Preservationists spar over demolition request

A house on Alameda Street in Astoria is the subject of a preservation debate.

Ted Osborn realizes it’s awkward.

The retired architect and former president of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society — who once presented plans to save the dilapidated Waldorf Hotel downtown and received an award from the city for historic preservation — wants to tear down a historic building.

At a Historic Landmarks Commission meeting Wednesday night, he argued that a long-neglected house-turned-apartments he and his wife bought last summer on Alameda Avenue is past the point of saving.

Six of the seven commissioners were present and all of them said they could see both sides of the issue.

Commissioner McAndrew Burns pointed out that everyone in the room, whether they were in favor of demolishing the 110-year-old building or not, was a preservationist, dedicated to Astoria’s historic buildings.

“It’s difficult when everyone is right,” Commissioner Kevin McHone observed.

Ultimately, half of the commission agreed with Osborn’s argument, questioning the historic value of a building that has undergone substantial changes over the decades as well as the feasibility of trying to restore it after so many years of neglect.

The other half did not, agreeing instead with the Lower Columbia Preservation Society and city staff who said Osborn had not exhausted all of his options for restoring an important piece of Astoria’s history. City staff recommended denying Osborn’s request, saying it did not meet the city’s criteria.

The vote split down the middle — 3-3 — and Osborn’s request failed.

After talking it over, Osborn and his wife, Wendy, have decided to appeal the decision to the City Council.

Maybe there was a time when the building could have been saved, he said. He believes pieces of it — features like windows and old growth timbers — could still be salvaged, but the whole building?

“I hate tearing down buildings, but this is no longer a building,” he told commissioners. “It’s a cadaver.”

The Alameda building is just over three stories tall, painted purple and backed up against a hill in the slide zone. In addition to being listed as historic, it is also located in the Uniontown-Alameda National Register Historic District — a “double whammy” when it comes to decisions about its future, City Planner Nancy Ferber said.

The Osborns described the property before they bought it in June as a “slum” operated by an absentee landlord where “drug use was commonplace.” Over the decades, the house had turned into a warren of small, oddly-shaped apartments and fell into disrepair. In one picture, a raccoon pokes its head through a hole in the wall.

The Osborns, who live in a home they built next door, estimated it would cost just under $700,000 to rehabilitate the building. They say it is unlikely they’d be able to make enough income back in rent to justify the expense or convince a bank to finance the restoration.

An engineer they hired to conduct a structural assessment concluded that the foundation was “beyond repair” and the building’s framing had deteriorated. In October, the city deemed the site a safety hazard and dangerous to occupy. The building didn’t pose an immediate threat to public health or safety, however, and a review was necessary if the Osborns wanted to demolish it.

The Osborns knew about some of the issues with the building before they bought it. They said they reported it as derelict several times to the city, but saw no changes occur. They decided to buy it anyway when it went up for sale. They didn’t want to risk another negligent landlord taking it over.

If their appeal to the City Council is successful and they are allowed to demolish the structure, they have no immediate plans to build anything in its place.

LJ Gunderson, president of the Historic Landmarks Commission, can think of other buildings that people have told her are dead. The Waldorf Hotel next to City Hall, also known as the Merwyn, for one.

She recalled how several years ago many of the same people who came to support the Osborns’ demolition request told her, “If you let them tear down the Merwyn, you’re not doing your job.”

At the time, reports and studies concluded that the Waldorf could not and should not be saved. Things are very different now. Earlier this month, the Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit submitted by a Portland-based nonprofit to turn the hotel into 40 workforce housing units.

“When I see what happened to the Merwyn, and it’s going to have life and it’s going to provide more affordable housing and stuff that we need, and it wasn’t torn down, I think that’s awesome,” Gunderson said on Wednesday.

“Although you may not like where I may vote on this,” she added, “I’m doing what you echoed to me several years ago with the Merwyn.”

But some of the commissioners asked: What are the odds that an angel — like the one that showed up to save the Waldorf — would sweep in to save the Alameda building?

Later, Wendy Osborn said the hotel was not a fair comparison. Unlike the Alameda building, the hotel’s foundation is solid, as is the foundation of the historic Francis Apartments on Franklin Avenue that are in the process of being restored.

“They have good bones,” she said, “and this building no longer does.”

The Osborns looked into getting access to a city right of way on one side of the property. Ted Osborn has mentioned an option where some of the building could be salvaged and moved into this right of way. The decision to vacate the right of way is a City Council call.

In her analysis of the Osborns’ application, Ferber wrote that the couple should first exhaust all options to save the structure through relocation or sale of the building and that they should explore other creative ways to slash the cost of rehabilitation. It wasn’t clear if the Osborns had looked at incentives like historic tax credits, she wrote.

Finding a way to turn the building back into usable apartments “in a high density residential area would add to the city’s historical heritage of providing unique workforce housing options,” Ferber wrote.

Board members of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society agreed and spoke against Ted Osborn’s application.

“The history of development of that neighborhood is very closely tied to working class housing and boarding houses that are really massive structures,” Rachel Jensen, the society’s president, said Thursday. “As we lose those it really changes the character of the neighborhood and housing in that area. … We’re not denying that the structural integrity of the building has been undermined and needs to be addressed but we don’t believe it’s as far gone as he says it is.”

In the end, the property might need to be demolished, she said. “No one’s saying that it might not come to that, but is it time to pull the plug?”