Munjoy Hill, once characterized by low rents, deteriorated housing, drugs and street crime, has become one of Portland’s most desirable residential districts. Now it may become the victim of its own success as its original housing stock of one- and two-family frame dwellings is being rapidly demolished and replaced by oversized condominium blocks.

Unless the energized residents of the Hill are able to convince Portland’s Planning Board and City Council to reverse changes to the recently liberalized R-6 residential zone or to adopt a conservation district for the neighborhood, there is a good chance that much of the architectural amenity that has led to the Hill’s recent renaissance will be lost forever.

The Hill, which was developed as a working-class neighborhood after the Great Fire of 1866 and into the early decades of the 20th century, lacks the monumental grandeur of Portland’s downtown or Western Prom, but its original residential architecture is surprisingly intact. Greater Portland Landmarks estimates that nearly two-thirds of the currently standing Munjoy Hill residences exhibit either moderate or high architectural integrity.

A mixture of single-family and two-family frame houses, many now subdivided into smaller apartments, along with a number of “three-deckers,” some 700 buildings in all, line the streets, lending the neighborhood a pleasant human feel and scale for residents, pedestrians, dog walkers and admirers of the ocean views from Fore Street and the Eastern Promenade.

Until 2015, the R-6 residential zone required scale-appropriate setbacks and building proportions for new construction and renovations on most of the Hill. Very small lots could be developed only with the careful oversight of city planning staff to ensure that new structures would harmonize with the scale and mass of the existing homes and streetscape. There was considerable upgrading of existing buildings and some new construction, all without doing violence to the basic fabric of the neighborhood.

In 2015, the City Council, on recommendation of the Planning Board, relaxed the requirements of the R-6 residental zone in hopes of stimulating more housing density in Portland’s already most dense residential neighborhood. This measure did not bring the hoped-for construction of affordable rental housing. Instead, the zoning change made it economically feasible for developers to buy existing two- and three-family rental properties on small lots and then tear them down, to be replaced by condominium blocks of six or more units that fully cover the lots and rise up four stories on the street, sometimes with dead parking on the ground floor. These ungainly structures are of a wholly different scale than the original stock and disrupt the rhythm and harmony of Hill streetscapes.

At the behest of alarmed residents, the City Council has enacted a six-month moratorium on Munjoy Hill demolitions. Compromise interim planning regulations govern new construction during the moratorium. Here are some suggestions on how we can go forward:

 Easing zoning restrictions will not bring affordable housing to Munjoy Hill’s small lots. For some years, construction costs have made small rental housing projects uneconomical. The only affordable housing on the Hill is, and will continue to be, the existing aging housing stock that is rented at affordable rates.

The old R-6 zone permitted reasonable development of buildings that make sense on small lots – single- and two-family houses of the kind now there, with an occasional moderate-scale condo project on a larger lot. The closer we can get back to the old R-6, the better.

The quality of many Hill buildings and streetscapes justifies a historic district similar to that in the West End – precise contours to be determined with the assistance of Greater Portland Landmarks.

The areas of the Hill not protected by a historic district need either stronger R-6 zoning or a conservation district with less emphasis on historic authenticity, but a sensitivity to mass, scale, light and streetscape. Such an ordinance could include special design requirements and require design review either by a conservation district board or city planning staff.

Demolitions of existing buildings – particularly those that provide rental housing, have architectural integrity or contribute to the rhythm of Hill streetscapes – should be regulated. Some possibilities include requiring replacement of any affordable housing removed; providing a period of repose to permit development of alternatives, and requiring a cash payment for every unit of affordable housing demolished.

At this point, our goal should be to permit and facilitate development of the kind and scale that presently exists, including larger structures where circumstances permit, but to discourage and prevent the overdevelopment that threatens the charm and amenity of the Munjoy Hill residential neighborhood.