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Historic Resource Rules and Benefits

Blitz Weinhard, 1955This page summarizes historic resource-related regulations and benefits, including various regulatory and financial incentives that assist owners in preserving and rehabilitating their historic properties. While the focus here is on City of Portland rules and benefits, a brief section on state and federal programs and provisions is included.

The Bureau of Development Services Historic Reviews web page has more information on the application processes, procedures, and fees associated with historic land use reviews.


1. Portland's Role in Historic Preservation

2. Zoning and Other Local Historic Resources Rules and Benefits

3. State and Federal Historic Preservation Rules and Benefits

4. Historic Designation Process

1. Portland's Role in Historic Preservation

Skidmore FountainAs a "Certified Local Government" (CLG), the City of Portland participates in a preservation partnership with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the National Park Service (NPS). In return for taking on certain responsibilities, such as reviewing proposed alterations to historic properties, CLGs receive many benefits, including a close working relationship with the SHPO, additional authority and responsibility regarding nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, and eligibility for matching grants from the state's apportionment of Federal preservation funding.

To be "certified," Portland must maintain certain qualifications, which, together, broadly define the City's preservation program, including:

  • Maintaining a historic preservation commission (Portland Historic Landmarks Commission) that includes members meeting "professional" qualifications disciplines such as history, architecture, architectural history, archaeology, and related fields;
  • Administering a preservation ordinance (contained within Portland's Zoning Code) that defines how historic preservation issues are addressed, including historic design review procedures, local historic landmark and district designation processes, and review of demolition proposals;
  • Participating in updating and expanding the state's historic building inventory program;
  • Reviewing and commenting on National Register of Historic Places nominations of properties within Portland's boundaries; and
  • Fulfilling obligations to enforce state and Federal preservation laws.

In return, Portland receives a number of benefits from SHPO and the federal government that help local preservation efforts, including; access to the expertise and resources of state and federal agencies such as SHPO and the National Park Service; and the ability to apply for annual CLG grants from SHPO, which require a 50/50 match from the City.

2. Zoning and Other Local Historic Resources Rules and Benefits

SW 6th AvenueFollowing is a summary of important historic resources-related provisions of Portland's Zoning Code (Title 33: Planning and Zoning). Relevant sections are found throughout the Code, but are contained primarily in Chapter 445—Historic Resource Protection Overlay Zone and Chapter 846—Historic Reviews. This web page is not the actual code; it summarizes certain elements and does not reference all regulations that may apply in a given situation, such as base zone requirements, design guidelines and Comprehensive Plan policies. For more information on how zoning regulations are applied, download the Historic Resources Zoning Summary and see the Bureau of Development Services website, including the section on Historic Reviews. Download the information guide on historic resource review.

Types of Historic Resources

It is important to understand how historic resources are classified by the City, because zoning regulations and incentives may apply differently, depending on the designation. A property may have more than one designation. Generally, depending on the context, the "higher" level of designation controls. The basic historic resource designations referenced in the Zoning Code are discussed below. More information is contained in the Individual Historic Resources & Landmarks and Historic & Conservation Districts sections of this website (see also "Historic Resource-Related Definitions" in section 33.910 of the Zoning Code).

Historic Landmarks

These are individual resources such as a building or bridge. There are two types of historic landmark: 1) "local" or " Portland" landmarks, i.e. individual landmarks designated by the City of Portland; and 2) "National Register properties," i.e. landmarks that are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Local and National Register historic landmarks are generally treated the same in the zoning code—with the notable exception of demolition review.

Conservation Landmarks

These are individual resources designated by the City that are significant at the local or neighborhood level. Note: When the Zoning Code uses the shortened term "landmark," it is referring to both historic landmarks and conservation landmarks.

Historic Districts

These are geographic areas with a concentration of thematically related historic resources. Like historic landmarks, there are two types of historic district: 1) "local" historic districts, designated by the City; and 2) those listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Currently all of Portland's historic districts are listed on the National Register. An important distinction is made between "contributing" and "non-contributing" resources in historic districts. Contributing resources contribute to the significance and character of the district. Non-contributing resources are those that, due to date of construction, alterations, or other factors, do not contribute to the district's historic significance or character. Application of zoning regulations in a historic district sometimes depends on a property's contributing status.

