Carol Connor’s house was not included in the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District, and she asked the city to list it as a local landmark so it could be protected. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Portland City Council on Monday will hold a public hearing and possibly vote on a much-debated proposal to create a new historic district covering nearly half of Munjoy Hill, a longtime working-class neighborhood with ocean views that has gained favor with developers looking to replace old homes with luxury condominiums.

If approved, Munjoy Hill would be the 12th historic district in the city and it would cover 49 percent of the hill – primarily the area between Congress Street, the Eastern Promenade and Waterville Street. A sizable portion of North Street and some adjacent blocks are also included.

The proposal would add historic protections for 376 parcels, or 88 percent of the properties in the district, limiting the types of exterior renovations that can be made and making it more difficult to demolish buildings. The remaining 51 parcels within the district would be designated as noncontributing structures that could be demolished.

The proposal includes a recommendation to designate six properties as local landmarks, although one property has been removed because of the owner was not properly notified.

Advocates say the Munjoy Hill Historic District would help preserve the neighborhood’s history as a diverse, working-class neighborhood and help slow some of the rapid redevelopment of the area. Developed largely over a 75-year period from 1850 to 1925, the hill was originally home to many immigrant families who found work in the Portland Co. railroad foundry, the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad, fisheries and other industries.

Opponents, however, worry that the designation will make it more difficult and expensive to maintain their properties, while stifling investment and housing development.

Jeremy Rutkiewicz’s house is in the proposed historic district on Munjoy Hill. He opposes creation of the district because he worries it will be a hardship for people who want to make improvements to their property. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jeremy Rutkiewicz, a 37-year-old artist who has lived on Munjoy Hill for most of the last 17 years, said he was disappointed that his single-family home at 161 Congress St., which was built in 1874, was listed as a contributing building as part of the proposed district. He opposes the designation, because he worries that it would “create undue hardship on the residents of the hill, especially during this time of increased work from home.”

“We who are against the Historic District have been portrayed as outsiders, developers, speculators, and whatever else helps to detract from our take on the issue. It’s just not true,” Rutkiewicz said in an email, adding that he likes the interplay between old and new buildings. “I’m so excited by the mingling of the classic architecture and the new, more modern designs! This intersection of new and old honors the true history of Munjoy Hill, and is the foundation of a dialogue that I’d like to continue being a part of for years to come.”

Supporters include Carol Connor, a 77-year-old retired teacher who was born in her family’s prior home on Waterville Street. Connor was disappointed not to see her current home at 12 Montreal St. designated as part of the proposed district. Connor said she bought the home, which used to belong to her aunt, and moved in 27 years ago. She has asked the city to designate it as a local landmark to protect the building, which has been home to painters, joiners, railroad workers, longshoremen and teachers since it was built in 1855.

“I have a prime piece of property,” Connor said. “When I die, if my house is not protected in any way, the person who buys my house is going to tear it down and build a great big box because I have a great big double lot with a water view.”

Jeremy Rutkiewicz’s, left, and Zane Peterson live together in Rutiewicsz’s house is in the proposed historic district on Munjoy Hill. Rutkiewicz opposes the creation of the district because he worries it will be a hardship for people who want to make improvements to their property. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

She said seven years ago, a man stopped by her house and promised her that he could get her a million dollars for the property, but she refused. And even though she could probably get more now, she still believes it’s more important to preserve the home.

“The house holds those memories of all of those wonderful working-class people and I am passionate about it,” she said. “I can’t be bought.”

Other landmark designations are 101-107 Congress, 7 Lafayette, 8-12 Montreal, 51 Monument and 28 Waterville. A home at 21 Sheridan St., which was once the boyhood home of acclaimed movie director John Ford, is expected to be removed from the list because the owner was not properly notified.

Mayor Kate Snyder declined to state her position, or whether she was leaning for or against the proposal, prior to what’s expected to be a lengthy public hearing and council deliberation on Monday.

The proposal comes to the council with a recommendation in support from the Planning Board after a narrow 4-3 vote in favor. The council postponed a vote on November, effectively punting the decision to a council with three newly elected members, who reviewed the proposal during a workshop last month.

“I’m going to wait until we have our discussion on Monday,” Snyder said. 

The debate seems to center on whether a historic designation will negatively impact affordable housing development, push low-income residents out of the neighborhood and unnecessarily restrict a homeowner’s ability to make improvements.

Theo Greene, an assistant sociology professor at Bowdoin College who studies urban issues like gentrification, said people worried about longtime residents being priced out of their neighborhoods have a valid concern, based on his research in other cities. He noted that African Americans were forced out of  a neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, after a strict historic district was created and people faced fines and high maintenance costs. Something similar happened in Washington, D.C., where a historic district led to higher taxes, he said.

Carol Connor’s house was not included in the historic district, so she asked the city to list it as a local landmark so it could be protected. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There are many opportunities for this to be done in a responsible way, but I haven’t seen that happen without a concerted effort,” said Greene, who lives in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood. “Hopefully they will be able to do this in a way that allows people to maintain their home and for the neighborhood to maintain its cultural integrity.”

The city, as well as advocates such as Greater Portland Landmarks, say that’s what they have done.

Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director, said the research is unsettled about the impact historic districts have on affordable housing and the socioeconomic makeup of a neighborhood, because the rules vary widely from city to city. And, she said, there are many other factors that go into housing affordability.

But Grimando said the city’s Historic Preservation division works with property owners on an individual basis to identify cost-effective materials and design solutions that meet the historic district requirements. And the homeowners would be able to make repairs using the same kind of material that’s currently on their homes.

New developments, subject to underlying zoning rules, could still move forward, Grimando said, though it would require an additional review by Historic Preservation to ensure the building is designed in accordance with neighborhood character. And additional housing density could be achieved by converting larger single-family homes into apartments, or building accessory dwelling units.

“There is still an ability to build … housing up there and I welcome that,” she said. “It would just retain our current stock by doing that.”

And the city’s track record with housing development in existing historic districts shows that it’s possible. Over the last five years, 536 housing units have been created in historic districts through either new construction, adaptive reuse and additions, according to a Jan. 27 presentation to the City Council. That does not include another 295 units that have been approved but not built.

Meanwhile, rents and median home sales have remained lower and more stable in the West End, which has two historic districts. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 2017 was $1,408 in the West End, compared to $1,482 in the East End, which includes Munjoy Hill. And while median average home sale prices doubled in the East End from $300,000 to $600,000 in 2015, prices in the West End remained relatively stable, going from a little more than $200,000 to roughly $300,000, according to the council presentation.

Julie Larry, advocacy director at Greater Portland Landmarks, said the Munjoy Hill Historic District will not inflate property values, because those values are being driven by development interest. If anything, the district will control the rise in property values, because it will remove the speculation from developers, who are willing to overpay for the land so they can tear down a building and build something larger by combining it with another adjacent lot.

Larry said preservation efforts on the hill date back to 1980s, but never advanced because most residents were opposed to it. But now, she said that sentiment has changed as residents have seen their neighborhood rapidly develop in response to a zoning change made in 2015 to encourage more development. She estimated that roughly 80 percent of the 375 or so people who have weighed in on the district support it.

“The neighborhood has changed its mind and we’re seeing that,” Larry said. “There are some vocal opponents, but we have been surprised. It’s a little bit unusual to see that level of support.”

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