Was This Trip Really Necessary? or How We Got Here 1/15/15

You might have seen a brief item on the Channel 6 evening news back on January 14th; something about homeowners working to move a historic district boundary. I was interviewed, my ninety seconds of fame. I want to thank Tim Becker of KOIN News for accurately reporting the facts. The Alameda-Irvington Overlap Committee (AIOC) has applied to the National Register to have the overlap area plus a block-and-a-half strip to its east excluded from the Irvington National Historic District (HD). Although The Oregonian’s Mike Francis described us as “Irvington residents”, overlap area homeowners are residents of both the Alameda and Irvington neighborhoods. Those of us to the east are residents only of Alameda. Francis described yours truly as “a long-time Irvington resident”, but I am a 34-year Alameda resident. Becker reported that 80% of survey respondents opted to get out of the District, while Francis reported 63% of all property owners opted out. It is interesting to note how differently the statistics were used.

The AIOC held a public meeting on January 14, 2015 to inform area homeowners and others of the acceptance of the “boundary decrease” document and its implications. Flyers announcing the meeting were hand-delivered to each area address by a crew of twenty volunteers, about ten days prior to the meeting. Notices were mailed to landlords. The meeting was attended by over ninety people. Survey statistics and a large map showing the HD and the area to be removed were on display. Ian Johnson from the State Office of Historic Preservation (SHPO) and Nicholas Starin of the City’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) were present. After my introductory remarks, Jim Laubenthal, a member of the AIOC writing team , explained the purpose and rationale of the application document. Starin and Johnson each explained the roles of their respective agencies and how the application process would go forward. A question-and-answer period followed.

Going backward in time, media attention resulted from SHPO’s public notice of acceptance in December, 2014 of AIOC’s document. The application document (fifty pages, plus the revised Irvington document) was submitted by the AIOC after a year-long process of research and compilation by four dedicated AIOC members. The AIOC decision to “secede” was made at a meeting in September, 2013 after a survey conducted by more than twenty area residents revealed a strong majority of homeowners wanted to “get out”. The AIOC decided In March, 2013 to conduct the survey, which each of the 563 participating homeowner signed. The decision to conduct the survey was made after it became clear the Irvington Community Association was not interested in modifying its National Register listing.

This is how the situation developed. Any person or group can propose an area to the National Register for designation as a National Historic District. Proponents decide what the boundaries will be. The proposal must include historic, architectural, etc. data that meet National Register criteria. Local and state boards “advise” the National Register regarding the completeness and the veracity of the application – all good unless verification is lacking. The National Register has the final say on what gets listed. The Irvington Historic Preservation Committee “did everything that was required” in filing their application.

Unlike the AIOC, the proponents of the HD did not ask (survey) or notify individually (meeting notice). The only direct notification to property owners was mailed by the BPS in April, 2010, after the HD application was accepted and partway through the approval process. BPS mailed notices to property owners as a “courtesy”. NR does not require notification of individual owners if the proposed HD has greater than fifty properties. NR requires only a notice in the local newspaper. State law requires notice to individual property owners – except for a National Register proposal. Even though the BPS notice showed a map, many owners disregarded it thinking it only applied to Irvington. Lesson here: When you receive mail from the City or any other government, read and understand it before you recycle it. The only way to block approval of a NR application is to have over 50% of property owners submit individual signed, notarized objection forms to the NR. The boundary-decrease area contains about 15% of the properties in the HD, so the objection-form process was futile.

My initial concern about the HD was that history did not support inclusion of the overlap area. The Irvings were gifted the territory west of NE 24th, never owned property to the east. They left town for Victoria, B.C. in 1859, to return a couple of decades later, minus William Irving who died in 1872. The first Alameda Park School boundary (1915) was NE 22nd. The Alameda Grocery opened at NE 24th and Fremont in 1922. During my fourteen years growing up in Irvington in the 1950s, nearly all of the overlap area was referred to as Alameda. And that is how most property owners see it today; a matter of neighborhood identity.

