Reed College turns its back on historic preservation

Guest Opinion
By Art DeMuro

Reed College’s decision to demolish the Sellwood Trolley Barns, instead of preserve them as neighbors wished is the prototypical example of historic property owners turning their backs on the public good. Reed had the option to preserve the property and sell for a handsome profit. Instead, the community will lose a treasure eligible for the National Register of Historic Places–five brick buildings with 400-foot-long spaces that soar over 30 feet high. According to the State Historic Preservation Office, the Barns are “one of only a few, and the most intact example of this building type in the state.”

Reed said that the environmental contamination found under the buildings could lead to future liability and therefore chose total demolition to clean the site before rebuilding. Contrary to the common perception that regulatory agencies offer only impediments and delays, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has created programs that recommend solutions to environmental problems. There are many examples where DEQ has allowed subsurface contamination that is proven to be stationary, offering no threat to humans or the environment, to remain and be capped by an existing building.

In other words, if the contamination is not causing harm, DEQ allows it to remain. In fact, one DEQ official stated that he had no recollection of DEQ ever requiring a historic building to be demolished in order to remediate contamination.

Legislation has even created Prospective Purchaser Agreements which halt the progression of legal liability, making it legally safe to redevelop these “brownfield” sites. This pragmatic program has spawned countless successful redevelopments all over the country.

Reed was presented with a win-win alternative: Sell the Sellwood Trolley Barns for a large profit to a preservation developer, thereby fulfilling its fiduciary obligation to its donor, simultaneously retaining this historic structure and respecting the pleadings of the neighborhood as well as multiple elected officials, including the mayor, multiple city commissioners and a county commissioner.

In the fall, Portland’s City Council will consider adoption of the Historic Resources Code Amendment (HRCA), to establish regulations mandating extending demolition delay and authorizing potential demolition denial. HRCA can protect irreplaceable historic resources, such as the Trolley Barns. As a balance to this regulatory expansion, the council will consider offering owners additional preservation incentives that improve the feasibility of redevelopment.

The rights of private property ownership are basic tenants of our society. However, some properties carry additional responsibilities and significance. The public good is a concern that influences regulations. Traffic regulations curb unrestricted personal freedoms in exchange for public safety. Public health concerns influence smoking bans, a sacrifice of personal freedom in exchange for a healthier environment for non-smokers. Historic buildings that represent significant historic events, exemplify unique architectural design or memorialize the contributions of significant individuals speak to the social history which extends beyond the individual property owner–social history which belongs to an entire neighborhood, community, state or nation. In these cases, it is not only the public’s right to protect its interests but its responsibility to future generations. The HRCA is being written to incorporate those protections.

Demolition and building new is often simpler and cleaner–no constrains from existing conditions, no due diligence for inspections, and in Reed’s case, no additional environmental paperwork. Even an institution as socially conscious as Reed chose the simpler route, and demonstrates why demolition delays and potential denial authority are necessary. They force a property owner of a significant historic resource to consider all redevelopment alternatives.

Hundreds of cities across the nation have such demolition delays and denial authority. Our city, state and federal governments have established substantial financial and tax incentives to encourage and facilitate historic preservation. The city of Portland is considering even more to make preservation an easier choice for owners. Often owners of historic properties are not familiar with these programs and they need time to understand them and be introduced to professionals that do. These programs equitably compensate owners for the premiums in time and money that are required for redevelopment.

Not every historic building deserves to be saved. And not every significant building can be saved. However, our treasures should not be sacrificed without good cause or for lack of information or time.

Soon, Sellwood will have 80 more row houses instead of a piece of our history and an example of Portland’s progressive and extensive turn-of-the-century mass transit system.

Remember the needless loss of this site later this year when the City Council considers HRCA. This ordinance respects and encourages owners of landmark properties to preserve them and adds teeth to Portland’s preservation policies. The current regulatory bias facilities demolition instead of preservation. Without a change in the ordinance, the public will be forced to rely on begging historic property owners to do the right thing, and we saw how effective that was with Reed College.

Art DeMuro is a member of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission and is the president of Venerable Properties, Inc., a historic commercial redevelopment company that was the rejected buyer in the Trolley Barns transaction.