The owner of a 110-year old house on Alameda Avenue has called the neglected building a dead body, a cadaver. Now, it’s going to be buried.
The Astoria City Council unanimously approved Ted Osborn’s request to demolish the large house-turned-apartments in the Uniontown-Alameda National Register Historic District. In January, Osborn’s request was rejected after the Historic Landmarks Commission ended in a gridlock vote of 3-3. Osborn, an architect and former president of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, appealed the decision to the City Council.
A slow-moving landslide has kicked the house off its foundation while years of neglect have eaten away at the rest of the structure, Osborn argued. He and his wife, Wendy, who live in a home they built next door, estimate rehabilitation costs could soar above $690,000. The appraised value of the property was $250,000 in 2017 and is now $189,000, according to Osborn.
No one debated the fact that restoring the building would be costly. But City Planner Nancy Ferber noted in her report that Osborn had not shown he had exhausted all other options to either reduce the cost of restoring the building or fund the work through tools like tax credits and grants. The City Council, however, found that the repairs were too costly and that the building was dangerous and of questionable restoration value.
City Councilor Cindy Price wondered what the city would gain from any restoration. To recoup his costs, Osborn would likely not be able to turn the building into affordable housing, something the city desperately needs, she said. Nor is it clear that the city would approve other possible plans such as moving all or a portion of the building out of the slide area and into an adjacent city right-of-way.
“The most likely outcome of denying this appeal is going to be a boarded up vacant building that sits for years and, ironically, probably the city will start assessing penalties to the current owner for not fixing it up,” Price said.
It is clear the building needs to come down, Mayor Arline LaMear said.
The council tentatively approved Osborn’s appeal. City staff will present findings of fact to reflect the decision at a future meeting.
City staff had recommended denying Osborn’s request because it didn’t meet the city’s criteria and the building divided historic preservationists. The Historic Landmarks Commission saw both sides of the argument: Why Osborn wanted to tear the building down and why others wanted to save it.
Doug Thompson, a volunteer with the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, told the City Council about other historic structures he has been involved in saving. One house was in just as bad a shape as Osborn’s Alameda property. But, built in 1877, it was among one of the oldest dwellings in Uppertown on the east side.
“I know how difficult these projects are,” he said. “I’ve been through it myself. It’s not fun, it’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile.”
Ed Overbay, a woodworker, homebuilder and a participant in Clatsop Community College’s historic preservation program, argued that not every building that is old is worth the massive effort to save it.
“The deadline to save this particular building, in my professional opinion, was a good 30, 40 years ago,” he said.
Rachel Jensen, president of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, argued in January that the structure was important to preserve the types of working-class housing and boarding houses tied to the history of the Alameda neighborhood. She acknowledged the building has major structural issues, but she questioned Osborn’s assessment that it was “too far gone to be saved.”
Others questioned Osborn’s assertion that he had originally hoped to save the building and only discovered how far gone it was after he purchased it. Sarah Bardy, owner of Eleventh Street Barber, who is restoring an old home in Astoria, said she could understand a first-time homebuyer being fooled and not realizing what kind of a project they were getting into. She pointed to Osborn’s career as an architect and his long experience in construction and historic preservation. She asked how someone with his expertise could make such a grave error.
“I believe this building was purchased with the intent to be demolished,” she said.
City Councilor Bruce Jones believed that as well, but said he could see why the Historic Landmarks Commission ended in a split decision.
“I think he was pretty well aware of the terrible condition of the building so I have a hard time thinking you had a serious intent to rehabilitate it and put six housing units back in service after you ejected your tenants,” he said.
But without any engineering report from the city to rebut the dire report from an engineer Osborn hired to examine the property, Jones agreed it was not economically feasible to restore the house.
Osborn was pleased to have the City Council’s full support. He plans to proceed with his plan to demolish the building and salvage what he can.
“I think my intent is what I always said,” Osborn said after the meeting. “I want to take it apart myself. I’m going make a pile of big wood over there and little wood over there and windows here. … I’ll still probably build something because that’s what I do.”