Sunlight shines through the window at The Portland Observatory at the top of Congress Street, part of the Munjoy Hill historic district. The city has hired a new firm to study the value of historic districts. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The city of Portland recently terminated the contract of a company it had hired to assess the value of the city’s historic districts, saying that the firm’s draft report was missing information, contained inaccuracies and was not well organized.

But the firm that was fired – and replaced by a new one last week – said city staff were unhappy with its findings in support of such districts, and were difficult to work with and nitpicky. Now the city, which had planned to spend $65,000 on the study, has paid the first firm $40,000 and has promised $40,000 to its replacement.

The study began early last year after the process to designate Munjoy Hill as a historic district raised general questions about the socio-economic impacts of historic preservation.

PlaceEconomics of Washington, D.C., which has performed similar studies in Buffalo, Phoenix and New York City, was chosen to conduct the study and delivered a draft report in September. After raising issues with the draft, the city moved to terminate the contract in December and announced a new firm last week.


“There were a number of concerns raised with the product,” said Christine Grimando, Portland’s director of planning and urban development. “Some of them were things that perhaps could have been worked through with editing – some organizational questions, clarification questions.”


But ultimately, Grimando said the draft was missing elements or details that the city was looking for.

Those things included assessments of historic district density and what’s allowable under current zoning, information on financial assistance programs to offset the cost of building improvements and an evaluation of housing impacts according to racial distribution, household income, age and homeownership status.

Grimando said when the issues were pointed out, PlaceEconomics did not address them and said they thought the study was sufficient.

Donovan Rypkema, principal at PlaceEconomics, said the firm was excited to work with Portland but there were issues early on. After one meeting with the advisory committee formed to help with the report, Rypkema said it became clear the city wanted a report that cast doubt on the positive impacts of preservation.

When the firm submitted its draft report and got back the edits, Rypkema said the city’s demands were “ludicrous.” He sent a letter to Grimando saying they were already far over budget and would be walking away from the project.

“It clearly wasn’t the report they wanted so we said we’re done,” Rypkema said.


Rypkema disputed most of the points Grimando said were missing or incomplete, though he said the firm did purposely exclude some information about financial assistance programs and policies because they were waiting for feedback on the draft before adding that information.

“The rest is there,” Rypkema said.

A modern home and an older home on Quebec Street on Munjoy Hill in February 2022. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Grimando said the city was not looking for the report to be more critical of preservation. “At the end of the day, we dissolved this because they gave us an incomplete product,” she said. “It certainly was not because we are anti-preservation.”


While the city and the firm butted heads, members of the advisory committee had front-row seats for what unfolded.

“I think it’s odd,” said Sally Oldham, a member of the group. Oldham said PlaceEconomics’s firing came as a surprise.


“To my understanding they are a very qualified firm – probably the best qualified in the nation,” said Oldham, who also serves on an advisory trustee at Greater Portland Landmarks, an organization dedicated to historic preservation.

PlaceEconomics sent its draft report to members of the committee after it was fired, hoping it could be of some use. “I think they did an outstanding job of responding to questions raised by City Council members and things they said they wanted data for,” Oldham said.

But Eamonn Dundon, director of advocacy for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, who was also on the committee, said he worried about whether PlaceEconomics was objective enough.

“It reads almost as a defense of a historic district rather than a rigorous intellectual examination of their impacts,” Dundon said of the draft report.

Other members of the 10-person committee either didn’t respond to phone and email messages Tuesday or said they didn’t know enough to weigh in.

During the 2021 debate over the Munjoy Hill Historic District, one key question was whether it was more difficult to attract and retain affordable housing in historic districts as opposed to other parts of the city, Dundon said.


“The data sources used on housing affordability and the amount of the report dedicated to discussing affordability were unexpectedly smaller than I would have thought,” he said.

Mayor Kate Snyder said in an email that she hadn’t seen the draft report, but that the council was notified in December about staff’s decision to change consultants. “I’m supportive of their decision and understand there’s a commitment to moving swiftly toward a complete report,” Snyder said.

A modern home on Quebec Street on Munjoy Hill in February 2022. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

City Councilor Andrew Zarro, who had requested the study, said councilors were notified after the fact. He said he is looking forward to the results from the new contractor that the city announced last week, Jon Stover & Associates.

“While I am disappointed we do not have the final report yet, I am optimistic this can get back on track with the newly selected firm,” Zarro said in a text message.

The city announced the selection of the new firm last week and said it will be working through the winter and spring and expect to publicly present their findings shortly thereafter.

The city has paid PlaceEconomics $41,973 and is not planning on paying out the rest of the contract, Grimando said. Rypkema said they will not try to recoup any more money, although he estimates the firm spent more than $150,000. “We will take a huge hit and just move on,” he said.

JS&A will be paid $43,000 for its work.

Grimando said “there is some good info” in the PlaceEconomics report and there are elements that could be included in the final report from JS&A. But she said the city wants to be sure it has all the clarity it needs.

“I wouldn’t want to imply that some good work didn’t go into that report,” Grimando said. “We can decide if there are some elements of the project they gave us that warrant being included in the final write-up. We just want to be really sure that if there are data points, that we don’t have questions.”

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