An effort to create a historic district on Portland’s Munjoy Hill may be brought back to life.

The council voted 5-4 against the proposal on Feb. 1, apparently ending the three-year effort. But City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who voted with the majority in opposition, is planning to ask the council on Monday to reconsider his vote. That would erase the Feb. 1 defeat and give Zarro and other councilors until April 5 to get additional information and vote again.

Portland City Councilor Andrew Zarro

Although the issue had been discussed for nearly three years, Zarro noted that he and two other newly elected councilors – Mark Dion and April Fournier – had only two months to study the issue before being asked to cast a vote.

“I take this job very seriously. I was elected to do a good job and enact good public policy. And that takes time,” Zarro said. “So, for me, on the first, it felt rushed. I’m not going to vote yes on something until I feel comfortable having answered those questions.”

Zarro said he and other councilors received a lot of criticism since voting against the proposal – some of which was harsh and questioned his motivation as an elected official. However, Zarro said he could not support the creation of the district at the time because the council was not provided with information about the potential economic and racial impacts the district could have on residents.

Zarro said he has sent about 20 questions for city staff to answer ahead of what he hopes will be another council vote on April 5.

In addition to voting on the designation, Zarro hopes to win council support for an in-depth, data-driven economic impact study of the city’s existing historic districts, as well as an amendment to the city’s historic preservation ordinance that would require economic, environmental and racial impact statements for similar proposals. And he would also like to create a fund that could help impacted low-income homeowners pay for historically appropriate maintenance.

“This is a problem in terms of process,” Zarro said, being careful not to lay blame. “We have an opportunity to fix it and we’re going to do it through policy, so next time we’ve learned our lessons and we have improved historic preservation and updated it enough so that we are talking about equity and we’re looking at this first.”

Mayor Kate Snyder, who supported the designation, did not respond to an interview request Thursday.

Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director, said it’s too soon to say what impact the council’s rejection of the district will have on development.

“It generally takes awhile to put a new development proposal together and apply,” Grimando said. “It may be that six months from now we would see a new trend, but it’s too soon to say.”

Sarah Hansen, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said advocates have been expressing “disappointment and frustration” to councilors about their vote against the district and she was happy to see the council could reconsider.

“We are so pleased that Councilor Zarro decided to request a reconsideration of the vote after so much feedback,” Hansen said. “There remains a tremendous amount of support for this district and we are very much looking forward to supporting Councilor Zarro’s request.”

Wayne Valzania, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, which supports the district, was also pleased with Zarro’s willingness to reconsider. He said feedback he’s received since the council vote has been “widespread surprise and disappointment.”

“Many residents expressed that they thought it would pass as a slam-dunk, so had not bothered to openly express their support,” he said. “Hopefully, should the matter come up for reconsideration, the additional time for council review, and a greater expression of community support, will result in a favorable decision for a Munjoy Hill Historic District.”

A message sent to the group YIMBY (or Yes In My BackYard) Portland, which opposed the district, was not returned Thursday.

The city had been working with preservationists and Munjoy Hill residents for nearly three years on creating a historic district. The goal was to preserve the neighborhood’s character and history as a working-class neighborhood, while slowing the pace of gentrification, which was accelerated by a 2015 zone change making it easier to build housing on the hill and in other neighborhoods.

City leaders had hoped the zone change would promote in-fill development on undeveloped lots. Instead, it prompted developers to buy up and demolish existing homes and combine them with adjacent vacant lots, so they could build large, luxury condominiums.

The historic district proposal was supported by the city’s historic preservation board, but split the Planning Board, which issued a 4-3 recommendation in favor.

The council postponed a scheduled vote on the proposal during a lame-duck session last November, effectively punting the issue to a council with three new members. The council voted 5-4 against the proposal on Feb. 1, with dissenting councilors expressing concern about racial equity, property owner rights and whether the designation would increase housing costs.

Preservationists say it was the first time a City Council had voted against a historic district since the ordinance was established in 1990.

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 a 12-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.

Although the historic district failed, the area is still included in the Munjoy Hill Conservation Overlay District, which can pause demolition for up to a year and has stricter design standards for new developments, unless the applicant works with the city on alternative development plans.

The city partnered with Greater Portland Landmarks and the neighborhood group 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.

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