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Ocobock Mansion now a historical mess

After long fight, neighbors secure Ocobock Mansion for $1.1 million in what they say was a difficult process.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: LYNDSEY HEWITT - The Ocobock Mansion, 5128 N.E. Rodney Ave., constructed in 1913, was designed by Charles W. Ertz. Ertz designed several Portland buildings, including Laurelhurst Theater. The Rent-A-Fence around 5128 N.E. Rodney Ave. has come down, and along with it the hand-drawn “Save This Historic House” signs.

In a race for time, several King neighborhood residents formed a limited liability company — Ocobock Mansion LLC — and pulled together $1.1 million in cash to buy the house before a demolition delay expired on Aug. 19.

While they are happy the Ocobock Mansion will remain standing, neighbors say developer Vic Remmers of Everett Custom Homes didn’t leave much room for compromise.

“It's sickening because we had to give so much money to developers who are becoming rich on the city,” says Diana Moosman, a local architect who helped spearhead neighborhood efforts to save the mansion.

Remmers, who planned to demolish the property and build several new homes, sparred with neighbors for months after residents successfully pushed for a demolition delay.

Neighbors met with Remmers twice and were set to hold a meeting with Mayor Charlie Hales to come to an agreement, but the meeting was canceled when both parties were able to make a deal.

The deal was sealed with the help of various private donors and investors, whom LLC members don’t wish to reveal.

Originally, the LLC wanted to get a traditional mortgage loan from a bank to buy the home and convert it into apartment units, but neighbors suspect Remmers was trying to prevent that option by imposing a non-negotiable deadline of Aug. 16 to close the deal, two days before the demolition delay ended. Getting a traditional bank loan would have required a 60-day closing period, not possible with that tight deadline, Moosman says.

LLC members suspect Remmers' strict demands were designed to prevent them from raising money by the deadline. “He wasn’t working with us on any solution," Moosman says. "(There was) no compromise.”

Asbestos removal or ulterior motive?

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Everett Custom Homes hired a licensed asbestos abatement company to complete abatement in June during a demolition delay, which the city says is not a violation. The house was found to have in-good-condition friable asbestos, meaning it is fine if undisturbed, but it must be removed if the owner wishes to remodel or demolish. Some Ocobock Mansion LLC members believe much of the damage inside the home was unnecessary. Some neighbors and Ocobock Mansion LLC members also say Remmers may have purposefully damaged the insides of the house under the guise of asbestos abatement in order to force a rehab loan. That also would have caused a longer wait time before the purchase could be closed compared to a conventional mortgage.

Remmers, who specializes in residential infill homes, sent a team in the home to remove what he says was an “excessive amount of asbestos."

"After our assessment of the home's current condition, it was immediately clear that our team needed to carefully remove the … asbestos throughout the structure," Remmers says in an email.

Though he says the abatement was necessary, and that "outside this necessary process, no further damage was done,” the insides of the house have been left in disrepair.

A recent tour of the home revealed widespread major holes and tears in the walls, and at least one toilet had been torn out.

Ocobock Mansion LLC members say the house wasn't in the best condition before that work, but it was livable and fixable — after all, a group home was housed there up until last year. Sold for $570,000 in receivership by the Oregon Department of Justice in the spring, the property housed a foster care home called Give Us This Day, which was dissolved following allegations that the nonprofit misspent nearly $2 million in state funding.

A homeowner is allowed to remove asbestos during a demolition delay, according to city officials, as long as they’re following all state Department of Environmental Quality rules.

COURTESY PHOTO - A few neighbors toured the 5128 N.E. Rodney Ave. property in May prior to asbestos abatement and took photos when the walls were still in tact. Video raises questions

Video of an encounter between a neighbor, who wishes to remain anonymous, and a worker on site during the demolition delay was posted to the Save the Historic Ocobock Mansion from Demolition Facebook page in June. The person shooting the video asks the female worker, who appears to not be wearing any protective gear, what they're working on, to which the worker responds: "We're working on (demoing) out some ceilings and walls,” adding that they’re “trying to chase down where the piping is.” She says that they have to remove the water lines.

DEQ standards allow only a licensed abatement contractor to remove asbestos before a demolition if it's in a form that can easily crumble and become airborne.

Remmers says Everett Custom Homes worked with Lake Oswego Insulation Co. Inc., a licensed asbestos abatement contractor on DEQ’s list, to remove asbestos in the home.

An asbestos survey provided by the DEQ shows that there was indeed asbestos in the pipe insulation throughout the house on hot water pipes in the walls. The insulation was friable material deemed to be in good condition, but must be removed if a property owner intends to do renovation or demolition.

“All non-visible pipes behind walls must be assumed to be asbestos- containing,” the DEQ survey says.

Still, the house’s new owners aren’t so sure.

Jeff Moreland, an LLC member and housing contractor in Portland for more than 20 years, walked through the house recently, pointing to the various holes in the walls.

“In my professional opinion … this is not asbestos abatement. This would make this room an open project, which makes it unfinanceable,” Moreland says. He adds that to get a traditional mortgage, a house can't have open walls and lack functional restrooms.

Remmers maintains that this "removal process would have eventually needed to be completed by anyone who plans to renovate or deconstruct the home," and that Everett Custom Homes "in no way deliberately damaged the house.”

LLC members say they're now looking at $50,000 in repairs before renovations begin.

“How could this happen?” neighborhood advocate Emily Harris asked rhetorically during the walk-through, reflecting on the scope of money and tumult involved around the property over the last two years.

In the future, residents like Moosman hope the city can look at changing the zoning code so that "demolitions are not as desirable."

Demolitions and the Residential Infill Project

Identifying as a “residential infill homebuilder,” Vic Remmers and his company Everett Custom Homes are just one of many development companies taking great interest in the city’s hot housing market and its need for more homes to house a rapidly growing population. Portland home prices are going up 11 percent annually and 1,000 new people move to the city every month.

In response, in addition to voting to foreclose on several abandoned “zombie homes” this summer, the city has greenlighted the Residential Infill Project, which aims to update the city’s single-dwelling zoning rules to ensure that new infill housing meets the needs of future generations.

The project will address the “scale and design of new houses and home additions, as well as determine where new houses on narrow lots would be allowed,” according to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The project also plans to explore alternative housing options to keep costs down while increasing the variety of housing available.

Critics of the project say that, although there is a need for more housing, the change in zoning rules is making the demolition of large, old properties like Ocobock Mansion more desirable.

The uptick in demolitions in general has given rise to coalitions like Stop Demolishing Portland.

Many of these groups acknowledge the need for more housing amid the city's homeless and housing crisis, but advocate for affordable housing, preservation of historical properties and transparency overall.

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