Advocates who have been working for nearly three years to create a historic district on Munjoy Hill were reeling Tuesday following the City Council’s narrow rejection of the proposal late Monday night.

The council voted 5-4 against the proposal, which 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.

“We knew it would be a close vote, and you never really know how close votes will go. So, I guess I would say (I’m) disappointed and concerned more than surprised,” Julie Larry, advocacy director for Greater Portland Landmarks, said Tuesday “There are lots of conversations and emails circulating today, so I think it is a bit early to say what, if anything, might happen next.”

The vote came after a prolonged public hearing and 90 minutes of council discussion and debate about how the designation would affect efforts to create affordable housing and how it might affect socioeconomic and racial diversity in one the city’s most coveted neighborhoods. A majority of residents who spoke during the public hearing Monday evening expressed support for the designation.

Preservationists say no City Council had voted against a historic district since the ordinance was established in 1990.

Advocates said that while Munjoy Hill lacks the type of distinctive architecture prevalent in the city’s other districts, including the West End, it was worthy of preservation because the mishmash of development there 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 also 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.

“There’s still a lot of history that still needs to be discussed and uncovered in our communities as we work towards equity. For me, that’s a big piece that’s still missing in the narrative of historic preservation,” Fournier said. “(I) support the right of homeowners to request historic preservation and designation of their own property. But I have a hard time with neighbors making decisions for others on how and what they can do to make their home feel like home.”

Advocates, including preservationists, city staff and councilors, argued that a historic designation was needed to preserve the character of Munjoy Hill, whose ocean views and proximity to downtown have lured 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,” City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district, said Monday night. “Affordable housing has been lost. And that for me is a good reason to support this district.”

Ray said Tuesday that she was “very disappointed” with the vote. She said demolitions have been prohibited since the historic district was proposed in 2019, which may have given some people the impression that “the demolition rush is behind us.”

“But now those protections have been lifted and once again it’s open season on Munjoy Hill,” she said. “I expect we’ll lose more old buildings and affordable units as a result.”

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.

Officials have struggled to address development concerns on Munjoy Hill, first enacting a series of building moratoriums to protect the view from Fort Sumner Park and to stop demolitions while planners created new demolition and design rules. The council adopted a conservation overlay district for the hill in 2018 that included new design rules and an 18-month pause on demolition applications on certain homes that a developer could wait out, or work with planners on an alternative proposal. The council also encouraged staff to look into a historic district designation.

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 were worthy of preservation.

Developed largely between 1850 and 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 of 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 also were 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 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.

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

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 socioeconomic diversity on the hill.

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.

 

On Tuesday morning, several proponents let councilors know their feelings, casting it as a death knell for middle-class hill residents, whose homes are worth more to speculative developers looking to demolish them than they are to families and workers.

“There are literally lines of out-of-staters interested in scooping up our Munjoy Hill properties,” Morning Street resident Julius Ciembroniewicz wrote to the five councilors who voted against the district. “Ten years from now, as a direct consequence of your actions on 2/1/21, Munjoy Hill won’t resemble anything New England-like, and will likely be an elitist colony of mostly seasonal residents with some interesting nouveaux architecture (architecture without regard for place or history): and the Hill will be woefully void of any socioeconomic diversity and affordable housing.”

Waterville Street resident Karen Snyder criticized councilors for evoking racial equity as a reason to oppose the historic designation, while living in single-family zones, which she described as the “proven highest racial inequality residential zoning.” She said councilors “accelerated gentrification’ at the expense of existing affordable housing.

“What will happen now on Munjoy Hill will be like a third world country where you have the extremely rich with their part-time luxury condos and the low-income people in the existing low-income affordable housing,” Snyder said. “The rest of the demographic diversity of the working class and middle class will continue to be removed from Munjoy Hill and yet not affecting your own neighborhoods.”

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