Retro buildings face wrecking ball in Portland

Retro buildings face wrecking ball in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The geometric lines, abundant glass and space-age kitsch of the soon-to-be-demolished Galaxy restaurant and lounge on East Burnside Street may not generate the same awe as the formidable stone and wrought-iron facade of the U.S. Custom House in downtown Portland.

But as smaller, mid-century buildings in East Portland continue to be torn down, preservationists are concerned the city is losing pieces of its urban fabric before their importance is fully understood.

"These buildings are still part of our age," architect Peter Meijer said. "The architects are still living and practicing. We might be too young to judge their importance to future generations."

In the past five years, demolition has been approved for several mid-century modern buildings in East Portland, often with limited design review and little opportunity for community input. That is because land-use regulations in the Central Eastside and Lloyd districts require full review by the city's design commission only if an owner plans to invest more than $1.85 million in a project. That threshold is only $325,000 for a proposed demolition or renovation in downtown Portland, according to the Bureau of Development Services.

The higher threshold for full design review and an outdated city inventory of significant East Portland buildings could lead to more mid-century structures being leveled rather than reused, especially as the city begins to expand redevelopment efforts outside of downtown, Meijer said.

"There is a need to look at what the city of Portland uses to trigger a closer look at building reuse, especially as the city grows away from its downtown core," Meijer said. "I'm not saying every structure is important. But a review by the design commission brings more eyes and commentary to the discussion. Absent that, all the owner has to do is meet the zoning code criteria. As long as they meet that, city staff can't say no."

Limited review is what led city planners to approve the demolition of the Galaxy restaurant, which also was the first Denny's built in Portland. The Bosco-Milligan Foundation and the Mid-Century Modern League both were opposed.

Alyssa Starelli, vice president and cofounder of the Mid-Century Modern League, would have preferred to see the Galaxy's owner's new restaurant, the Trio Club, reuse the Googie-style structure.

Starelli's group, which works to preserve mid-century architecture, recently fought to save the sign from the Crown Motel, which was demolished along Interstate Avenue in 2008 to make space for the Patton Park Apartments.

"(The demolition of the Galaxy) is an unfortunate and un-green solution," Starelli said. "It does shed light on the fact that guidelines for the approval process on the east side are too lenient. If business owners don't understand or care about the aesthetics and interests of their neighborhood, or the greatness of their particular building, there is little the public can do."

Once a demolition permit is granted, preservationists can do little to save a building, Meijer said. Many examples of mid-century architecture are not old enough to be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. Memorial Coliseum was a year shy of the cutoff, but nevertheless received a national register nomination, and a reprieve from the wrecking ball, in 2009. But the coliseum was a large, prominent building and it is unlikely a more diminutive, mid-century structure would get the same treatment, Meijer said.

"The coliseum is a recognizable public building at the high end of the mid-century style," Meijer said, "whereas the Galaxy is a small, less recognizable resource. It's at this level where having more information on whether the Galaxy is the only building of its kind in Portland, or even the Northwest, would be beneficial."

An update of the city's inventory of historic resources would help educate property owners about the significance of their mid-century buildings, according to developer Art DeMuro. He believes Portland's preservation track record is pretty solid when compared to other cities'; Portland most recently spent significant time and effort preserving both the coliseum and downtown's Ladd Carriage House. But Portland's list of historic properties has not been updated fully since the 1980s, increasing the chance that an important structure could be demolished.

The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability recently completed a survey of 600 historic properties in nearly 30 neighborhoods in East Portland, according to Liza Mickle, a city planner. But most of those structures, save for a few commercial properties along major thoroughfares, were residences. Few potentially historic commercial properties remain on the east side, she said.

"There really aren't a tremendous amount of commercial buildings from that era left," Mickle said. "There has been talk about a citywide historic inventory effort as part of the Portland Plan, but it would have to be prioritized for funding. We are aware it's important, and we want to do it, but how and when is the question."


Information from: Daily Journal of Commerce,


Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.