Saturday, July 31, 2021

Two "Smash Hits" at City Hall

Awaiting demolition
 Advocates for preserving Portland’s vintage buildings and important public spaces lose more battles than they win.  It was not surprising, then, when the Portland City Council recently delivered two strikes against preservation in successive days.

 First was the 5-0 vote –without council discussion – on a 50-year “master plan” that would denigrate the historic qualities of the South Park Blocks.  The next day, the council gave tacit approval to demolish the former Blanchet House of Hospitality, the last building with historical significance on its block within the New Chinatown-Japantown Historic District.

 Truth be known, however, neither battle is entirely finished.

 The South Park Blocks case is the most interesting, in that there are no final designs or funding for most changes proposed in the plan.  There will be opportunities for public objections as these proposals approach finality.  Further, it goes without saying all or most of the current council will be long gone before many of the suggested changes occur.

Despite heavy public opposition in written and oral testimony, the council went straight to a vote without any discussion. It is possible there are reasons why the council members chose substantial silence.  

 Looking ahead, “I am sure the debate will continue to be robust,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler as he cast his vote.  The only commissioner to pose any concerns while was Dan Ryan, who said he had safety concerns about the proposed “green loop” bicycle lanes, which would remove one lane off Park Avenue West.  The recreational bike lanes would have to cross busy arterial streets at Jefferson, Columbia, Clay and Market.

 Eliminating car parking also would affect access and Sunday parking four historic churches along the route.  The churches were not involved in the lengthy planning process.

Safe for now...

 Another interesting tidbit for future concern arose with a statement to the council by Tate White, the chief planner.  She said creating a single, wider paved path down the center of some blocks would allow better access for maintenance vehicles.  Since the park has survived some 150 years without that pavement, adding more hardscape to the leafy, green blocks will become an obvious flash point.

 The “smash” will come sooner at the old Blanchet House of Hospitality, which operated earlier as the Yamaguchi Hotel dating back to 1905 or 1906.  The council apparently agrees that the three-story brick building should be demolished, but one member apparently was moved by testimony about travails in the Japanese immigrant community before and during World War II.

Commissioner Dan Ryan proposed that no demolition occur until a committee yet to be names recommends how the building and the history it represents can be memorialized at the same location.  Ryan’s proposed committee would include one or more representatives from the Japanese community, the Old Town Chinatown Neighborhood Association, a historian, the developer of any proposed new building and a Blanchet House representative.  Since a Blanchet representative mentioned a desire to include a low-income health clinic on the site of the old building, a clinic representative was added to the group.  

 Blanchet moved from the old building in 2012 to a new structure on the same block. Blanchet  representatives contended earlier that the old masonry building is vulnerable to an earthquake and cannot be rehabilitated in any economically-viable fashion.

 Ryan, for one, seemed to appreciate the historical significance of the block its role in the relatively small historic district.  He was willing to craft a solution that, while far from perfect in a preservationists’ mind, at least recognized its historical value.  He may be the one member on this comparatively “new” City Council who has a sense for history and a willingness not to sit idly by as it is denigrated.

---Fred Leeson

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