The proposed historic district on Munjoy Hill would include this section of Vesper Street and would mean property owners would have to go before the historic preservation board or historic preservation staff to make exterior alterations. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Barbara Vestal and Ned Chester have lived on Munjoy Hill for more than 40 years, first attracted to the feel of the working class neighborhood.

They hope a historic district proposed for their neighborhood will protect its diversity and character along with preserving its history.

“Munjoy Hill is unique and part of the draw is something like this does not exist in many other places,” said Chester, who with Vestal operates a law practice and owns several affordable housing apartment buildings on the Hill.

Large homes overlooking the Eastern Promenade would also be part of the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The Planning Board recommended 4-3 vote last week that the City Council approve the historic district, which would largely be a stretch of North Street between Congress and Walnut streets and much of the section of Munjoy Hill between Kellogg Street, Congress Street and Eastern Promenade.

Development of the Hill began in earnest around the 1850s after the establishment of the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad and Portland Company. The area saw a second wave of rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1866, another wave in the late 19th and early 2oth centuries by European immigrants. The large houses overlooking the Eastern Promenade were also constructed at the turn of the 20th century.

“Munjoy Hill has always been the city’s melting pot. It has the richest diversity of housing in the city,” Chester said.

If approved by the council this fall, the historic district would be the 12th in the city – historic districts cover much of the West End and sections of Commercial, Congress and India streets – and the eighth on the peninsula. It includes 427 parcels, close to half of the buildings on Munjoy Hill. While not part of the district, six properties on Munjoy Hill would be named individual historic landmarks: 103 Congress St., 7 Lafayette St., 12 Montreal St., 51 Monument St., 21 Sheridan St. and 28 Waterville St.

The city’s historic preservation ordinance would dictate how exterior alterations and additions to buildings in the district are handled. Approval from the historic preservation board or historic preservation staff would be necessary before exterior work can be done.

Thomas Ainsworth, a self-proclaimed “lover of history, especially Maine history” who owns a building within the district on Morning Street, said he has been dismayed when in recent years older Munjoy Hill buildings have been torn down so that less aesthetically pleasing but more expensive housing can be built.

“To allow these older buildings to be razed to make way for more modern structures means the loss of that building, but also the degradation of the surrounding historic buildings and neighborhood,” said Ainsworth, who lives within the Stroudwater Historic District.

Vestal was a member of the Planning Board when it adopted the historic preservation ordinance in 1990.

“This is a different sort of historic district than you would have seen 30 years ago when the mansion on the West End were what was being valued,” she said. “Over the last decade, working class homes have equally been seen as having value to be preserved.”

Wayne Valzania, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said his group is advocating for the historic district.

“Overall what we hope is the historic district designation will allow a bit of oversight, a bit more thought and a dampening, so to speak, of the slash, burn and rebuild that has gone on,” Valzania said.

Four years ago, he said, there was a push to develop Munjoy Hill after some zoning rules were relaxed, putting into jeopardy the houses that have been standing on the hill for generations.

Betty Wuesthoff, whose Morning Street home is part of the proposed district said “the homes sought to be preserved by inclusion in the district are memorials to those who occupied them.”

The historic district, she said, would “stabilize our neighborhood and assure us our property values would not be lessened by destruction of surrounding homes only to be replaced by higher than normal structures way out of keeping  with the prevailing historic architecture and ‘streetscape.'”

Much of the new construction, she said, is “unsightly, out-of-character large, boxy structures with rents or sales prices much beyond the abilities of local residents to pay.”

Planning Board member Austin Smith, who joined Vice-Chairperson Maggie Stanley and board members David Silk and Bob Dunfey in recommending the historic district designation, said doing so will help preserve what is special about Munjoy Hill.

“Munjoy Hill is special. We have heard that in all the meetings and we hear that from the neighborhood and residents who want to preserve it. I think this will be a great instrument for doing that,” he said.

Planning Board member Sean Dundon, who along with Marpheen Chann and Brad Mazer voted against recommending the district, didn’t see it the same way. He said the zones boundaries were too gerrymandered and the designation would make the comprehensive plan’s sustainability goals of energy efficiency and updated building safety more difficult to achieve in that area.

Chann said the district’s period of historic significance – 1850-1925 – was too broad. He would much rather support a historic district that was tied to a particular era.

“I am not saying never to a historic district, but I am saying it isn’t the right policy or right tool right now,” said Mazer, the board chairman.

The board was supposed to act on the item in March, but that action was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

 

 

The Planning Board has approved the formation of a historic district for sections of Munjoy Hill. The designation has the approval of the Historic Preservation Committee and awaits review by the City Council. Courtesy / City of Portland

 

 

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