Continued demolitions of traditional housing stock and construction approvals for oversized and ungainly condominium blocks are making it clear that the recently adopted Munjoy Hill Conservation Overlay District is not working as intended to protect and conserve the architectural fabric and residential character of the Hill.

Munjoy Hill was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a working- and middle-class neighborhood with single- and two-family houses often cheek by jowl on very small lots. Economic conditions and the former R-6 urban residential zoning ordinance maintained this architectural fabric, which has long provided a major share of Portland’s affordable-housing inventory. In recent years, Portlanders have realized that the many antique frame houses on the Hill contribute mightily to our civic amenity and sense of history.

In 2015, the City Council, seeking to increase residential density in the inner city, revised the R-6 zone to reduce minimum lot sizes to 2,000 square feet, reduce setbacks to 5 feet and increase permitted lot coverage. This step opened up hundreds of small Munjoy Hill lots to redevelopment.

Suddenly, developers found it worth their while to buy up existing one-, two- and three-family houses, demolish them and replace them with oversized multi-unit upscale condominium blocks. In some cases, small lots were combined to make room for large institutional structures.

Provoked by these actions, Munjoy Hill residents convinced the council in late 2017 to adopt a six-month moratorium to allow consideration of further amendments to the R-6 zone and a possible demolition ordinance. This decision left intact the reduced lot size and setbacks of the revised R-6 zone with only minor modifications. The demolition ordinance included loopholes that would permit prompt demolition of all but truly historic structures. Residents protested that this was not enough, but it was the best we could get at the time.

Now that the moratorium has expired, it is clear that these modest changes are indeed too little and maybe too late. There has been no reduction in the flow of demolitions and condominium construction on the Hill.


Oversized and disharmonious four-story condominiums are under construction at 9 Moody St., 5 Cumberland Ave. and 32 St. Lawrence St. Approval has recently been given for the demolition of a “preferably preserved” frame house at 37 Montreal St. to permit the construction of a 14-unit, 4½-story condominium block in its stead. “Grandfathered” four-story condominium blocks will be going up at 24 St. Lawrence St. and 25 Monument St. A four-story, two-unit condo tower has been built on an 1,800-square-foot lot at 5 Merrill St. Demolition permits have been issued for existing affordable housing at 15 Cumberland Ave., 33 Howard St., 47 Monument St. and 110 Sheridan St.

The city is considering establishing historic districts along North Street and a part of the Eastern Promenade. These developments are sweeping away the historic architecture that such districts are supposed to preserve.

If our city is serious about preserving our remarkable traditional neighborhoods and the affordable housing still there, we must immediately call a halt at this development and look once more at our regulations. Potential improvements to the Conservation Overlay include another look at the minimum lot size and setback provisions of the R-6 zone; provisions restricting the combining of small lots to permit oversized structures; restrictions of height to no more than three stories in most Munjoy Hill neighborhoods; reinforcement of the mass and scale provisions of the design standards; and possible elimination of the alternative design review option, which allows the Historic Preservation Board to review proposed new construction in historic districts.

Good contemporary architecture is always welcome on Munjoy Hill. However, ungainly and oversized blocks that are of a mass and scale incompatible with their surroundings are not.

It would be a great shame to sacrifice the character, traditional charm and affordable housing of one of Portland’s most attractive neighborhoods to inconsiderate and incompatible condominium development. Our first try at conserving this neighborhood is not succeeding. We must try again.

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