PORTLAND — The Portland Press Herald’s April 27 editorial voicing support for a developer’s proposal to rezone the Williston church properties is patronizing in its dismissal of neighborhood concerns and fails to understand the fundamental purposes of zoning: i.e., establishing boundaries that prevent incompatible uses from encroaching upon one another, steering a wide variety of development activities to appropriate locations in a city and creating predictability and stability.

Make no mistake, the West End is what it is today because zoning laws finally stopped Waynflete School and Maine Medical Center from gobbling up more and more residential structures. Zoning laws stopped the tenementing process that was well under way in the late 1960s. Tenemented buildings and a handful of nonconforming uses in the neighborhood have almost all been converted back to single-, two- or three-family houses.

Zoning laws from the early 1970s to the present have kept out incompatible commercial activities that sought to creep into what had become a well-defined residential district in close proximity to the heart of the city.

Bounded by Congress and Danforth streets, the Prom to Clark Street, more than 40 square blocks contain every type of residential housing. Much of the area (and countless individual structures) are designated “historic.”

But most importantly, city zoning laws gave rise to a justifiable reliance; neighborhood safety, character and pride was and is fomented. Homeowners in the West End (and in other parts of the city) invested in their homes because they felt their investment would be secure.

They knew that if a time came when they needed or wanted to sell their home, that investment, the work of many years, would be realized in the market value of their property. And in the interim, this market value provided a tax base that benefited the entire city.

Now, however, the West End is faced with:

• A developer who would flout a pattern of zoning that reaches back more than 40 years.

• A developer who is prepared to ignore the concerns of hundreds of neighbors.

• A developer who bought two historic buildings at a write-down price, knowing the zoning did not allow the business uses he contemplated.

• A developer who, at the same time, knew that his business activities would be permitted and welcomed in literally dozens of alternative locations in the city.

• A developer who doggedly asserts (despite overwhelming contrary evidence) that the commercial activity he wants is the only economic platform that will enable these two historic structures to be renovated.

Mr. Monsour’s position is both arrogant and absurd.

If one Googles “historic churches converted to housing,” one confronts literally dozens of articles attesting to the fact that the predominant use of older church buildings and accessory structures (throughout the U.S. and in Europe) is housing.

This use is permitted by the present zoning; this use would be compatible with the neighborhood and with the city’s Comprehensive Plan; this use retains a pattern of zoning continuity that protects not only the West End, but also all other residential neighborhoods in the city.

The Google search also makes clear that a residential reuse of church structures is fully capable of providing the economic platform that will enable structures such as Williston’s two buildings to be preserved for many years to come.

The residential reuse of church buildings is limited only by the imagination of the architects called to the task. As shown in the articles brought up in the Google search, the size, variety, style and income levels served by these new housing units are striking.

Mr. Monsour, or any other developer, should not be permitted to ignore existing zoning laws. He should not be granted a zoning change that is not needed, that stands a whole neighborhood on its head, simply because it’s what he wants. And certainly a zoning change should not be granted on the basis of an inaccurate, self-serving justification for the change.

In short, it is in the best interests of Portland, and the West End neighborhood, that the requested zoning change be denied. A residential reuse-restoration of the Williston structures is both permitted and possible. It’s the win-win solution that the Planning Board, the City Council, the Press Herald, Greater Portland Landmarks and the neighborhood should all be working toward.

If Mr. Monsour is prepared to move forward on these terms, fine, he’s more than welcome. If not, he can sell the property to another who will take up the challenge.

 

– Special to the Press Herald