Gil Kelley and the height of the Skidmore district

Many days, I find myself Max-ing along First Avenue, once we ramp down from the Steel Bridge, and I have come to enjoy it immensely. It’s the buildings. There’s nothing quite like them. Two or three stories, mostly, elegant and tastefully restored, they are an instant invitation to consider the very beginnings of Portland as a city, because First Avenue, and the rest of the 20 blocks north and south of Burnside as far as Third, was the heart of the city’s first downtown.

It’s now the heart of the Skidmore historic district (or the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood — they have overlapping, though not quite congruent, boundaries), far from the center of town and far from the major development activity that has re-made the Pearl and is now remaking the West End. Thanks to certain accidental economic forces and planning “failures”, around one-third of the original wonderful cast-iron facade buildings in the Skidmore district have been preserved, enough for it to have earned recognition as a national historic preservation district.

These aren’t the only old buildings in Portland, not by a long shot, but they are the greatest collection of cast-iron architecture still standing in the country. More importantly, they are beautiful — I love the human scale, the almost whimsical details, even the brickwork. And the renovations that have kept them “alive” as buildings have shown them to be deserving of more centuries of life, meaning simply that they can adapt to new circumstances, new technologies, new generations of tenants.

So, that’s how I enter the territory of two recent columns in The Oregonian, one by Steve Duin in ardent opposition (along with the preservationist community) to raising the height limits for new buildings in the district from 75 to 130 feet on five specific sites at the district’s edge, and one by Anna Griffin (online it inexplicably suggests that Renee Mitchell is the author; it’s Griffin) about how Mayor-elect Sam Adams’ reorganized planning director Gil Kelley out of a job and what this might mean. The two are related, because Kelley is the one who proposed changing the height restrictions, pending approval from the national historic district people.

I’ll start with Kelley — he will be deeply missed. He has an excellent grasp of what Portland can and can’t do as a city, which makes him a great husband of our resources. His “idea” of the city is both complex and useful. His instincts are first rate. Whenever I have seen him talk in public, I’ve left thinking how lucky we are to have someone this calm and deliberative and smart dedicated to our problems. He’s a pragmatist, whose contributions to the city are immense. And as Griffin suggests, starting off your tenure as mayor by getting rid of Kelley could be a sign of impending disaster, both for Adams and the city.

Perhaps because I hold Kelley in such high regard, I’m not convinced that the case against raising the height limits on the five sites in the Skidmore historic district is the slam dunk that columnist Duin thinks it is. I say that even though I think I appreciate and even sympathize with the preservationists’ central argument — that dropping into the area five buildings nearly twice the size of the historic buildings remaining there could change its “character” permanently, or at least for our lifetimes.

Of course, those buildings will replace surface parking lots that don’t contribute to the historic district either. This, as Duin suggests, is simple economics: the value of the land as a parking lot exceeds that of the two-to-four story buildings that could conform to current guidelines, when you factor in construction costs. Will that ever change? Well, “ever” is a long time, but I have my doubts. But until it does, the district is “frozen” — not quite enough buildings to make it truly marketable as an interesting historic district for tourists (like Savannah, say, which preservationists held up as the goal for the district at the public hearing), not active enough to become as vibrant as the rest of the city is becoming.

What I liked about Kelley’s proposal was that it made a run at sorting both of those things out — by encouraging suitable development that would leverage more attention and money for the historic side of things. “Suitable development.” I’m not persuaded that height by itself should be a disqualifier: Maybe it’s because I think it is possible to design five buildings, 130 feet tall that “fit” into the district, buildings the historic buildings wouldn’t mind associating with.

First, I’m thinking of taller buildings in Portland that were constructed within a couple of decades of the sweet cast-iron buildings in question — the Benson Hotel, for example, built in 1913, or the Meier & Frank building around the same time, both designed by A.E. Doyle. After all, if Portland’s “downtown” hadn’t jumped south and west, to Broadway, a few decades after the Skidmore Fountain was dedicated in 1888, those buildings might actually be part of a much larger historic district in Old Town.

The terra-cotta of the Meier & Frank is different, but it wouldn’t look out of place to me in the Skidmore district, and those graceful 15 stories wouldn’t change the character of the district to my eye. I can imagine contemporary designs that would look awful in the district — actually, buildings that are a lot like the buildings on the one-third or so of the district that don’t comply with the district’s historic character, buildings plain and generic or garish and insensitive to the surrounding area. But the city has many examples of developments that are “friendly” to the historic character of their neighborhoods. With even more guidelines and restrictions in place, which Kelley proposes along with raising the height, it seems possible that new and old can live together peacefully. A rigorous review process of designs proposed for the five sites might determine that.

What surprised me most at the public hearing was that the neighborhood and business associations whose members live and/or work in the district were all in favor of raising the height limit, if it meant more development in Old Town/Chinatown. I completely understood this: Since I’ve lived in Portland (1979), the area has struggled and there have been various “save Old Town” or “save Chinatown” plans and movement. So far, none of it has really taken (though when the city pumps in money, for the renovation of the UO satellite campus, say, good things can happen). A new set of office/retail/condo buildings, from the associations’ point of view, might finally leverage them out of the zone into which they have settled — a social services and entertainment district, with almost one-third of the blocks tied up in parking lots.

So, no, it’s not a slam dunk to me.
More like an open question or series of questions that I find juicy. What’s the “nature” of this historic district? What is its value to the city? How do you build new buildings responsibly within it? Who sits at the table when these discussions occur and these decisions are made? More: What sort of new development do preservationists want on those sites and the other parking lots? Replicas of the cast-iron facade buildings that still remain in the district? That doesn’t seem likely.

I suspect that if City Council meets on Thursday (UPDATE: This meeting has been canceled per the city’s website) to discuss this, as scheduled, a decision will be delayed. And the national economy might delay any proposal for the forseeable future, even if City Council approves. Which is fine. There’s still a lot of persuading to do for both sides. But honestly, I’m less confident of the outcome if Gil Kelley isn’t going to be there.