Pocketbook and property-rights issues are another concern for homeowners. Changes to exteriors of homes and garages over 200 square feet require historic resource review, involving fees and delays. Minor alteration review fees can be as little as $250, but major changes can run many thousands of dollars. Plans may be rejected pending revision. Architects drawings may be required, even for some minor changes, adding to costs. Changes made without approval can result in monetary penalties, which accumulate monthly until the offense is corrected. Some of our neighbors have become very frustrated with these restrictions, which became effective on the day the NR officially listed the HD.

The Alameda Neighborhood Association protested imposition of the HD before it was listed on the NR, and is on record supporting the boundary change. Ironically, in spite of overwhelming constituent support for the boundary change, the Irvington Community Association, which also represents homeowners in the overlap, has stated that it will oppose the boundary change.

AIOC thanks the application writers: Paul Giroux, Jim Laubenthal, Mike Phipps, and Chuck Stuckey for their persistence and many hours of work and thought. Thanks to the more than twenty folks who conducted the survey and delivered flyers. An thanks to the seventy-five overlap neighbors whose input and encouragement gave impetus. For ongoing and additional information about the boundary-decrease process, please visit aiocblog.wordpress.com

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Common Sense – Out the Window?

An Alameda Homeowner’s Frustration over Historic District Requirements, from the Summer, 2014 issue of the Alameda Neighborhood Association’s Newsletter, AlamedaPDX. By Dan LaGrande, with permission from all parties.

What began as a dream home in the Alameda neighborhood for Dr. Chris Mooers has turned into a costly and frustrating dilemma.
“When we bought this house six years ago, my wife and I were delighted,” Chris says. “The house had been extensively remodeled and the previous owner left us with architectural plans for the addition of a sun room, which was a positive factor for my wife and me in deciding to buy the house.”
However, before that project could begin, sadly, Chris’s wife became ill and died three years ago.
Although most of the original wooden windows had been replaced earlier with energy-saving double pane vinyl windows, in the same style as the originals, the few remaining wood windows on the east were badly deteriorated and Chris decided to replace them, since he no longer wished to add the sun room.
“I was still grieving for my wife at that time,” Chris recalls, “when a contractor who came to the house offered to replace the old windows and the front door, and his bid was reasonable, so I agreed to have them replaced in the same style and with the same material to match the other vinyl windows. The cost was nearly $6,000.”
Chris was pleased with the work. And to anyone walking by, Chris’s beautifully maintained house and yard looked like many other classic and charming Alameda homes built in the 1920s and 30s. Nearby neighbors were delighted with how well Chris kept up his home and yard.
A year ago, however, Chris received a notice of zoning violation from the City of Portland.
He was cited for “Exterior alteration of an existing structure in a historic district without Historic Resource Review approval (including but not limited to alteration/replacement of windows and related materials).” To correct the violation, Chris was ordered to “Submit application for Historic Resource Review and obtain approval for exterior modification of structure.”
When Chris and his wife moved to Portland from Florida six years ago, and bought their home on NE Siskiyou, they did not realize they were in the disputed area between NE 21st and 26th, which both Alameda and Irvington claim as within their neighborhood boundaries.
It is also within the Irvington Historic District, which many residents in Alameda object to. “When we moved into our home six years ago,” Chris recalls ruefully, “no one from the neighborhood associations welcomed us or informed us about the historic district.” Several friends and neighbors have been helping Chris, who is 78, a retired professor of oceanography and still doing research on environmental issues. They have assisted him in preparing appeals to the City, and making the case that the rules of the historic district are unreasonable in this instance, since nearly all the windows in Chris’s house had been converted to high quality vinyl windows, but in keeping with the same style as the originals, before Chris and his wife purchased the house six years ago.
Despite those efforts, the City rejected Chris’s application to keep his newly installed door and windows.
“I had to spend money on permit application fees, and still the City was threatening to fine me, or put a lien on my property,” Chris says. “I spent nearly $6,000 to replace the old deteriorated windows, and I expect it will cost me that much at least to tear out the new vinyl windows and door and replace them with wood windows. And it appears I will also be out another $1,000 or more for various architect and city fees.”
His nearby neighbors are incensed at what Chris is facing. “I feel the way Chris has been treated is shameful,” one neighbor exclaims. “Forcing a senior citizen or anyone to spend this much money to remove perfectly good windows and doors is unreasonable. Shame on the City and historic district for showing no flexibility.”
Other homeowners voice unhappiness with the Irvington Community Association for, as one homeowner put it, “…imposing the historic district on their Alameda neighbors who did not want it.”
Surprisingly, Chris does not express anger at his situation, but he does voice his frustration.
“I have been diligent in pursuing a remedy, but I have not been able to succeed.”
Just days ago, Chris received another letter from the City, giving him approval to replace his recently installed vinyl windows and door with wooden ones. His last hope for avoiding this costly action is gone.
As other Alameda neighbors consider improvements to their homes, they are apprehensive that, like Chris, they too will incur unanticipated expenses, fees, delays and other frustrations in dealing with what they consider to be the historic district’s onerous rules and procedures.

