Early Lessons from a Neighborhood Historic District
By Cathy Galbraith
Editor’s Note — To celebrate National Historic Preservation Month we’ve asked several individuals and organizations from around the state to tell us what preservation means to their community. We hope you find inspiration for your next preservation project from these stories.
In 2007, applications for the tear-down of three vintage houses in Portland’s Buckman neighborhood – for construction of yet one more apartment building – brought calls to us from activists with what’s now known as the Buckman Historic Association (BHA). Common applications to replace often modest vintage housing with huge, high-density new buildings have been on the rise since the early 2000s, but the typical hapless response tends to be “no historic designation, no protection — no owner consent, no designation.” In fact, Portland’s development policies encourage high-density new construction; it’s all part of regional growth management and it far outweighs any importance of the vintage housing stock in many traditional neighborhoods.
But instead of simple hand-wringing, Buckman’s activists stayed on it, seeking our help to craft a new National Register Historic District. In Portland, demolitions can only be denied for National Register-listed properties, and design review for new residential construction typically happens only for historic districts (other “design overlays” don’t consider historic design issues.)
Funds were raised to do a “windshield survey” of the entire neighborhood. The results of the survey showed that after decades of unrestricted new development, Buckman’s historic buildings today have best survived in three distinct sub-areas. The BHA decided to focus the rigorous historic district development work on “Central Buckman,” the oldest part of the neighborhood. Our organization agreed to be the district sponsor. All of the historic research materials were brought here and our library has served as the “cockpit” of the office and computer work.
Now, after two-plus solid years of diligence and thousands of hours of volunteer time, the district nomination has been submitted, awaiting the completion of the time period for owners to object and then action at the National Park Service. Some thoughts today:
- Perhaps surprising, there are no things that should have been done differently, in my view.
- The “libertarian” spirit is alive and strong in Buckman, long considered to be a working-class neighborhood, and viewed by its residents as an easy target for locating uses that would never pass muster in more upper-class neighborhoods. BUT – people still resist being told “what I can and can’t do with my property.”
- The public process of historic design review and Portland’s exorbitant application fees enraged all sides of the issue; our response was to devote nearly a year of effort to get the city’s process streamlined and more predictable, along with winning on a big reduction of the fees — no small feat, but absolutely necessary.
- National Register Historic Districts are not easy to do and long-term volunteer commitment is a must; few neighborhoods have the fiscal means to “hire-out” the entire effort.
Perhaps most positively, the proposed Buckman Historic District demonstrates that historic preservation is truly not just for rich people. Buckman’s ensembles of modest early housing, along with a good cross-section of striking architectural gems, collectively show that early working class neighborhoods are just as important as “fancier” neighborhoods. They deserve their place in the National Register, and Buckman deserves to be “in the driver’s seat,” to determine the future of its past.
Cathy Galbraith is the Executive Director of the Architectural Heritage Center, owned and operated by the Bosco-Milligan Foundation.