A controversial proposal to create a new historic district in Portland has been given new life.

The City Council narrowly voted Monday to reconsider its 5-4 rejection of the Munjoy Hill Historic District early this month, nearly killing a preservation effort three years in the making.

Rather than calling another up-or-down vote on the proposed district Monday night, the council will take up the proposal again on April 5 after staff have the opportunity to provide additional information in response to specific council questions. The council also may vote April 5 on a resolution to conduct an economic and racial impact study of the city’s existing historic districts and make that analysis part of any future district proposal.

City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who voted against the historic district on Feb. 1, asked the council to reconsider its decision. The council voted 5-4 to do so, with Zarro joining councilors who previously voted in support of the district.

Zarro said on Monday that when the council voted on Feb. 1 he didn’t have enough information about how the proposed district would impact economically disadvantaged residents or indigenous and racial minorities. He noted that he and two other councilors were just elected in November and didn’t have enough time to study the issue or get their questions answered.

“This is not an attempt to merely overturn our decision, but to finish the work we started,” Zarro said during an eight-minute explanation of his position. “If we try to rush a vote through the council with less than due diligence, we will end up with a less-than-favorable outcome. If this (information) existed for this proposal, it would have been approved by a large majority.”

Among other things, Zarro said he wanted the council to consider creating a fund to help economically disadvantaged residents pay for historically appropriate renovations. He also wanted staff to better explain the district boundaries and how they evolved over time. And he wants to come up with better ways to engage indigenous residents and people of color, while also finding other ways to amplify their histories.

“We must invest, not only in the places we care about, but also the people who live there, too,” he said. 

Councilors who voted on both sides of the issue commended Zarro for his courage in reconsidering his vote and defended his right to do so. 

City Councilor April Fournier, who voted against both the historic district and Zarro’s motion to reconsider, said she was worried that reopening the issue would divert city staff from addressing more pressing problems in the city. 

“By postponing this and moving it out, we’re taking this issue to use city resources to get more information for something that was already voted down,” Fournier said. “We have so many other issues that are competing for our resources, attention and time. And I want to make sure we’re giving them adequate time as well.”

Preservationists say it was the first time a City Council had voted against a historic district since the ordinance was established in 1990. The councilors who opposed the district on Feb. 1 were: Zarro, Fournier, Nicholas Mavodones, Pious Ali and Tae Chong.

The historic district proposal is part of an ongoing effort to address gentrification on Munjoy Hill, whose scenic ocean views have lured developers looking to build luxury condominiums.

The development boom quickened after a 2015 rezoning effort meant to promote infill development on vacant lots. That change brought the unintended consequence of encouraging developers to buy and demolish older apartment buildings next to these vacant lots, so they could construct larger buildings that longtime residents say are out of character with the neighborhood and forcing out working-class residents. 

Over the years, the council has enacted building moratoriums to preserve views and halt demolitions. 

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. Although the historic district initially failed, the area is still included in the Munjoy Hill Conservation Overlay District.

After creating the conservation district, the council also encouraged staff to look into a historic district designation. 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.

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.

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 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.

Acknowledging how divisive the proposal has been in the community, Zarro stressed that he is simply trying to make the best policy decision for the city as a whole. He pushed back against the view that either he or the council was picking winners and losers.

“We either all win together, or we lose together as a city,” Zarro said. “I’m here to get it right.”

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