Ed note: This is just one of many instances of homeowners’ difficult encounters with the Irvington National Historic District. We have asked other affected homeowners to contribute, but they have not. If you have a story to tell, please send it to this blog.

Reply to the PHLC Letter of 3/1/13

James Paul Brown
3407 NE 27th Avenue
Portland, OR 97212-2527
April 8, 2013

Ms. Carrie Richter, Chair
Portland Historic Landmarks Commission
Bureau of Development Services
1900 SW 4th Avenue, Suite. 5000
Portland, OR 97201

Dear Ms. Richter:

Thank you for your letter dated March 1, 2013 in reply to my letter of December 21, 2012.

While I appreciate the information you supplied regarding the process of removal of a District from the National Register, my request was for the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission to rescind its recommendation that the Irvington Historic District be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I made it clear in my letter that I understand the PHLC is only advisory in these matters. Of course, the PLHC’s rescinding or reversal of its recommendation would not be “a means of removing the District from the National Register”. The PHLC is, however, the local authority on historic matters. Otherwise PHLC would not be consulted.

Your letter appears to indicate that it is acceptable for misinformation to remain on record until such time as some party challenges the entire nomination through the National Register and the State Historic Preservation Office. I cannot pretend to understand the complex workings of City government, but I know the difference between truth and fiction. From that viewpoint, it is difficult for me to see any advantage in allowing misinformation to remain on any public record. It should be corrected promptly, and noted as a correction. Given new information, the Commission should act promptly to reconsider its support.

I am quite willing to convene with staff and/or Commission members to scrutinize every word of the testimony the Commission heard and accepted, if that is what is necessary. Once the Commission has a full grasp of the corrected information upon which it made its recommendation, it will certainly be up to the Commission to decide whether further action is required.

If the PHLC recommendation is rescinded, the Oregon State Advisory Commission on Historic Preservation will have to reconsider its position on the nomination. What I am proposing is that the nomination should not have been accepted in the first place. It should be nullified on the bases I noted in my previous letter. The idea that property owners impacted as a result of the multiple mistakes of others should undertake a lengthy process to rectify their predicament is inconsistent with democratic principles and process.

page 2, James Paul Brown

Further delay only compounds the difficulties now being endured by property owners in the District. Your prompt action will, at the very least, clarify the issue for all concerned. I ask that the PHLC correct the record and rescind its decision.

Thank you for your attention to my letter.

Yours truly,

James Paul Brown
cc: PHLC members, Tim Heron
att: previous letters

End Letter.

ED NOTE: I testified briefly at the PHLC hearing on March 10, 2014, and submitted ten copies of all three of the above letters to the Commission. This blog address was clipped to each copy. There were four Commission members present. I asked them to at least correct the false testimony they received in 2010, pointing out that they failed to verify it at the time. Even as expert as they are, they did not seem to know of a way to append corrections to the testimony. It has now been on the public record for about four years, including historically incorrect “facts”. A person researching Irvington history through public records could reasonably rely on testimony as correct unless otherwise noted. My “passion” about this issue was noted by one Commission member. You bet! The expense, delays, heartburn, and now penalties continue for District property owners. BTW, HLC did not reply to my April 8, 2013 letter.