Conservation Districts

Like historic districts, this designation is applied to an area that contains a concentration of related historic resources. The level of significance is generally "lower" than for historic districts, primarily at the local or neighborhood level. A distinction between "contributing" and "non-contributing" resources is also made in these districts. Conservation districts are designated by the City of Portland.

Properties Listed in the Historic Resources Inventory (HRI)

The City of Portland adopted a citywide inventory of more than 5,000 potentially significant properties in 1984. Being listed in the HRI is not a true historic designation, as additional documentation and evaluation is required before official designation or National Register listing is warranted for these properties.

Historic Reviews

Bickel Block remodelHistoric Resource Review is one of the City's most important preservation tools, helping to ensure that the special characteristics, historic integrity, and architectural character of designated resources are preserved over time. Major exterior alterations to historic and conservation landmarks generally require this review, to ensure that historic values are considered and preserved when changes are made. Construction of a new building and major alterations to an existing structure in a historic or conservation district—regardless of its contributing status—also requires Historic Resource Review. This ensures that development activity supports and enhances the qualities that make the district historic. Generally, normal repair and maintenance and interior alterations do not require Historic Resource Review.

Zoning Code Preservation Incentives

Portland's Zoning Code includes special provisions that encourage new historic listings and increase the potential for historic structures to be renovated and rehabilitated by increasing land use flexibility and redevelopment options. The incentives are not applicable in every situation and some apply only to certain types of resources. Many require a land use review and a covenant with the City affirming that current and subsequent owners agree to go through Demolition Review prior to demolishing the resource (see the following section on demolition of historic resources). Most of the incentives are described in section 33.445.610 of the Zoning Code, but a few are contained, in whole or in part, in other sections of the code. You may download a summary of the zoning incentives.

Demolition or Relocation of Historic Resources

Historic resource demolition regulations provide for a deliberative process prior to the permanent loss of a piece of the city's built heritage. Depending on the type of resource, one of two different processes, Demolition Delay Review or Demolition Review (or no review) is required when the City receives a request to demolish a designated historic resource. Relocation requests are also subject to these reviews. The demolition regulations are contained primarily in Zoning Code chapters 33.445 and 33.846. See also section 33.730.031. These rules are briefly summarized below.

Demolition or Relocation of Historic Resources chart

Building Codes: Special Provisions for Historic Buildings

Alphabet District apartmentsBuilding construction activities are regulated by several state and local building codes administered in Portland by the Bureau of Development Services. These include the Oregon One and Two Family Dwelling Code, the Oregon Structural Specialty Code, and the Oregon Uniform Fire Code. In addition, several City of Portland code titles apply, including Title 24: Building Regulations, which includes rules for building renovations and rehabilitations, seismic upgrades, changes in occupancy, building moves, and partial and complete building demolitions. In some cases the International Building Code (IBC) may be applicable. As a general rule, these building codes provide standards that are easier to implement in new construction and are technically and financially challenging to apply to existing, and, especially, historic structures. However, there are a few tools designed to assist development work in these buildings. 

The Bureau of Development Services has prepared several "Code Guides" to help owners, developers and building professionals understand and apply various building code provisions. Of particular relevance to historic structures is the Fire and Life-Safety Guide for Existing Buildings (FLEx Guide), which addresses the difficulty of applying the new construction-oriented Oregon Structural Specialty Code to the unique circumstances of existing and historic buildings. The FLEx Guide clearly defines alternative design, methods of construction, and materials for rehabilitation projects that are acceptable to the Bureau of Development Services without filing a formal appeal. Use of the FLEx Guide saves time and money by reducing the need for appeals and allowing for potential reuse of existing materials in historic buildings.

Portland Development Commission Programs

The Portland Development Commission is the City's urban renewal agency. Some of its programs and activities can potentially assist owners of historic buildings. Many programs are only available in designated urban renewal areas, but a few are available city-wide. The PDC website provides more information on these programs and benefits, including eligibility requirements.

