Which house is next?

If you live on a block that has a small house on a corner lot, or maybe a home that has experienced some long-deferred maintenance or structural compromise, chances are you’ve been wondering or worrying about the current spate of tear-downs underway in northeast Portland.

The fear is alive and well here in our Alameda neighborhood, where we recently lost a 1922 Craftsman bungalow that is being replaced with two 3,000-square-foot, attached, three-story giants on a corner lot. See for yourself:

The northwest corner of NE 30th Avenue and Skidmore, October 2017. Site of the former Kettleberg home, built in 1921.

These days in our neighborhood, homeowners are looking up and down the street and wondering which house will be torn down next, or if the eventual buyer of their own home will tear it all down and build new. No one wants to wish this on their neighbors or lose the family memories and history of their own home.

In the last two months I’ve been contacted by worried neighbors, AH readers and others who share a sensitivity to and appreciation of older homes. People ask what can be done, could I help them research the house, am I interested in buying or helping them with their fixer-upper?

Remember when fixer-uppers were even a thing? A bargain, a project, something possible? Today, fixer-uppers tend to get torn down. There are some notable exceptions, like this courageous project we’ve been watching closely in the Concordia neighborhood.

The reality is, there’s not much neighbors can do to fend off a tear-down next door or down the block. The city’s recent policy discussion about the tear-down trend—contained in the Residential Infill Project (RIP)—identifies the concern and offers some movement on the scale and size of new construction after tear downs, but doesn’t offer neighbors much in the way of influencing specific tear-downs.

New construction built in the footprint of residential tear-downs or lot conversions has been shockingly insensitive and out of scale to its neighbors. Just look at this charm-free apartment-block-like building now almost completed in the middle of a residential Beaumont neighborhood. Would you like to live next to that?

The northwest corner of NE 43rd and Klickitat, October 2017

We’re not anti-development, and we celebrate Oregon’s land use planning framework that protects primary natural resource lands by focusing growth within urban growth boundaries. But before it’s too late, we must help city leaders understand the new fear lurking in old neighborhoods and how the tear-down trend is reshaping the corners and the feel of our residential streets. Frankly, we’d rather write about our ongoing research and the fascinating history of our local buildings and neighborhoods. But the tear-down trend is too pressing and impactful to not bring it to the top here from time to time.

We recommend the Portland Chronicle, a website devoted to publishing the most recent list of city-approved demolition permits. It’s a website I’ve shared multiple times with anxious readers and neighbors wondering if their block might be next; a radar screen of sorts that surfaces and then tracks the sad parade of doomed homes and lots, many of which are in Portland’s older eastside neighborhoods.

One interesting and innovative solution we’ve learned about comes from natural resource conservation circles, called a “conservation easement” that restricts future demolition for certain qualifying properties. Though not in widespread use—and not for every property—it can be a tool for homeowners to protect their properties.

Another creative and admirable approach has been neighbors coming together to purchase and refurbish “fixer uppers” that might otherwise be headed for a tear down.

We’re looking for examples. Wiling to share your story of neighborhood anxiety and wonder, or creative solution?



13 responses

  1. You need to get an zoning overlay in your neighborhood that is form-based. Form based codes (you can learn more here: https://formbasedcodes.org – we have many friends on the board and involved) are codes that regulate shape and lot location for new construction, and are the most likely tools to help avoid the hideous outcome depicted in your photos. Let me know if you want to chat further about this.

  2. It’s so sad that developers don’t realize that a city is defined by its neighborhoods. In Portland, in the not that distant past, one could be plopped down on most any street and recognize where they were. Alameda looks different than Laurelhurst, which is different from Kerns, etc.

    Just a few years ago, Fremont, Division, Belmont, Stark, Hawthorne and other main arterials also had distinct looks. Now they are almost identical, filled with block after block of boxy condos or apartment buildings with flat glass-walled businesses. This is happening in our neighborhoods too. Distinctive, unique homes are being lost to ticky-tacky mono-toned boxes. It won’t be too long until our inner-city ‘hoods resemble those suburban tracks of identical houses. Row after row, street after street, of garage-dominate crap.

    Regardless of how long you plan to live in your home, remember that we are all just temporary dwellers. We need to think of future generations who will be left with what we build today. And will never experience what we had that made our city so livable.