The City’s website indicates there are eight seats on the PHLC, all appointed, unpaid volunteers. Six PHLC positions must be occupied by persons with particular areas of expertise. With four members present, only one-third to two-thirds of that expertise is available to render important judgments. (Proceedings are termed “quasi-judicial”). I have seldom seen all members present at PHLC meetings. I wonder how seriously some Commission members take the responsibility they have agreed to assume twice a month for two hours. With PHLC’s record of acceptance of unverified testimony and possibly relevant perspective missing, how can we expect reasonable, workable, or even historically accurate decisions? The current state of affairs in the Irvington National historic District says we cannot.

JB

12/21/12 Letter to Historic Landmarks Commission

James Paul Brown
3407 NE 27th Avenue
Portland, OR 97212-2527
December 21, 2012

Ms. Carrie Richter, Chair
Portland Historic Landmarks Commission
Development Services
1900 SW 4th Avenue, Suite. 5000
Portland, OR 97201

Dear Ms. Richter:

After conducting considerable research, I have concluded that the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission was misled by testimony given on February 8, and May 24, 2010 by the Irvington Historic Preservation Committee of the Irvington Community Association. This testimony was presented in order to secure the Commission’s recommendation and support for establishment of an Irvington National Historic District.

Testimony given contained incorrect and/or misleading information about the public process used by the Committee. Incorrect historic information was presented. The Nomination Application document is quite inadequate.

The public process did not generate feedback. Few property owners were aware that their neighborhood was being considered for the National Register. Information published by the Committee stated there would be an “opportunity” for property owners to vote on the nomination in a “community meeting”; there was none. It was stated that overlapped neighborhoods had “agreed” to the inclusion; they had not. It was stated that the State Historic Preservation Office would “notify all owners of Irvington buildings” that the District was under consideration; there was no such notice. Historic overlay zoning and design review fees were not mentioned.

The Nomination Application contains misinformation, misleading information, and is far from exhaustive. More than a quarter of the citations in the document rely on a secondary source known to have errors. The boundaries set forth for the District are quite arbitrary and poorly justified. Architectural classifications for some structures are incorrect. The period of significance is not well-supported.

I strongly favor historic preservation, but I more strongly favor truth and democratic process. The Irvington National Historic District was imposed upon area property owners. I have documentation for everything I have stated above, which I will be happy to provide to the Commission.

Cases heard recently by the Commission bear out the inadvisability of maintaining the Irvington National Historic District as it now stands. The contentious proceedings indicate a poorly conceived process. These cases are a small fraction representative of the frustration and astonishment of many area property owners. A field examination of approved projects will confirm that the District does not currently serve the purpose of preserving a “record of its time”.
page 2, James Paul Brown, 12/21/12

I ask that the Commission rescind its action of 2010 recommending placement of the Irvington National Historic District on the National Register, and instead recommend that it be removed. Despite the Commission’s “advisory” capacity, I believe reversal of the Commission’s recommendation is a major key to having the Irvington National Historic District removed from the National Register. I suggest it will be most time-efficient for Commission members to read, in advance, documentation I can provide and to review the nomination document.

Thank you for your attention to my letter.

Yours truly,

James Paul Brown

An open letter to the Irvington Community Association Board

February 16, 2013 Letter, Names of persons are omitted

An open letter to the Irvington Community Association Board:

Following is a verbatim quote from the audio recording of the February 8, 2010 testimony stated before the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, stated by [ICA historian]:

“…. in 1957, when the Holladay Park Church of Christ demolished two spectacular houses, the Andrew Porter house and the Wells-Mead house and the Porter house was the most expensive house that had ever been built on the east side of Portland. Those two were sort of the ball that dropped and said O.K., we’re gonna stop this era of construction in Irvington and we’re gonna start a era of destruction in Irvington. From that point forward, the neighborhood began a battle with the City, with developers, with property owners in the district, to prevent them from demolishing this great neighborhood. As you may know, at one point the entire (western half) of the district was designated to be demolished to build an industrial park. That was, quite frankly, intended to remove African-Americans from the central core of the city. So that was fought, stopped by the neighborhood organizations in the 60s.”