3. State and Federal Historic Preservation Rules and Benefits

Sellwood ParkState of Oregon Preservation Rules and Programs

The primary state-level agency responsible for historic preservation is the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), a part of the Heritage Conservation Division of the Parks and Recreation Department. In partnership with individuals, organizations and government entities, SHPO administers a number of programs designed to preserve and encourage the use of historic places. These include survey, planning, and designation activities, grants, tax benefits, public education, and federal project review. These activities, including the popular Special Assessment tax benefit program are more fully described on the SHPO website and are codified in Oregon Revised Statutes 358 and 390, and Oregon Administrative Rules, Chapter 736, Divisions 50 and 51.

Federal Preservation Rules and Programs

Historic and cultural resource preservation, management and interpretation programs and regulations are administered at the federal level primarily by the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior. Important federal preservation programs include the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program, preservation Grants-in-Aid to state and local agencies, and a wide variety of others. These are described more fully on the National Park Service's History & Culture website, and the National Register website.

4. Historic Designation Processes

Though the processes are different, pursuing a historic designation at either the local or National Register level requires research and documentation sufficient to allow evaluation of a resource's historical, cultural and/or architectural significance. The property owner is responsible for providing this material on the appropriate application form(s). The Bureau of Planning can help by providing reference materials and referrals. The Planning Bureau has also prepared a guide, Researching Your Historic Property, to help property owners and researchers find the information they need.

Local Landmarks and Districts

"Local" or "Portland" historic and conservation landmarks and historic and conservation districts are designated by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission through either a quasi-judicial Historic Designation Review process or a legislative procedure. The former is a land use review administered by the Bureau of Development Services. It is usually initiated by a property owner for a single or small number of properties. A more lengthy legislative procedure is used for a larger number of properties, and it is led by the Bureau of Planning. It can be part of a broader land use process such as an area planning initiative. As required by State statute, local landmark designations require the affirmative consent of the property's owner(s). Local historic and conservation district designations require the affirmative consent of all property owners within the district.

Designation Approval Criteria

The procedures and approval criteria for designating individual landmarks and districts are provided primarily in Zoning Code Chapters 33.445 and 33.846. The criteria are the same for historic landmarks, conservation landmarks, historic districts and conservation districts. There are 12 general approval criteria, of which at least three must be met, requiring evaluation of the resource's significance in terms of its: architectural values; historical associations; physical integrity; contributions to the area's or city's character; and/or its contribution to a grouping of related resources. A "Level of Protection" criterion determines which type of designation is applied (i.e. historic or conservation landmark, or, historic or conservation district), based on the historic value and nature of the resource.

Local Historic Designation Removal Process

Local historic designations are automatically removed if the resource is destroyed by forces beyond the owner's control or if it is relocated or demolished after demolition delay review or demolition review. Historic Designation Removal Review allows for removing a local designation when requested by the owner. The applicant must show that the benefits to the public and the property owner of retaining the historic designation no longer outweigh the benefits of removing the designation, or, that the owner objected to the designation at the time it was first adopted.

National Register Properties and Districts

Loeb HouseThe National Register nomination process for individual properties and districts may be initiated by citizens, property owners, or local, state and federal governmental bodies. The first part of the process is administered by the State Historic Preservation Office. SHPO staff and the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation review nomination submittals and forward them with any required revisions and recommendations to the National Park Service for final review and listing. Portland's Bureau of Planning and Historic Landmarks Commission also review all nominations, usually holding a public meeting. The Landmarks Commission then makes recommendations to SHPO staff and the State Advisory Committee, prior to final state-level review. Owner consent is required prior to final listing for individual nominations, and more than 50 percent of a proposed historic district's property owners must object in order to prevent listing of a district. The National Register nomination process is discussed in greater detail on the National Register website. The National Register publication How to Complete the National Register Registration Form provides a good place to start.

Historic Resources Inventory

New listings in the Historic Resource Inventory may be created by the Historic Landmarks Commission and also require property owner consent. Resources currently listed may be removed from the HRI, if requested by the owner in writing. These owner consent and removal provisions, driven by state law, make it difficult to keep the inventory up to date.