This rendering shows a proposed four-story, five-unit condominium building, right of center, planned for 24 St. Lawrence St. on Munjoy Hill in Portland. Photo illustration courtesy of city of Portland

Facing pressure from residents, Portland officials are looking into temporarily banning the demolition of some buildings on Munjoy Hill as a way to preserve historic structures and affordable housing and ensure that new buildings are not out of scale in the popular neighborhood.

Residents of the hill have been concerned about how the rapid pace of development is quickly changing their East End neighborhood, especially after the City Council made wholesale changes to zoning rules in the area in 2015 to make it easier to build on smaller lots. They say Munjoy Hill is losing both affordable housing and historic buildings, which are being torn down and replaced with large, high-end condominium buildings that they view as out of scale with existing buildings in the neighborhood.

“There’s been a lot of talk for a couple of years,” said St. Lawrence Street resident Elise Loschiavo. “But the pace is getting faster and buildings are getting bigger and everyone wants to take a fresh look at how this ties into the place we all know and love.”

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district, said the community concern has prompted her to work with city planners and lawyers on the specifics of a moratorium, which are not yet available. She hopes to have a proposal for a six-month prohibition on tear-downs at the Dec. 4 council meeting.

“It is the hottest market in the city,” Ray said. “We need to make sure we’re addressing that situation the right way, and we need to make sure we have a temporary pause in the tear-downs as we figure out how to proceed.”

Munjoy Hill has been the epicenter of a historic rental housing market that pushed Portland’s vacancy rate to virtually zero and drove up rents about 40 percent in the five years ending in 2015. Once considered a place to avoid, the hill is now the city’s most expensive rental neighborhood, with the average two-bedroom apartment renting for more than $1,800 a month, including utilities.

The overall shortage of rental housing and fast-rising rents led Portland to change zoning rules to encourage more housing development around the city, and the intense demand for housing on Munjoy Hill led some developers to propose high-end housing projects there.

At a recent City Council meeting, residents argued that the zoning changes were doing more harm than good.

Residents Maggie Wolf and Karen Snyder said 20 buildings have been torn down in the neighborhood in the past few years.

This house at 24 St. Lawrence St. will be torn down and replaced with a condominium building, according to a proposal that has angered neighbors who are seeking historic district status for the neighborhood. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Wolf, a renter who lives on St. Lawrence Street, said buildings with affordable apartments – at least by Munjoy Hill standards – are the ones being razed. And they’re being replaced with new condominiums that do not blend in with the neighborhood of predominantly stick-built triple-deckers, she said.

“What comes down is affordable rental units and what goes up is high-end condo units, so instead of helping the housing crises we have actually exacerbated it,” Wolf told councilors on Nov. 6.

Snyder said Monday that she and several other residents planned to meet with city officials Thursday to discuss their options. City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin declined to make planning or historic preservation staff available for interviews Monday or Tuesday.

The most recent project to provoke concern is a proposal to tear down a two-family home at 24 St. Lawrence St. and replace it with a four-story, five-unit condominium building. The existing 2½-story Greek Revival home was built in 1851 and originally owned by a fishmonger named Fitz E. Sargent.

That project is just a few doors down from where Loschiavo lives. She said the proposed condo building “dwarfs” the neighboring structures.

A rendering of the proposed condominium building proposed for 24 St. Lawrence St. Courtesy city of Portland

“It just feels really strange to people – it’s really out of scale,” she said. “There’s no real check on scale.”

Julie Larry, advocacy director at Greater Portland Landmarks, said the historical preservation group conducted an inventory of historic and architecturally significant homes on Munjoy Hill that was last updated in 2003.

“There was a brief report compiled with recommendations for either a historic district or a conservation district, which is slightly less stringent and used in a number of neighborhoods and communities in the Boston area,” Larry said in an email. “I believe at the time there wasn’t a great deal of neighborhood support for pursuing any designation.”

Larry said some of the existing buildings near Fore Street at the end of St. Lawrence, Waterville and Atlantic streets were built around the 1846 founding of the Portland Co. to house people who worked at the railroad foundry.

Some of the homes predate the Great Fire of 1866, which began near Becky’s Diner on the waterfront and swept through downtown, destroying 1,500 buildings, before burning itself out on the slopes of Munjoy Hill.

Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said the proposal for a moratorium is generating wide support – even among people typically wary of such emergency measures. He said it’s needed now because the city “missed the boat” by not enacting historic protections years ago.

“The sudden knockdowns of generational family homes for big-box multi-units has attracted the attention of even some developer residents on the hill,” Norris said. “Development is often good. But rapid development, particularly at this pace, can be alarming. We need to pump the brakes and make sure we’re doing it right.”

At the heart of the issue is the rewrite of the R-6 zoning rules passed by the City Council in May 2015.

Confronted with an affordable-housing crisis, city officials relaxed some zoning requirements in terms of setbacks, parking requirements and minimum lot sizes. It was an effort to encourage more development and the redevelopment of relatively small lots.

At the time, city planners and councilors noted that 86 percent of the existing homes on Munjoy Hill did not comply with the zoning. Changing the rules would allow people to build homes similar to the existing neighborhood, while reducing the percentage of nonconforming buildings to 14 percent.

Ray said the moratorium would allow city leaders to look at some solutions, which could include creating a conservation district, tweaking the zoning or adopting some new design standards.

“They already have some great ideas, we just need some time to get this in place,” Ray said.

It would be the second moratorium proposed by Ray, who in the fall of 2016 got a moratorium passed to protect the view from Fort Sumner Park, which was threatened by a condo development. The moratorium gave city staff time to protect the view while also allowing the development to move forward.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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