.
For you preservation, planning and policy wonks out there, you can read more about the Portland Plan here.
Val Ballestrem is the education manager at the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center in Portland, OR.