The Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday night to postpone a decision about whether to create a new historic district on Munjoy Hill.

Earlier in the night, the council voted to begin negotiations with a development team to build an affordable housing cooperative at the former West School on Douglass Street in Libbytown. The 108-unit project includes limited equity cooperative units.

In considering the historic district, City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones requested that the council delay its vote until February so councilors can have additional time to ask questions about a proposal that has divided residents and the planning board, which narrowly recommended the new district by a 4-3 vote.

“It’s purely a process issue,” Mavodones said. “There’s reams of information. This is an issue where there are a lot of constituents who have strong feelings on either side.”

The postponement means the issue will be decided by a new council, which will see a turnover of a third of its membership. April Fournier is replacing Jill Duson, who did not seek re-election to her at-large seat. Mark Dion is replacing Kim Cook, who did not run for re-election in District 5. And Andrew Zarro will replace Justin Costa, who left his District 4 seat to seek Duson’s at-large seat, but lost to Fournier.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said she would schedule one or more workshops so the new councilors can get up to speed and returning councilors can get their questions answered.

“We will do our best to make our way through this soon,” Snyder said. 

The proposed historic district has proved to be divisive, with preservation advocates arguing that Munjoy Hill has been overlooked in the past because many of its modestly designed homes, which were built primarily between 1850 and 1925, weren’t considered worthy of the protections afforded by a historic district. Proponents have watched as modest triple decker homes have been demolished and large boxy condominiums have taken their place.

But some residents say the changes brought on by a historic district are an unnecessary infringement on property owners’ rights. The planning board voted 4-3 to recommend establishing a historic district following a unanimous recommendation from Portland’s Historic Preservation Board.

The proposed district does not cover the entire the hill. The district encompasses most of the area south of Congress Street, loosely bordered by the Eastern Promenade and Waterville Street. The district extends across Congress Street along both sides of North Street.

In addition to designating a portion of Munjoy Hill as a historic district, the measure would name six individual properties as historic landmarks: 101-107 Congress St., 7 Lafayette St., 8-12 Montreal St., 51 Monument St., 21 Sheridan St., and 28 Waterville St.

Portland currently has 11 historic districts. Designated historic properties are protected from demolition, and proposed alterations or additions are reviewed by the city to ensure compatibility with a property’s original design. The city also reviews any new construction within a historic district to ensure that it blends in with older structures.

In 1990, the city of Portland adopted a historic preservation ordinance that currently protects almost 2,000 properties, including in the Old Port, Stroudwater, Congress Street, the West End and Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island. According to a city website that explains Portland’s historic preservation initiative, the intent of the ordinance is not to prevent change, but to thoughtfully manage it to ensure that the unique character of the historic areas are retained.

DOUGLASS STREET

In other business, councilors voted 7-2 to begin negotiations with Nathan Szanton and the Maine Cooperative Development Partners to build 108 units of housing at 41 and 93 Douglass St.

That proposal was selected over one by Avesta Housing and Jack Soley that was endorsed by the council’s Economic Development Committee, which would have resulted in 90 units of housing without using any of the city’s housing trust fund.

The council narrowly approved an amendment to select Szanton’s project by a 5-4 vote, with Mayor Snyder and Councilors Mavodones, Costa and Spencer Thibodeau. After the amendment passed, the council voted 7-2 to begin negotiations, with Snyder and Mavodones opposed.

Szanton’s “Douglass Commons” proposal includes a 56-unit apartment building plus 52 limited equity cooperative units in seven separate buildings. The project would formally restrict affordability for all of the units. It seeks $400,000 from the city’s trust fund.

The project includes more two- and three-bedroom units, which would allow for more families. He said at a previous workshop that the site is next to athletic fields, a public swimming pool and a skate park. And the affordability of the units – including targeting households earning between 60 and 120 percent of the area median income – would be preserved for 30 years through deed restrictions.

The project needs a zone change, site plan approval and federal funding before moving forward.

It was the opportunity to provide long-term affordable homeownership opportunities to middle-income families that seemed to sway councilors.

Councilor Tae Chong said the fact that Portland voters overwhelmingly approved rent control as a reason to try a new housing model like a co-op.

“It’s the closest thing you have for rent control,” Chong said. “You buy into the co-op and your rent doesn’t really change. It’s going to be more stable overtime.

“It creates more permanence for more families we’re hoping to attract,” he added. “We don’t want to lose more kids.”

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