Think Out Loud

New rules allow Portland homeowners to retrofit and adapt historic homes more easily

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Feb. 24, 2022 1 p.m. Updated: March 3, 2022 9:28 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Feb. 24

On March 1, Portland will roll out a regulation change that will make a big difference to homeowners who live in the city’s historic districts. The rules will allow people to retrofit their homes to make them more resilient to climate change, and also to add additional housing units. Brandon Spencer-Hartle is the project manager for the Historic Resources Code Project and talks to us about what this change could mean for the city.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Starting next week, the city of Portland will have a whole new set of rules governing homes and other buildings in historic districts. The rules could allow people to retrofit their homes to make them more resilient to climate change, and also to add additional housing units. The changes are also aimed at addressing questions of racial equity. Brandon Spencer-Hartle is a project manager for Portland’s Historic Resources Code Project. He joins us with the details. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Brandon Spencer-Hartle: Good afternoon, Dave. Thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. What are the problems you set out to solve? I mean, what was wrong with the status quo in terms of the rules for historic neighborhoods?

Spencer-Hartle: Well, that’s a great question. The city of Portland has had a historic resources program including land use regulations since 1968 regulating the use, demolition, alteration of historic resources. In recent years, we’ve seen a blatant inequity of whose history those resources are associated with, what parts of town those resources are in, and importantly how historic preservation can be used both a tool for and a tool challenging the existing status quo of whose history gets recognized in the history books, and whose history is protected from from loss and displacement.

Miller: Just to be explicit about this, in case there’s any question … richer, whiter neighborhoods were ones that were more likely to be preserved. Black neighborhoods or where there are a number of Black people or poorer neighborhoods, those are much more likely to be torn down to make way for all kinds of things, some of which are built and some of which aren’t, that’s what you’re talking about?

Spencer-Hartle: It is. And since the 1960s, nationally, we’ve seen a trend of historic preservation largely recognizing those places that are architect designed, upper middle class, and sort of of the founding-father history, and less so about places that have cultural meaning and are associated with communities that haven’t had a sense of permanence, that haven’t had a sense of place that was safe from erasure and loss.

Miller: How are the rule changes that are going into effect in just a couple of days going to change the dynamic you’ve just been talking about?

Spencer-Hartle: It’s a challenge. I think we know, both in the long rearview mirror, but also in the recent past, the land use and the way zoning regulations are applied in Portland and communities across the country have largely upheld homeowner single-family approaches to community development. The new rules which the City Council voted unanimously to approve back in January intend to look both backwards at histories that haven’t been recognized and protected within our historic preservation program, and forward about how we can adapt and reuse all of our historic resources, both the big downtown buildings and single family houses, neighborhoods that have largely been exempted from change for a long time. How can we adapt those buildings to be more climate resilient? How can we adapt them to be more earthquake safe? And then importantly, how could we change the course of history so that those places do tell a more diverse story and are open to more Portlanders of color, Portlanders who haven’t had the ability to own a house in the past, those types of things.


Miller: So does that mean that, if somebody owns a house in a historic district in the past, it might have been hard for them to put in certain kinds of efficient windows if they didn’t fit the pattern of the area or solar panels, they wouldn’t have been able to necessarily do that, but now they will be able to without much hassle?

Spencer-Hartle: Yeah, so with the Ladd’s Addition - I think most people probably know it as the big X on the map - Ladd’s Addition is a historic district, has been since the 1980s. And as a historic district, there are regulations that apply both to the use of property, to demolition, to alteration. The new rules will make it much easier to add solar panels without an expensive and time consuming review, to perform seismic upgrades, to do energy improvement upgrades. And importantly, in all of our historic areas, to move away from greatly limiting the uses that can take place. So we’re thinking about, come March 1st, when these new rules take effect, additional accessory dwelling units in the backyards, potentially converting a garage to a cafe, allowing for multigenerational and unique housing arrangements that haven’t been allowed in historic districts and frankly aren’t allowed in many parts of the city.

Miller: How much did the statewide and then also the citywide laws getting rid of single family zoning affect everything you’re talking about?

Spencer-Hartle: Yeah, it’s a great question. Oregon is one of the first states … we’re, I think, the first state in the country to move away from single family zoning where in many parts of the city, about half of the city’s geography in the recent past, only one house and one use per lot was generally allowed. When the state law changed and local regulations changed to allow duplexes, triplexes, these middle housing types of uses, those uses were intended to be complementary with historic districts and what we historically saw in historic districts. The new code regulations that go into effect next week move that needle even further for historic districts, recognizing that historic places can and should adapt and change. Maybe not just to a duplex, an existing large house converting to a duplex, but maybe converting that house to it a triplex or a quadplex where there may be a commercial component or there may be a different arrangement of housing. And so what we’ll see starting next week is in our historic areas, moving even further in the uses that are allowed, in the adaptation of those buildings and places beyond what we’ve done statewide in our single family zones.

Miller: Will any kind of development actions actually require more review before they get permits now? Or is everything a question of streamlining those kinds of reviews?

Spencer-Hartle: In general, what we thought out to do was to streamline reviews wherever practical and appropriate. Certainly as historic resources, we have a federal charge, a state mandate, a whole set of local goals and policies that do expect and encourage the protection of those resources. But there’s enough flexibility there that the City Council, our Planning and Sustainability Commission, our Historic Landmarks Commission all felt that there was an opportunity to streamline the use of building solar panels, small changes. But the one area where where the regulations have held firm is around demolition and ensuring that if ever a historic landmark - say a place like the Pittock Mansion or the Bagdad Theater - if ever there was a historic landmark proposed for demolition, that we have a rigorous public review and conversation before that historic landmark or a historic building in the historic district is forever demolished. But in general, the approach was to look for ways to really ensure these buildings can continue to tell stories, that we allow for a greater diversity of stories to be told in our historic resources inventory citywide, but that we do require that rigorous review for demolition to ensure that when a building is lost, when a place is lost and the story is lost, that we’ve had the public conversation.

Miller: Just briefly, so now, as you mentioned, all over the state, single family zoning is gone, but that doesn’t require that people put in cottage clusters. It just says they can put in duplexes or triplexes or more. Have you seen a change in Portland, since that zoning change went into effect, an increase in middle housing?

Spencer-Hartle: We’ve started to. The new rules took effect in Portland August 1st, and we’ve started to see the uptick in duplexes, triplexes and a few quadplexes, but it really won’t be until after that March 1st effective date that we will start to see the opportunity in historic districts and historic areas. And so we’re eager to see what that change looks like. I think we have a long list of tenants and property owners in those districts who are excited about the prospect of adaptive reuse. They’re excited about the prospect of bringing in new families and the diversity of housing types in our historic areas. And so we’re hoping the next few years Portland can stand out on the national stage of the city that is experimenting with and allowing for some pretty drastic change to our historic resources to ensure their long term survival, but also to really make it more possible for people in the city, around the state, nationally to experience and learn from both the good and the bad parts of Portland’s history through our Historic Resources.

Miller: Brandon Spencer-Hartle, thank you.

Spencer-Hartle: Thank you, Dave.

Miller: Brandon Spencer-Hartle is the project manager for Portland’s Historic Resources Code Project.

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