Corvallis activists try to preserve neighborhoods; developers defend their property rights
A group of neighborhood volunteers and preservation activists has been combing the streets surrounding the Oregon State University campus for the past year looking for houses to photograph.
To photograph all of them.
The 60-plus volunteers have catalogued more than 2,500 addresses covering 952 acres and archived more than 6,000 photos of houses in the area, ground zero for the Collaboration Corvallis project, which has been studying livability issues stemming from OSU enrollment growth.
The volunteers, who received $6,000 in assistance from the collaboration project, have attempted to provide a snapshot of the current state of housing in Corvallis, including its mix of styles and the way neighborhoods are changing.
In the process, they have ignited a citywide debate on demolitions.
According to figures provided by the city of Corvallis, 77 residences were demolished from 2008-2012. Most of them were single-family homes that were replaced with larger units that help satisfy the high demand for student housing.
“My concern is that we are losing our sense of place at an incredible speed,” said volunteer B.A. Beierle of the historical advocacy group Preservation Works.
“And we need to come together as a community to define what’s important and what we feel we need to keep so we retain our sense of who we are.”
But while the number of demolitions is not being challenged, whether the scrapings were warranted remains a matter of dispute.
Activists say the city is losing its heritage because so much vintage housing is being bulldozed. Developers counter that there was no other choice for many of the demolitions and that not only does the anti-demolition movement interfere with the rights of property owners, but it also could cost the city property tax revenue.
The work of the volunteers has had an impact. The Collaboration Corvallis project hosted a public forum on demolitions in August, with most of those testifying urging changes in the permit process.
The neighborhood planning workgroup of the Collaboration Corvallis project Thursday passed a recommendation on demolitions to the collaboration’s steering committee.
Its key components would establish a 35-day notification to neighborhood associations of an upcoming demolition, encourage property owners to remodel or move the house, emphasize reuse and recycling of materials and require a photo of the building’s facade be provided to the city.
The proposal has a long way to go. The steering committee will consider it Nov. 8, and it still must be approved by the City Council.
But getting to this point is a major victory for preservation activists. In April, a proposal to amend the current demolition permit system that would have added only the photo requirement failed on a 2-1 vote of a council subcommittee.
Since then, the neighborhood planning group has been working on rezoning neighborhoods as well as establishing consistent design standards.
Should the new demolitions plan become the law of the city, it would require significant changes in the way the city’s Community Development Department does business. Translation: It will cost more money and require more staff time.
“The proposed notice requirements would result in additional out of pocket costs (mailing) and administrative costs (staff time),” said Ken Gibb, community development director. “Presumably, demolition permit application fees would be increased accordingly to cover these costs.”
More regulation and more costs: that doesn’t fly well with those in the building industry.
“Every element of the proposed demolition recommendation is meant to be an impediment to the rights of property owners and the development community,” said Carl Carpenter of Homeport Property Management of Corvallis.
Carpenter said that replacing houses that legitimately need to be demolished with newer construction would mean more property tax revenue for the city and that if activists want to control what is built after a demolition then they should focus their efforts on that end of the regulatory process.
A tale of two tours
In late August, a reporter took a tour of a near-campus neighborhood with Beierle and other photo survey volunteers.
On Northwest Eighth Street, there used to be three almost identical 1920s bungalows.
One of them is gone, and two five-bedroom units are going up in its place. The complex towers over its neighbors and its builders have taken advantage of new city rules on setbacks to build closer to the street.
Also, the development application was in the pipeline before new parking regulations went into effect in December. The new rules, which were designed to limit townhouse construction in neighborhoods as well as ease traffic and congestion, require nine parking spaces for a complex such as the one on Northwest Eighth.
But being built under the old rules means only four parking spaces are mandated.
“The new building doesn’t respect the historical nature of the neighborhood. It is bullying the other buildings,” Beierle.
Meanwhile, a week later, a developer took the reporter on a different tour in another north-of-campus neighborhood to see one house in particular. The house, which had been built in 1910, was within hours of demolition, and it looked like its demise couldn’t come too soon.
The roof was shot, mold and mildew were everywhere, the backyard was a jungle, the house had no foundation, and it was decades behind the city building code.
The best description the developer could come up with for its architectural style was “a box with a roof.”
A neighbor came by during the tour and asked if he could have some of the wood from the maple tree that had been cut down in the front yard. He also poked around the house to see if any of the doors or the flooring were worth preserving. There just wasn’t much of value there.
Other demolitions reside in more of a gray area.
Long-time Corvallis developer John Corden, a member of the neighborhood planning workgroup, is building a large, single-family house on Southwest Ninth Street after flattening its 90-year-old predecessor. Neighborhood activists expressed concerns about the demolitions until an inspection showed serious problems with the foundation.
On Southwest 11th Street, two townhouses were built last fall after a demolition despite extensive protests from neighbors, including lawn signs that said, “This is what a house looks like.”
The developers said the old house needed extensive work and had to go down. The neighbors disagreed, a pattern that has been repeated across the city.
One option for neighborhoods that want to exert more control on these issues is to form a historic district.
There are three in Corvallis: the Avery-Helm district near downtown, the College Hill-West district north of the campus and a district within OSU.
In June, the Central Park Neighborhood Association, which covers an area just east of the campus, held an exploratory meeting on forming a district.
The process is time-consuming and can be expensive. And it also can put restrictions on how residents can use their property.
For example, the Corvallis Historic Resources Commission will hold a public hearing Tuesday to consider a request from a College Hill-West homeowner to make changes in the house’s garage door.
And the city still is trying to figure out the best way to preserve one its oldest structures, the Gaylord House, an 1857 gothic revival building that currently sits on Northwest Seventh Street just south of the Linn-Benton Community College Benton Center.
The house, part of the reporter’s neighborhood tour led by the volunteers, is managed by the Parks and Recreation Department. Jude Geist, a parks operations supervisor, said “our current management plan is to stabilize the house to keep it from deteriorating.”
Geist said the city is reviewing its options regarding the ultimate resting spot for the building.
Next door to the Gaylord House is a huge new single-family house whose carport includes white columns that are protected by steel and concrete poles.
Across the street there used to be four bungalows. Two are gone. One was replaced by two units whose facades are oriented 90 degrees away from the rest of the houses on the street.
“How do you encourage neighbors to be part of a neighborhood when they are facing the wrong way?” said photo survey volunteer Charlyn Ellis.
Another large new house is going up on the plot of land once occupied by the other demolished bungalow. Brand new construction next to much smaller, older homes.
Is that what Corvallis wants?
“(These groups) are demanding that Corvallis remain the same quaint town that it was when they bought their home in the neighborhood,” Carpenter said.
“I understand their desires, but to vilify a homeowner who can no longer afford to invest in repairs to maintain an aging house and who reaches out to a contractor/developer for solutions is not the logical step.”
Carpenter suggested that perhaps a residential architectural review board could be put in place to ensure that new construction will “fit in with the existing neighborhood style.”
An architectural review board suggested by a property manager? Neighborhood design standards from the workgroup backing demolition permit changes?
Maybe the two sides aren’t that far apart after all.
Contact reporter James Day at email@example.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.