Written by Val Ballestrem
It’s no secret that Portland, Oregon has long prided itself as a forward-thinking city in terms of the environment, and maybe that’s deservedly so, at least in some respects. But there is one aspect of the sustainability equation that the city fails to address effectively: demolitions. Sure, from time to time we see great press coverage about some building or house that is being deconstructed. Even a few notables, like the Ladd Carriage House and the Simon Benson House, have been moved, and some fantastic buildings have been adaptively re-used. But for every building in Portland that is deconstructed, moved, or re-used, untold numbers are simply smashed to bits.
For the most part, demolitions face little review or public scrutiny in Portland. In fact, the City’s Bureau of Development Services is not even required to notify residents of impending demolitions, unless the building is on the National Register of Historic Places or is a locally designated landmark. Even then, most buildings can still be torn down after a demolition delay period. This means that the average homes and buildings that make up the fabric of our older neighborhoods can be taken down with zero public input or notification. Compounding the problem are the state’s owner consent laws, making it nearly impossible to halt demolitions, especially when the endangered building does not have officially recognized historic significance. The problem then is twofold. Without notification it is nearly impossible to save something that no one knows is endangered. Second, even if one knew of a pending demolition there is in most instances no legal mechanism to keep it from happening. The net result is that one day you might be walking by a house in your neighborhood, the next you might find it ripped to shreds. It is frustrating and sad to see this happen, and seems especially disingenuous when supported by public policy and a city that espouses its intentions to be the “most sustainable” in the world.
Case in point, just the other day I was walking to work and came across a house in mid-demolition phase. It was not even 9 a.m. and the contractor had already chewed up (literally) more than half of a modest, circa 1890, house in southeast Portland, just across the street and outside the borders of one of the city’s most notable historic districts – Ladd’s Addition. The huge pile of debris that was once someone’s home certainly didn’t fit my idea of recycling in any realistic way. In the rubble were windows, doors, trim, interior moldings, bricks from the foundation, etc… much of which was (prior to demolition) in usable condition. At the very least I thought the property owner was short-sighted for not recognizing that the house could have been renovated. But what really raised my blood-pressure was finding out later that this perfectly solid home was torn down – in order to simply build another single family residence. Where is the sustainability in demolishing one residence to simply construct another? I understand some houses need rehabilitation, but a city that supports a “demolish first” mindset is also supporting an enormous waste of resources, energy, and further contributes to global warming.
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