Saturday, July 3, 2021

Blanchet House Lingers at City Council


Former Yamaguchi Hotel, right 

Representatives of the Blanchet House of Hospitality made two statements to the Portland City Council this week that could affect the council’s decision on whether to demolish the original Blanchet building that is part of the New Chinatown-Japantown Historic District.

First, the well-respected social agency that provides food and some housing for the homeless said that it wants to build a new community health center on the site of the old building at 340 N.W. Glisan St.

Second, the agency’s lawyer said Blanchet House is not willing to sell the three-story old building, even if a potential buyer wants to save it.

The revelation about a new health center took the city’s building department by surprise.  It suggests  that Blanchet House could be using the wrong strategy in trying to demolish the old building.

In most cases where someone wants to demolish a historic building, the loss of the old building is balanced against the public values to be gained from a new building that takes its place.  That is the strategy Blanchet House used in 2010 when it convinced the City Council to demolish the Kiernan Building that sat on the site of the new Blanchet House on the same block.  The proposed new building had been through historic design review and building permits were ready.

But this time, Blanchet House contends that the old building, erected in 1905, should be razed because it is in such poor shape it “deprives the owner of all reasonable economic use of the site.”  The trouble with that option, said Peggy Moretti, a preservation advocate for Restore Oregon, “There is no guarantee anything would replace this building other than a vacant lot.”

Preservation advocates are concerned that a precedent for razing a historic building purely on economic grounds would encourage benign neglect by owners who ultimately want to build something else.  Kristen Minor, chair of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, said it would be “alarming” to demolish the old Blanchet House without knowing what is proposed to replace it.

Although the old Blanchet House has been vacant since 2012, Tim Heron, a senior planner for the city’s Bureau of Development Services, said he had never heard about the proposed health center until two days before the City Council hearing.  “The new information about a concept is interesting,” he said. He noted that the suggestion is “an idea” and “not a building.”

After three hours of testimony, the council postponed the demolition request to July 22.  Some commissioners asked for more time to review the testimony, and Mayor Ted Wheeler, who was not present for this hearing, presumably will review it, too.

The old building was the Yamaguchi Hotel until 1931.  The neighborhood was an entry point for many Chinese and Japanese who immigrated to Portland before racial animus and World War II internments played havoc with their American lives.  Larry Kojaku, showing newspaper headlines before and after the war, said Japanese citizens were victims of “ethnic cleansing.”  Razing the old building, he added, would be “part of erasing this historic memory.”

 The only city commissioner to hint at a decision on demolition was JoAnn Hardesty.  Though she said she was “really torn” by some testimony, she felt Blanchet House had done sufficient “due diligence” in its demolition application.

Near the end of the hearing, Scott Kerman, Blanchet House executive director, indicated he had learned something new about the old building.  “This is a history I was not aware of.”  He added, however, the no one from the Asian community had approached the agency as a prospective buyer.

The New Chinatown-Japan Historic District is unique in Portland because its creation was based on the cultural histories of the Chinese and Japanese communities in roughly 10 square blocks that comprise district boundaries.  The city’s other historic districts are based largely on architectural history of varying time periods.

South Park Blocks Master Plan Update: The City Council hearing originally scheduled for July 7 has been moved to July 15 at 2.m.  Given heavy public interest in the South Park Blocks, it is difficult to imagine this matter being resolved in one session.

------Fred Leeson

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