Councilors rejected the creation of a historic district on part of Munjoy Hill, including this section of Vesper Street. File photo

PORTLAND —  After months of debate, a divided City Council Monday voted down the creation of a historic preservation district that would have included more than 420 houses on Munjoy Hill.

The vote was 5-4 with April Fournier, Nick Mavodones, Pious Ali, Andrew Zarro and Tae Chong opposing the district.

The council did unanimously approve individual historic preservation distinction for five properties: 101-107 Congress St., 7 Lafayette St., 8-12 Montreal St., 51 Monument St. and 28 Waterville St. Those buildings date back to at least the 1870s and have, over time, maintained their original architectural style.

This building at 101-107 Congress St., owned by Ned Chester and Barbara Vestal, is one of the five individual historic landmarks the council designated Monday. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald Buy this Photo

Munjoy Hill would have been the city’s 12th historic district, encompassing close to half the buildings in the neighborhood, on a section of North Street between Congress and Walnut streets and much of the section of Munjoy Hill between Kellogg Street, Congress Street and Eastern Promenade. Like others in the city, the district would have been subject to the historic preservation ordinance requiring owners of qualifying homes to get approval before making any exterior alternations.

The Planning Board in August narrowly approved the district, 4-3, before sending it to the council. The more than 40 people who spoke at the council meeting Monday were divided as well.

Proponents argued the district was needed to preserve the character of Munjoy Hill, honor its history and help it stay affordable. Pamela Roy, of Waterville Street, said a historic preservation district is an important tool to “protect the fabric of this historic neighborhood.”

Opponents, however, said the designation would make it difficult for owners to do as they wish with their own property and would limit the construction of new housing. Christine Grimando, the city’s director of planning and urban development, said, however, that more than 530 housing units have been created in historic districts over the last five years, with another 295 approved and awaiting construction.

Jeremy Rutkiewicz, of 161 Congress St. said a historic designation will make it harder for homeowners to adapt their homes to their needs.

“Historic preservation is a rigid, impractical model and it prevents us from growing and improving our homes,” he said.

Alex Jaegerman, a resident of 398 Spring St. in the West End and owner of 19-21 Morning St. on the hill, said that hasn’t been the case for him.  Being located in a historic district has not made it difficult to upkeep his West End home, he said.

“I find the regulations are not especially burdensome,” Jaegerman said. “You have to use certain materials and have to protect the building as best you can, but there is flexibility there.”

Ken Capron, a resident of Forest Avenue in the Riverton section of the city, questions why Munjoy Hill is getting all this attention when there are so many other neighborhoods “that have some historic value to them somewhere.”

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 development after the Great Fire of 1866. Another wave occurred in the early 20th century when European immigrants came to the neighborhood and African-American families settled near Lafayette Street.

The large houses overlooking the Eastern Promenade were also constructed at the turn of the 20th century. The hill was once one of the more affordable areas of the city to live, but over the years as older buildings were purchased, they were demolished and new buildings with more expensive luxury condos went up in their place.

“We have an opportunity to use the historic designation as our best tool to prevent teardown and preserve a sense of place that has been so important and defining in the city of Portland,” said Mayor Kate Snyder, who along with councilors Mark Dion, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau supported the designation.

Ray, who represents Munjoy Hill on the council, said the designation would help preserve the affordable housing that exists in some of the hill’s older buildings. Part of the impetus for the historic preservation district distinction, she said, was the rate at which older buildings were being demolished on Munjoy Hill and replaced by unaffordable luxury condos.

Prior to the city enacting a demolition delay, she said, there were 15 demolitions on Munjoy Hill in a matter of 30 months.

“Affordable housing has been lost. And that to me is a good reason to support this district,” Roy said.

Thibodeau, whose district covers much of the Western Promenade Historic District said supporting the district on the other side of the peninsula was a “no-brainer” because he has seen the quality of projects on the West End improved because of the historic preservation designation.

Chong  was unconvinced, saying “just because it works on one side of town doesn’t mean that will be replicated on the other side of town.”

Fournier would have liked to see property owners have more say if their property is included and be able to request historic preservation rather than the city forming a district.

Zarro, who has worked in the field of historic preservation in the past, said before he could support the Munjoy Hill Historic Preservation District, he wanted to see a study on the economic impact of historic districts.

The council seemed interested in doing an economic impact study on the city’s 11 historic districts, but City Manager Jon Jennings said because that would require money and resources, it would have to go before the council at a future date.

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