North Street is part of the area designated by the Portland City Council as a new historic district on Munjoy Hill. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Portland city councilors narrowly approved the creation of a new historic district on Munjoy Hill and unanimously agreed to study the impacts of the city’s other historic districts, some of which have existed since the early ’90s.

The 5-4 vote in support of the new historic district came more than two months after the council rejected the same proposal, and City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who initially opposed the plan, asked to reconsider the proposal.

Zarro was the only councilor to change his vote. He did so after winning council approval to direct the city manager to hire an outside firm to conduct an impact study about the socio-economic impacts of Portland’s 11 other historic districts. He said he also received an informal commitment from fellow councilors to explore the possibility of creating a special fund to help low-income homeowners pay for non-cosmetic improvements to their homes that comply with the new standards.

“This objective report would be the most robust of its kind done in the nation,” Zarro said of the impact study. “Portland can really be a leader in what historic preservation looks like as we modernize it, for lack of a better word.”

While historic districts are typically used as an economic development tool, some neighborhood residents and preservationists hope the district will slow the rate of demolitions and redevelopment that are changing the neighborhood’s character.

Portland officials have been struggling to address development-related concerns on Munjoy Hill for years. And the debate over creating a new historic district was contentious, especially in the lead up to Monday’s vote, with councilors addressing accusations of having conflicts of interest, opponents allegedly showing up at a place of business and one councilor accusing another of an unprecedented cross-examination.

I understand this has been a difficult issue for us all,” City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said, urging the community to have a more respectful dialogue. “We all live in this city, so every single issue we vote on all of us are impacted on it.”

The Munjoy Hill Historic District adds protections for 376 parcels, 88 percent of the properties in the district.

Developed largely between 1850 and 1925, Munjoy 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.

Creating a historic district adds an extra layer of review for developers looking to tear down historically significant buildings and for homeowners making exterior upgrades that can be seen from the street. Buildings that lack historical value or architectural integrity can be torn down.

City Councilor Tae Chong said he viewed the historic district as a way for homeowners to prevent any development on the hill. He said it was too late to stop gentrification on the hill.

“That ship has sailed – it’s like trying to make Cape Cod affordable,” Chong said. “I don’t think having a historic overlay is going to bring back affordable pricing.”

During their deliberations, councilors addressed community tensions over the proposal.

Zarro said he had been accused of having a conflict of interest, even though his coffee shop is not in the proposed district, and opponents harassed his staff over his decision to reconsider his vote.

City Councilor Belinda Ray, who represents the district, also was accused of having a conflict of interest because she works for a local builder. That accusation was made in an email sent Sunday evening to city officials and the media by Joey Brunelle, a Kellogg Street property owner who splits his time between Portland and San Francisco and has twice run unsuccessfully for City Council.

But Ray said she consulted with the city attorney and no such conflict exists, because she doesn’t own more than 10 percent of the company, nor does the company do much work in historic renovation. Ray noted that she has supported a series of building moratoriums on Munjoy Hill in recent years.

“While my company was bidding on a project on the hill, I was enacting a moratorium that severely limited construction in that area,” she said. 

City Councilor Pious Ali offered a series of amendments to remove specific properties from the district at the owners’ requests. When Ray asked Ali why he was offering the amendments, he responded that it was the first time a councilor “was allowed to cross-examine another councilor.”

Ali’s six amendments were defeated, mostly on 8-1 votes, with City Councilor April Fournier supporting a request to remove 59 Moody St., even though staff said it was part of a historically intact row house.

Staff noted that property owners can make a formal request to have their property reclassified, a process that involves additional city review and votes.

Before voting on the historic district, councilors unanimously passed a resolution directing the city manager to commission an independent impact study of all of the city’s 11 historic districts.

The study would look at job creation and the economic impacts of historic rehabilitation; the value of cultural tourism; impacts on property taxes and rents; the role of preservation in the city’s downtown revitalization; impacts on environmental sustainability and energy efficiency; and social and racial impacts relating to low- and moderate-income housing development.

The study was pushed by Zarro, who said he had initially voted against the Munjoy Hill district because he didn’t have enough information about how the designation would impact residents and businesses. The need for more objective data about how Portland’s existing districts have operated was one area where both supporters and opponents of the Munjoy Hill proposal could agree, he said.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the study would be conducted by an outside firm and would be “very specific to our city and our context.”

A city spokesperson said funding for the study is being included in next year’s budget and the city will issue a request for proposals sometime after July 1. It’s not clear how long the study will take or how much money the city has budgeted.

Since 1990, Portland has created 11 historic districts, including for Congress Street, Deering Street, Evergreen Cemetery, Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island, House Island, How Houses, India Street, the Old Port, Portland Company, Stroudwater and the West End.

City Councilor Mark Dion joined Zarro, Snyder, Ray and Thibodeau in supporting the district, while City Councilors Nicholas Mavodones, Chong, Fournier and Ali were opposed.

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