The Portland City Council voted 5-4 Monday night to postpone a proposal to rezone the Elks Lodge property at 1945 Congress St. to allow for offices.

The vote to defer the decision until Jan. 20 came after an hourlong public hearing at which several longtime residents of the Stroudwater neighborhood asked the council to reject the change so a long-term plan can be drafted for their neighborhood. They expressed concern that owners of other residential properties would seek similar zoning changes.

Northland Enterprises has the 7-acre Elks Lodge property under contract for $1.25 million. It is seeking a zoning change that would allow it to add two office buildings to the site, while preserving the lodge. The office zoning that Northland Enterprises wants is similar to zoning that covers the Unum property next door.

The proposal has turned into an early test of Mayor Ethan Strimling’s stated commitment to take on the city’s housing crisis, where low vacancy rates and strong demand is driving up rents and pricing out middle income earners.

The property at 1945 Congress St. is currently zoned as single-family residential. City officials say little more than eight homes could be built on the site, but neighborhood residents are pitching an unsolicited and unfinanced plan to build 32 townhouses, saying they’re open to even more.

But the Elks, real estate agents and the developers say that no residential developer has come forward with a proposal, despite the property’s years of being on the market. Instead, two local businesses – an insurance agency and a doctor – are hoping to build two office buildings, while allowing the Elks to remain on the site in a smaller, renovated space.

Opponents argued that the land should remain residential because of the city’s housing shortage. They questioned claims that dozens of housing units could not be built at a profit along a public transportation corridor like Congress Street.

Westbrook Street resident Andrea Hawkes said there are plenty of other opportunities for office space throughout the city, including Thompson’s Point and the city’s office park on Rand Road.

“Our city needs housing – all kinds of housing,” Hawkes said. “There’s plenty of surplus land zoned for offices, but that’s not the case for land that’s zoned residential.”

The plan also has residents concerned that other land would be rezoned for commercial use, which typically yields higher sales prices, but the city’s planning staff and the developer said that would not be allowed.

Mark Malone, the real estate agent who has listed the Elks Lodge property for several years, said no one has ever made an offer for a residential development. The property was listed previously by a residential broker who found the same thing, Malone said.

“There isn’t any interest in residential development on that,” he said.

Planning Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Boepple said that while the board voted 4-2 to recommend the zoning change, the board was unanimous that the residential zoning is no longer appropriate for the parcel.

Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said, “It is a tough site for housing for a number of reasons.”

Tim Smith, the so-called exalted ruler of the Elks, rejected characterizations that the organization is looking to turn a huge profit through rezoning. He said proceeds from the sale will be reinvested into the building, leaving only about $25,000.

“We’re not in this for a profit. We’re here to stay,” Smith said. “You need to vote for this. We need change.”

Dan Koloski, president of the Stroudwater Neighborhood Association, said neighbors are concerned that the council is considering a zoning change without first having a broader conversation about the neighborhood.

“Given more time, consensus may emerge, but we’re not there yet,” Koloski said, asking the council to turn down the request until more work can be done.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he was concerned that the council was poised to make a decision without taking a comprehensive look at the neighborhood.

Levine said his department has limited staffing and is busy doing a neighborhood plan for East Bayside and updating the city’s Comprehensive Plan. It’s unclear what additional information will be available for the Jan. 20 meeting.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he didn’t think that more time or information would help bridge the gap between proponents and opponents, who claim to have a viable plan to build 32 townhouses on the site.

That would also require a zoning change, since planners said there is room for only a few single-family homes under the current zoning.

“I don’t think there’s any rendition of what’s being proposed that the neighbors would support,” Thibodeau said. “There is no 32 units of housing being proposed on this site. There is a proposal for some offices.”

Also Monday, the council unanimously approved executing a purchase option one year early for property on Canco Road, which will be used as the new headquarters for the city’s Public Works Department.

The city began leasing a portion of a warehouse at 215 Canco Road last year, with plans to relocate much of the Public Works Department eventually.

City Manager Jon Jennings said “circumstances have changed with the owner,” so the city will buy the property in March 2016, rather than March 2017. He said buying that will save the city $190,000, most of which stems from lease payments that will not be made.