For once, I am in complete agreement with DeMuro and the HLC.
Does sustainability trump historic value?
New inventory of buildings may reveal which ones should be replaced by green ones
POSTED: 04:00 AM PDT Monday, April 6, 2009
BY TYLER GRAF (DJC)
In 2007, a crowd watched as the 100-year-old Rosefriend Apartments in Southwest Portland were flattened to make room for Opus Northwest’s Ladd Tower, now under construction at 1300 S.W. Park Ave.
On the same block, the slightly older Ladd Carriage House was identified as worth preserving. That building, currently undergoing renovations, now abuts the southern end of Ladd Tower, representing what its developers hope to be a conjugation of old and new.
For Opus Northwest, the decision to save one of the buildings while tearing down the other was based on common sense.
“Some buildings are worth saving and others aren’t,” said Mark Desbrow, a real estate manager for Opus Northwest.
But in a city that has undergone a decade’s worth of new development in city-sanctioned “blighted” areas, such as South Waterfront and the Pearl District, preservationists worry that developers may have to start looking to blocks already occupied by buildings for their new, sustainable projects.
Amid this clamor to build green, state-of-the-art buildings, they warn, the city’s often forgotten historic structures are being threatened.
It’s a concern that permeates the Historic Landmarks Commission, where there is a belief that new construction is threatening the city’s architectural history. Commission chairman Art DeMuro – the president of Venerable Properties, which specializes in redeveloping older buildings – told City Council in February that Portland could do more to protect its older buildings.
“Destroying older buildings to make room for newer, more sustainable buildings must stop,” DeMuro told City Council.
That’s no knock against the green building boom, DeMuro later explained. Instead, he sees a melding of old building stock and new construction methods.
“Historic buildings are sustainable buildings,” DeMuro said, explaining that it’s environmentally deleterious to completely tear down older buildings, due to the waste and energy expended. “It’s a lot easier to just upgrade them today so they can be energy efficient.”
In its first-ever preservation report, presented to City Council last month, the Historic Landmarks Commission listed a litany of at-risk properties. These properties ranged from the Northwest Cultural Center, which suffers from physical deterioration, to the U.S. Customs House, for which its owner is undergoing a development disposition process.
But there are problems that arise from the redevelopment of historic buildings.
The number one problem is that there are few incentives to redevelop these properties, said Alisa Kane, Green Building Manager for the Office of Sustainable Development.
Since Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification became the development ideal, preservationists have criticized it for not recognizing the achievements of renovated historic buildings, she said.
To rectify this perceived slight, the National Trust for Historic Preservation created the Sustainable Preservation Coalition in 2006 to influence further development of the LEED building rating systems. It’s an attempt to better recognize historic and existing buildings.
To this end, the Sustainable Preservation Coalition for the last year has been advising the U.S. Green Building Council on ways to incorporate preservation, social and cultural values into LEED.
When LEED standards are amended later this year as part of LEED 2009, those changes will take effect. Kane believes that once that happens, there will be a greater incentive to bolster the sustainability of historic buildings.
Although preservationists laud the potential for greater recognition of historic buildings’ worth, from the standpoints of both profitability and sustainability, many say that more could be done at the local level to understand which historic buildings deserve the sustainability treatment.
Building a historic inventory
For now, the city’s historic buildings aren’t exactly falling like dominoes. But the threat exists, said Cathy Galbraith, director of the city’s Architectural Heritage Center.
The reason for that is simple, she said: The city knows little about its buildings, old and new.
Her solution – and an idea shared by the Historic Landmarks Commission – is for the city to undergo a revised inventory of its buildings.
The current inventory dates back a quarter century and omits many buildings that, at the time of the original inventory, were not deemed historic. Additionally, inventory proponents said, 25 years of aging have increased the supply of buildings that would today qualify as “historically significant.”
“If you’re trying to make a decision about what needs to be preserved, you should really start with information that’s current,” Galbraith said.
Still, there’s no saving some buildings.
In 2005, the city’s last standing trolley barn in Sellwood – a 100-year-old building that could have been added to the National Register of Historic Places – was demolished. Excavation work on the property later uncovered extensive environmental damage to the property.
In order to differentiate between buildings worth scrapping and buildings worth saving, developers are starting to attach their own historic and cultural values to properties. Opus Northwest, the developer of Ladd Tower, has generated in-house guidelines that reflect the company’s development philosophy toward preservation, said Opus Northwest vice president Brian Owendoff.
“If an existing facility has a layout that is so inefficient and functionally obsolete due to construction design, the decision to build new becomes an easy one,” Owendoff said. “No matter how much money you throw at an obsolete building, you will never make a purse out of a pig’s ear.”
But who decides which buildings stay and which buildings get the bulldozer treatment, aside from developers? For the city of Portland, Galbraith said, there’s no clear answer to that question.
“The only buildings the city can consider denying the demolition of are the ones that are protected by the (National Register of Historic Places),” Galbraith said. “That’s a problem.”
She thinks the city could look northward for solutions. Seattle, unlike Portland, has an eight-person Office of Conservation, which includes a long-standing historic preservation officer. She thinks a similar bureau could oversee Portland’s historic building inventory.
Like her call for a citywide inventory, however, these solutions may be untenable at a time when city budgets are stretched to the breaking point.
Preserving the bottom line
Seattle is also where Pete Snook, principal with Deacon Development Group, cut his teeth with historic projects.
“I have a personal affinity for older projects,” he said. His first project was a 1905-era downtown Seattle apartment building that he converted into condos in the late 1970s.
Even with his deep affinity for it, Snook recognizes that historic redevelopment can be expensive. Redevelopment of DeMuro’s White Stag Block, for one, cost more than $30 million. It was also completed behind schedule.
Redevelopment of older properties, Snook said, can happen only if the final development meets the bottom line.
This is true for both developers and the city, developers said.
Well-executed, large urban developments, such as the ones that have transformed the Pearl District, add significant tax increment for the city, Opus’ Desbrow said. So there’s a challenge when the city is faced with the choice between preserving a small, historic building or developing a large, mixed-use project.
But for developer Chris Humphries, a principal with EcoLogistics, a development firm specializing in sustainability, the decision has to be about more than the bottom line.
“I think that some are too quick to minimize the value of a historic structure because it represents a barrier to the income potential of redeveloping the site,” Humphries said. He believes historic buildings also represent cultural value.
But in today’s development atmosphere, Snook said, where the bottom line is a top priority, perhaps the most sustainable development, financially and environmentally, may be no development at all.
“There comes a time when the cost of implementing an environmentally friendly concept is outweighed by the damage to the environment. Sometimes, when you look at an older building, it’s not, ‘Should I build something sustainable or should I take what’s there and make it sustainable?’ ” Snook said. “You have to think about whether it’s worth it to spend the energy necessary to provide for a new product.”