  3. My roots in Alameda are deep. I grew up in Alameda. My folks bought our house on Shaver in 1958 for I think $8000. After college I came back, bought a big house on Alameda in the late 80s and my wife and I raised 4 kids (who all resent the fact that Alameda has gotten so very fine and is is priced way beyond the reach of most any young family). My kids attended Alameda and Grant and so did I. We downsized and bought a real dump of a bank owned “fixer” a few years back on Mt. Tabor and completely rehabbed it. I am doing the same thing again now on a 1949 radically neglected beach house.

    I have a different take on this. I don’t agree with your premise much at all. There is an 800 pound Gorilla in the room people ignore. People sometimes just let a house go. People and economics and deferred maintenance are to blame for houses being torn down and developers are unjustly vilified as are the new neighbors who buy cool new homes they love. Busy bodies and those who wish to dictate style look down their noses. Let’s be honest……….Often the old house was a total disaster. I’m a car guy and here’s an analogy. It becomes like a car neglected having one major problem not repaired, then 5, then 25. It might cost $25,000 to repair everything wrong on a 1980 Toyota and if you did it would still be worth a fraction of what it cost to repair and still be missing what many people want. At a point the house is toast. While you can look at it sideways and kind of sort of see a jewel it would cost more to restore the hovel than to scrap it and put up something new.

    What I like, you might really hate and vice versa. So, what? Why should I care if I happen to live in a mid-century modern and someone down the street builds a new craftsman where a dilapidated little Tudor once (kind of) stood. I personally don’t like Tudors or craftsman and would prefer a modern or a colonial but do not have any right to dictate what ought to be on my block, it not being some type of gated community with HOAs and this being America. I personally very much like the houses judged as allegedly “horrible” new modern houses going up all over. What was often there before was falling down. I personally feel that if others don’t and feel something ought to be done about it they might think of moving to some suburban enclave where 5 types of houses are available painted one of 10 similar colors.

    Much energy is expended about all this. In Tabor our little newspaper is all about such stuff to the point to which I barely read it. Stuff can be old and awful. Stuff can be new and cool. We like or hate the old and/or the new based upon our personal taste. A block can have old and new. Growing up on Shaver St you did not have to go far to see houses in 10 different styles. There was something for everyone and houses I loved and hated. I have no idea why I should be outraged.

  4. Scott- I could not agree more. There are quite a few houses near where I live, somewhere in Alameda, that are utter disasters. 80 years ago they were likely gorgeous. After 30 years of neglect they are simply unrecoverable. Those houses simply cannot be “fixed up”. If someone wants that lot to have some particular style of house on it, they should buy the lot, build a house that they think fits the neighborhood, and sell it. Problem solved. I think the modern, angular house one house away from the corner of Alameda and 21st looks awesome. Friends of mine absolutely hate it. By the time I’ll be ready to move out, my bare sub-dividable lot without a house on it at all will likely be more valuable than the single lot with my OK, but 80 year old, house on it. If you want your view to never change, you don’t have much choice but to move to Montana, buy 10 acres, and build a house dead center. “But I want to live in a city!” Well, cities change. How it changes is not up to the people who currently live there, but by the people who are moving in.

  5. I concur with Scott and John Doe. The city is not a museum, it is a living organism. That means ongoing neighborhood changes are going to continue as they have since “Stumptown” was established. Interesting how people get worked up over the loss of an old home and yet replace their car every10 years or so with nary a backward glance. Many old homes’ size and lay-out simply don’t support modern life and old people’s nostalgia for the past is not reason enough to guilt-trip our communities into “old house worship” for its own sake.

  6. Of course I don’t believe that any old house can’t be fixed up…of course they can…they CAN be fixed up to modern tastes.. But why do people want to live in a three-story modern condo in the middle of a 1918 neighborhood…that’s mysterious to me. Keep writing.

  7. BONNIEHULL, any preservation architect would agree – we have all fixed up many buildings that any casual observer would adjudge as hopeless, and we have done so while making them “modern” – whatever that means – and fit for their new lives. And economical.

    But Doug, what really puzzles me are your hostile commenters. Your blog clearly stands for a certain kind of city, and neighborhood, and citizenship, that seems to upset some. I wonder why they bother coming here? Dialogue is good, but we have clearly crossed into the age of the therapeutic: what I feel, what I want, what I want to build on MY lot, is all that counts. The city you believe in, Doug, isn’t that city.

