February 25, 2013

Looking up on the Hill

After decades of decline, Munjoy Hill has become the city's most desirable neighborhood – with housing prices to match.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As a boy, Brit Vitalius, 39, a Portland real estate broker, remembers seeing boarded-up houses on the Eastern Promenade while his father pointed out the spectacular views of Casco Bay.

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Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Daniel Haley Jr., a lifelong resident of Munjoy Hill, bought his current home on the Eastern Promenade in 1995. The Hill developed a “rough reputation” in the ’70s and ’80s, he said.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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It was an odd juxtaposition, even for a child who didn't know anything about real estate. But Munjoy Hill in the 1980s had been on a downward slide for decades. Once a respectable working-class stronghold, it had become the kind of shabby neighborhood where visitors were told to be careful walking alone at night.

For years, people have predicted that the Hill would see the same gentrification that transformed the West End 30 years ago. For years, those predictions have been dismissed as wishful thinking.

No more. The Hill's turn has come, and the area is now the most desirable real estate in Maine, says Vitalius, who specializes in multi-family buildings.

"Anything on the Hill is hot right now," he says. "Every building that sells gets fixed up, and most were pretty run down."

The Hill's revival began more than a decade ago -- interrupted briefly by the collapse of the real estate market during the Great Recession -- and has picked up again as if the collapse never happened.

Real estate sales tracked by the Multiple Listing Service, a database for Realtors to share information about properties, tell the story.

Over the last five years, two of the three most expensive residential properties sold in the city have been on the Hill: a $1.5 million sale in 2007 of a two-family home at 176 Eastern Promenade, and a $1.4 million sale in 2009 at 114 Eastern Promenade.

Both of those homes cost more than $525 per square foot. While a much larger mansion on the West End sold for more money, properties on Munjoy Hill now command the highest residential prices in the city on a per-square-foot basis, says John Hatcher, owner of the Hatcher Group of Keller Williams Realty.

Since 2010, the average price of three-unit buildings on the Hill over the last two years jumped from $316,000 to $365,000, a 16 percent increase.

While sale prices haven't climbed back to their 2008 peak of $450,000, the Hill's real estate market has been healthier than in the rest of Cumberland County, which has seen no growth since 2009.

Rents on the Hill also have increased, says Crandall Toothaker, one of the city's biggest landlords.

One-bedroom apartments that leased for $700 to $750 per month a decade ago now go for $1,000, including utilities, he says. Two-bedrooms can fetch between $1,100 and $1,800.

A decade ago, most of the prospective tenants moving to Portland wanted to live in the West End, he says.

"Now we see a complete change," Toothaker says. "Now they say, 'What do you have available on the East End?'"

Toothaker himself has joined the trend, undertaking a major renovation of a house he bought 18 months ago on the Eastern Promenade near Fort Allen Park.

The arrival 13 years ago of the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Congress Street, and later Rosemont Market & Bakery, the Hilltop Coffee Shop and several restaurants like Blue Spoon, Bar Lola and The Front Room, have added to the Hill's appeal, say real estate brokers and residents.

The Hill is now the hip place to be because it offers an easy walk to downtown, water views and a strong sense of community, says Rita Yarnold, who grew up on the Hill and now owns Bay Realty Associates.

"It's nice to see the Hill come back because I watched the decline," she says. "It does my heart good to see the change."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Rosemont Market & Bakery and Hilltop Coffee Shop on Congress Street have become popular spots among Munjoy Hill locals.

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