The Portland City Council narrowly rejected creating a historic district on Munjoy Hill – a move that would have made it more difficult to tear down hundreds of buildings and replace them with large luxury condominiums that some consider out-of-scale with the neighborhood.

The council’s 5-4 vote Monday night came after 90 minutes of council discussion and debate about how the designation would impact efforts to create affordable housing and how it might impact socio-economic and racial diversity in one the city’s most coveted neighborhoods.

Advocates said that while Munjoy Hill lacks the type of high architecture prevalent in the city’s other districts, like the West End, it was worthy of preservation since its mishmash development over a 75-year span reflected Portland’s evolution. But a majority of councilors said they lacked enough information and data to support the move.

City Councilor April Fournier questioned whose history was being preserved. She said she supports a property owner’s rights – both to ask the city to designate their property for protection and for others to decline. She didn’t think it should be forced upon them.

“We all different ideas of what is beautiful and what is pleasing,” Fournier said.

Advocates, including preservationists, city staff and councilors, argued that a historic designation was needed to preserve the unique character of Munjoy Hill, whose ocean views and proximity to downtown have excited developers. They also argued that, without a designation, what little affordable housing that remains on the hill, primarily in older buildings, will be lost and replaced with luxury condos.

“No affordable housing has been built on Munjoy Hill under the current conditions in quite sometime,” said City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district. “Affordable housing has been lost. And that for me is a good reason to support this district.”

The council did, however, designate five local landmarks: 101-107 Congress St., 7 Lafayette St., 8-12 Montreal St., 51 Monument St. and 28 Waterville St. A home at 21 Sheridan St., which was once the boyhood home of acclaimed movie director John Ford, was removed from the list because the owner was not properly notified.

The vote came after councilors mostly heard support about a nearly three-year effort to create a historic district to help slow the pace of gentrification on the city’s East End.

Supporters said that buildings on Munjoy Hill are worthy of preservation even though the largely wooden structures lack the obvious historical appeal of the brick-built West End and Old Port. They said that the neighborhood reflects the city’s working-class history. Opponents, however, worried that the proposal would thwart housing development and lead to less socio-economic diversity on the hill.

The proposal seemed to have generated support on the hill. Advocates say that 80 percent of the public comment to-date has been in support of the district and supporters outnumbered opponents Monday night.

Vesper Street resident Erna Koch urged the council to pass the proposal, saying that the current condo boom is eliminating much needed affordable housing and making it more difficult for a diverse range of people to live there.

“It feels like a gold rush where developers are selling sweeping views for top dollar – that is not encouraging diversity,” Koch said. “An historic district is a sensible way to retain affordable housing and slow the developer gold rush.”

Jeremy Rutkiewicz, who owns a home on Congress Street, opposed the district, saying that he needs flexibility to make improvements and add on to his home without the additional bureaucracy.

“These are our homes – they’re not museums,” Rutkiewicz said. “It’s quirky up here. It’s what drew me and other people up to this neighborhood.”

Residents have expressed concern over the last few years about the rapid pace of development on Munjoy Hill, as some of the city’s older and more affordable housing stock has been demolished and replaced with large, luxury condominiums that do not blend with surrounding buildings.

After enacting a moratorium and adopting additional design rules and demolition restrictions, the city and advocates turned their attention to creating the Munjoy Hill Historic District, which would have been the city’s 12th. The city partnered with Greater Portland Landmarks and the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization to conduct a historic inventory of the buildings within the zone to determine whether they’re worthy of preservation.

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

The district would have covered 49 percent on the buildings on the hill – primarily within 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 have added historic protections for 376 parcels, or 88 percent of the properties in the district, limiting the types of exterior renovations that could be made and making it more difficult to demolish buildings. The remaining 51 parcels within the district would have been designated as noncontributing structures that could be demolished.

The proposal came 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 in November, effectively punting the decision to a council with three newly elected members, who reviewed the proposal during a workshop last month.

Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director, said the district designation would help preserve existing housing and ensure that any new buildings would need to be designed and scaled to fit with the surrounding neighborhood. She said it would make demolitions more difficult, but not impossible. And that new housing could still be created.

“There are still ways lots can be creatively used for housing production,” Grimando said.

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. And 2017 rents and median sales prices on Munjoy Hill were higher and more volatile than the West End in 2017, despite the latter being in a historic district.

Grimando said the district sought to preserve the city’s working class history.

“The answer was never purely architectural, it was always about the social and cultural history of the hill,” she said.

Morning Street resident Diane Davison said the district was needed to bring balance to the hill’s growth.

“The designation is long overdue on Portland’s eastern peninsula,” Davison said. “The council’s decision tonight will either erase the history of Munjoy Hill or preserve it and allow it to coexist with conscious development into the future.”

Several councilors wanted the city to conduct an economic impact study before the council vote, but staff cautioned that such a study would take time – and money – and the city’s window for approving a district would likely close before it was complete, forcing them to start the process anew.

Mayor Kate Snyder urged councilors to support the proposal and then work to find funding for an economic study of all of the city’s historic districts.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. In addition to Snyder and Ray, Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Mark Dion voted in support, with Councilors Pious Ali, Andrew Zarro, Tae Chong, Nicholas Mavodones and Fournier voting against it.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.