    To John Doe (is that really your name? Really?) I ask a question. If “the people who are moving in” build an abattoir next door to you, getting the city government and all the neighbors to suspend legal regulations, health rules, zoning laws, common sense and good manners, then you are good with that, I guess. The real question I suppose is why you live where you do, and what kind of city means anything to you. Maybe you should check out Montana….

  8. So apparently having an opinion that is opposite another’s is “hostile”. I guess, that if one lives in Portland (or more specifically is fond of or lives in or has lived in Alameda) we all must think and prefer things the very same way as others. That strikes me as similar to what has destroyed both major political parties. It denies logic and reality. In a certain city, neighborhood or whatever we actually have vastly different opinions and perceptions about things. A house is a thing until someone buys it and loves it and then it becomes a home. Diversity is always at least allegedly celebrated until the guy down the street tears down a falling down eyesore and builds a very modern structure. Forgive me but I think we all fully know what a modern architecturally designed house is. And yes one person adores them and another despises them, just like they do with a four square or a tudor. Of course anything can theoretically be done…..with unlimited money. Having lived and grown up in Alameda I know it has many very highly compensated professionals and trust funders who might have unlimited finances. But anyone who has purchased old houses or remodels them knows there is a break point at which sometimes things just don’t pencil out.

    In answer to the question I am here on this site and not in Montana because I love Alameda, have very deep roots there, am a fourth generation Portlander, know very much about it’s history……………….and don’t care a bit if it’s history continues to change and evolve as histories do.

  9. You need not worry, Scott, your history will change. The question remains: into what will you and your neighborhood and your city change?

    As to the nature and character of dialogue, here or elsewhere, disagreement is forever with us, is not in dispute, and seems inevitable. But underlying the fact that disagreements are intrinsic to any human community lurk larger questions about the values that any community shares without question -such as diversity for example – and how those values allow for restraint, thoughtfulness, respect. Once, we understood how to build cities animated by those values. But today, we build cities aimed at guaranteeing that what we want, or how we feel, can overcome any sense of larger shared communal purpose. This, in my opinion, is what threatens not only your neighborhood, and mine, but our democracy as well. We have lost a basic sense, I believe, about how to live with one another.

    I add this: remodeling old houses is good. Saving those old houses that seem hopeless is good. Claiming that undue expense is an excuse for demolition is not good. And it is not good because it is not true. Preservationists have been rebutting this claim for decades. Our history can be saved within our means.

  10. Who is worried? No one needs an excuse for demo. Remodeling is good………… or awful. If one owns property they have a right to utilize it as they wish (within the confines and regulations the government requires). As stated previously, the only thing that makes the ” but anything is possible idea” allegedly “not true” is an unlimited checkbook (or perhaps a lack of reason fueled by passion). Yes, many of us have restored a house, a car, an antique out of pure love, nostalgia or sentimentality or whatever and ultimately paid far more to complete it than it ended up being worth in terms of market value. That is fine. I have done it. But I understand it and honor it when another person looks at a house, determines it does not pencil out and builds a new home in it’s place. It is not my property. It is not my right to tell the individual what he or she can do. I may not like the house she builds and she might dislike mine and both are just fine.

    And by the way, much of what I see “preserved” makes me chuckle. The house might look at least somewhat similar to what it once did when I was a kid in the 50s-70s riding by on my bike. But look closer and virtually everything has been moved about and tricked out to the nines inside and sometimes out. Walls have been moved. Rooms and baths added. Tiny kitchens and bedrooms which were the norm are now vast. Sometimes the house has been lifted with rooms added below. The house has been “remuddled”. It is seen as way cool by today’s taste but will probably be mocked by purists a generation from now for being totally ruined and less than authentic by someone way back in 2017.

  11. Thank you for this story. We put up a good fight on this one, but it’s hard to fight companies with deep pockets. I have to look at those monstrosities every day. Each week I get at least 2 letters from people who want to buy my house because I have a corner lot.

    Gloria Bergquist

  12. Growing up in Alameda in 50s-70s my folks had similar impressions about strange “modern” Birkmeiers and mid-century ranches that are now cherished. My mom hated craftsman houses and Stickley oak furniture because in the teens and 20s they were cheap, Sears catalog stuff reminding her of depression era poverty. Also many of the very tiny houses were cracker box, very poorly constructed dwellings built over a few days as temp housing for shipyard workers during WWII. Old does not always translate to good. Things change. I have personally not seen any allegedly “awful” new homes in Alameda since I know what I like another hates and vice versa.

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