The foregoing remarks by [ICA historian]occurred about fourteen minutes into the hearing/briefing. I obtained a CD from the City of both the February 8th and the May 24th Commission meetings. There are other interesting statements included in the hearings regarding public process and justifications for boundary decisions. One that stands out in my mind is that, according to [ICA/IHPC representative], the overlapped neighborhoods “are very comfortable with what we’ve done”. In fact, the overlapped neighborhoods had little knowledge of what was being done. The Sabin Neighborhood Association was never consulted at all. If the ICA Board is interested in more specifics from the Commission meetings, the BDS or BPS should be able to supply a CD.

One can only speculate on [ICA historian]’s purpose in making the statements he made. As published in the ICA Spring, 2012 newsletter on page 6 (my article, with appropriate documentation), the two homes were long gone by 1957. Ownership of the lots had passed to two investment companies. The Holladay Park Church of God, not Christ, held its first services in its new building in November of 1956. I have found no account of consideration of an industrial park designation for Irvington. There were ongoing discussions during 1962-9 about re-zoning the area west of MLK Blvd, then Union Avenue, industrial (see The Oregonian, Feb. 17, 1969, p.20, 3M). The idea of creating an industrial zone for the sole purpose of removing residents of any race is a bit far-fetched. That said, there certainly were those – and there still are those – who would take anyone’s property rights to serve their own purposes. The idea of demolishing the western half of the Irvington neighborhood, even at that time, would have been preposterous.

I am not an attorney, not a historian, not even a willing activist. But the more I have researched the Irvington Historic Preservation Committee’s work, the more mistakes I have found. In good conscience, I cannot allow false statements to stand. Notwithstanding a possible legal basis for creating the Historic District and thus taking some property rights of affected property owners without their consent, what has been done is just wrong. Beyond that, the use of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims to convince affected property owners and others to approve the district seems highly inappropriate. The attorneys on your Board surely can advise the ICA about the legality of such tactics.

The nomination document contains further questionable material. There are: a map without the legend that originally appeared with it, descriptions of neighborhood streets that do not match reality, and architecturally misclassified homes. Not all structures indicated as contributing on the maps actually are contributing. Rationales for location of District boundaries are inconsistent.

I believe a reasonable course of action for the ICA to pursue is to publicly announce that due to irregularities that have come to light, the ICA will act to have the Irvington National Historic District removed from the National Register. Certainly, the ICA could pursue re-listing of a District, but next time using thoroughly vetted facts and property-owner approval. I urge the ICA Board to act promptly.

Jim Brown

The ICA Board has largely ignored our requests to correct the “mistakes” that were made in promoting the creation of the Historic District.

Survey Results

ALAMEDA OVERLAP COMMITTEE SURVEY RESULTS

Total Number of Property Owners: 707

Total Number of Responses: 563

Number of Responses: GET OUT, 449; STAY IN, 44; NO PREFERENCE, 33; DECLINE TO SIGN, 37

% of 707 Owners: GET OUT, 63.5; STAY IN, 6.2; NO PREFERENCE, 4.7; DECLINE TO SIGN, 5.2

% of 563 Who Responded: GET OUT, 79.8; STAY IN, 7.8; NO PREFERENCE, 5.9; DECLINE TO SIGN, 6.6

% of 526 Who Signed: GET OUT, 85.4; STAY IN, 8.4; NO PREFERENCE, 6.3

% of 493 Who Indicated a Preference: GET OUT, 91.1; STAY IN, 8.9

These are the results as of August 25, 2013

The Alameda Overlap Committee is a grass-roots group of about 75 property owners whose properties lie within the overlap of the Alameda and Irvington Neighborhoods, an area bounded by the centerlines of NE Knott Street, 21st Avenue, Fremont Street, and 26th Avenue, or the portion of the Alameda Neighborhood bounded by the centerlines of NE Knott Street, 26th Avenue, Fremont Street, and both sides of 27th Avenue.

The intent of this survey, which property owners signed, is to determine which property owners in the area prefer to have their properties remain in the Irvington National Historic District and which do not. Field work was conducted by 20 volunteers. Survey results will be used to map a new boundary that satisfies the wishes of as many property owners as possible. These results indicate the new boundary should exclude the entire area surveyed. All survey documents and data will be retained and made available to any governmental agency that has jurisdiction.