What does historic preservation mean? When a new building is built beside an old, historically significant building, must the new structure match the old one’s architecture exactly? Well, no. For one thing, a perfect match could be prohibitively expensive. For another, Portland’s Historic Preservation Board doesn’t require it.

But sometimes a worthy effort is made. The main sanctuary of the St. Lawrence Church, on Munjoy Hill, was taken down in 2008 because it was unsafe. The original plan – to restore the exterior and build a 400-seat performing arts center inside – had to be abandoned. Friends of the St. Lawrence Church then proposed rebuilding the sanctuary using much of the granite that had been saved from the demolition. In 2010, the project received conditional rezoning, and a parking and traffic plan was approved. 

But the rebuilding plan had to be abandoned, too: a total rebuild would cost more than the St. Lawrence could be expected to raise.

Which brings us to today. The current proposed design of the St. Lawrence Arts Center has been presented a couple of times, both at a December community meeting on Munjoy Hill and at a February workshop before the Historic Preservation Board. The original “massing study” showed a large, metal-skinned box with a glassed-in “promenade room” atop the flat roof. A subsequent design showed a still-massive-looking structure, but with the original box broken up into two boxes. 

This structure, or a modest revision of it, will be presented at a Historic Preservation Board workshop on Wednesday, May 29, at 4:00 p.m. in room 209 at City Hall. The workshop is open to the public.

There is little doubt that a performing arts center would be welcome on Munjoy Hill. There does not seem to be consensus, however, about the scale and overall design of the proposed center. Some people hate the design. Others either welcome or are unconcerned about the design. And others – majorities in a Portland Press Herald online survey and in a separate survey conducted by the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association – support the Center but have expressed reservations. 

Many questions will no doubt be asked at the May 29 workshop, both by members of the board and by Munjoy Hill neighbors and other concerned Portlanders. We can expect questions pertaining to the Preservation Board’s own Standard No. 9. This Standard, which appears in the Board’s Historic Resources Design Manual, doesn’t discourage modern additions to historic structures like the current St. Lawrence Parish Hall.

But the Standard also states that a contemporary design is “not to be discouraged” if “the design is compatible with the size, scale, color, material, and character of the property, neighborhood, or environment.”  That’s a big “if” –  the design proposals we have seen to date fall far short of this part of Standard No. 9.

Reaching out to the community – both to explain and to listen – should be a serious goal of any development project that impacts a neighborhood. Our committee, the Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill, has requested meetings several times with the St. Lawrence director and her Board of Directors. We have consistently been told, in effect, “not now” or “we can meet when the process is further along.” We feel that the process is plenty far along for community input.

The May 29 meeting is a great opportunity for Munjoy Hill and other Portlanders to view the latest design and to weigh in on how this design harmonizes or doesn’t harmonize with a residential neighborhood.

At future meetings, with the Planning Board and with City Council, other issues will arise besides historic preservation.

One is the financial feasibility of a 400-seat venue, especially in light of the sale of the 530-seat Port City Music Hall because it was not financially self-sustaining. (How big is 400 seats? The Portland Stage Company’s main stage has 287 seats. One Longfellow Square has 200.) 

Another issue is the parking and traffic impact of placing such a large venue – really more of a regional than a neighborhood or even a city venue – in a dense residential neighborhood. Imagine adding a couple hundred cars to the neighborhood on a hundred or more nights a year. Then imagine snow-choked streets in February.

Community involvement and dialogue will be essential at every step of the way – even if we’re not invited. If you haven’t been involved yet, come to room 209 at City Hall. May 29 at 4:00 p.m. is a great time to start! 

 

Tim Baehr and Ross Fields of Portland are members of Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill.