Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Buckman, Portland, Oregon and its future

Buckman, the neighborhood I live in, is developing rapidly, and in unexpected ways. It is for this reason that I'm a volunteer on the Buckman Historic Association, a group that is trying to designate an area from SE 12th to SE 20th and from Burnside to Belmont as a place recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. This part of the city has always been a middle-class suburb, and our goal is to maintain the space as such and preserve the character of the area. We're presenting our goal at the next Buckman Community Association meeting (Thursday, March 10th, Central Catholic High School), and hosting a panel of experts who will give short presentations and answer questions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of being in a district that's on the National Register of Historic Places. I encourage you to join us in order to advocate for this designation.

Five years ago, I was sitting at the B-Side and talking to a friend about the then-recent announcement of the Burnside Bridgehead development: a plan to build a retail and housing hub at the eastern foot of the Burnside Bridge. We were talking about how the lower part of Burnside - everything west of 12th Avenue, towards the river - was set to blow up. If we were developers, we surmised, we'd be buying lots up left and right. I suggested that the vacant lot behind the Plaid Pantry would be the first place to go, but I was wrong: the first big development came farther up, when construction started on the Burnside Rocket building. It took a couple of years before my suggestion of the vacant lot started being developed, and it came in the form of the BSide6. Around the same time, rontoms was being worked on. Our predictions seemed to be coming true.

But the Bridgehead was put off by the near-collapse of our economic system, and the assumed development didn't happen. Between then and now, however, something much more significant happened: the Burnside-Couch couplet became a reality. Burnside and Couch were turned into one way streets from the Burnside Bridge to 15th Avenue, and traffic lights were installed at every intersection.

I'd been following the progress of the couplet since around 2007, but apparently hadn't been paying enough attention: I was surprised when, during the construction, I noticed that traffic lights were going in at each intersection. I was fascinated. I mused (probably on multiple boring occasions) to my wife, Heather, about it: "It's like a small town downtown!" "Do you see how it's at every intersection? Next thing you know, there will be lights on Ankeny and Davis - they're preparing in advance!" "Man, this is going to blow up the neighborhood."

Indeed, the Burnside-Couch couplet is blowing up the neighborhood. I've been a big proponent of the project, as there is a lot of under-utilized space (read: parking lots) in this part of town, but for every action, there are unintended consequences. And these consequences came fast. In December, the owners of two 1900s-era apartment houses served eviction notices to their tenants in order to build a mixed-use building. In the same month, the owners of the Galaxy, at 9th and Burnside, submitted their proposal to demolish the existing structure in order to build a new one. And just this month, the owners of the Foursquare Church have proposed turning their parking lot into a new mixed-use senior center.

I opposed the demolition of the apartment building and the Galaxy (the latter of which I blogged about), because they destroy the existing historic elements of the neighborhood, but I'm generally supportive of the building proposed at SE 12th & Burnside, primarily because it is currently only occupied by a parking lot (a use that I am militantly opposed to). The proposed building at SE 12th & Burnside, however, has a request that the other two projects didn't have: a request for a height variance. The height limit in this part of the Buckman neighborhood is 45 feet, while portions of this building will reach 65 feet. That's a significant departure from the height of the rest of the buildings in this part of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is blowing up, but not in the way I had imagined. For the one project that removes a parking lot, there are two that destroy structures that help define the present and the past tense of the neighborhood. This isn't going to change; indeed, it's going to accelerate. There's already talk of putting metered parking in the Central Eastside. There are many structures in the neighborhood that property owners may consider out-dated and ripe for demolition when they see the potential value of the lot that they sit on.

I'm pro-development and anti-NIMBYism, but I'm against development that ignores the environmental and historical benefits of re-using or re-purposing existing structures. Tearing a building down - even with the intent to recycle materials - is never as energy-efficient in the long term as maintaining the building. And when a building is demolished, or renovated beyond recognition, we're robbing future generations of that building. I personally have little appreciation for the Galaxy as an example of Googie architecture, but how do I know that it's not the next generation's Portland Public Market?

Lower Buckman - the region below 12th, the area that is being developed most rapidly - has had its character irrevocably altered over the years. Once a part of downtown East Portland, containing late 1800s and 1900s era mixed-use buildings and residences, lower Buckman succumbed to the automobile in the middle of the 20th century, with many of its lots being turned into auto dealerships and parking lots. It's easy now to imagine that a similar type of massive change couldn't happen to the existing residential area of Buckman, but there's no guarantee against it, especially when there is such an opportunity for financial gain on the part of property owners who may be more interested in money than they are in their community.

Update: Based on a conversation with Anne Richardson over on Facebook, I changed the description of Buckman as a "working-class enclave" to read "middle-class suburb".

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