The Portland Museum of Art has put Portland City Council in an especially difficult position. The outcome some councilors might wish for – saying yes to reclassifying 142 Free Street from “contributing” to “noncontributing” status, is not supported under the historic preservation ordinance the council is sworn to enforce.

The council usually acts as a legislative body, accustomed to having full decision-making authority. But in this case its authority is quasi-judicial, applying the standards and criteria of the ordinance to determine the outcome.

The Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board have each reviewed the museum’s reclassification request and have found that the former Children’s Museum building meets four of the six criteria to be classified as contributing (only one is needed), as well as the overall building integrity standard.

Even though this objective assessment is unequivocal, two councilors have attempted to craft a counterargument out of whole cloth to reach the opposite determination to achieve their preferred result. In essence, they determined the outcome first and are now desperately trying to make the criteria fit.

In my 34-year career directing Portland’s planning division, I had direct experience in the creation of the original historic preservation ordinance in 1990 and its subsequent amendments through 2015. In developing Portland’s first ordinance, we inserted a “project of special merit” provision to give the City Council the ability to weigh the loss of a contributing building against the value of a proposed new building of extraordinary architectural and civic importance.

This provision was never invoked. In 2004, the city submitted its ordinance to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission in our request to become a certified local government. Certified local government status has many benefits for a community like ours, including access to technical assistance and incentives, including federal pass-through grants that otherwise would not be available.

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To obtain certified local government status, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and the National Park Service must find that the local historic preservation ordinance adheres to the secretary of the interior’s standards for historic preservation.

An audit of Portland’s ordinance identified several deviations from the secretary’s standards. The project of special merit provision had to be removed and other procedural changes made, strengthening the authority of the ordinance and of the Historic Preservation Board. The City Council approved a revised ordinance in 2004, and in 2005 Portland was officially designated a certified local government by the National Park Service.

As required, a formal agreement was signed between the National Park Service and the City of Portland that stipulates that any subsequent changes to the ordinance must be reviewed and approved by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and the National Park Service to maintain certification.

Portland has benefited greatly from federal funding available to CLG communities. From 2005 to 2023, the city was awarded 58 grants totaling $919,876. The CLG program has provided funding for surveys of historic neighborhoods, impact studies, structural reports and money for bricks-and-mortar projects throughout the city, including the Abyssinian Meeting House, Lincoln Park, Fort Gorges and Mechanics’ Hall.

In addition, CLG grants have provided financial support for city staff to administer Portland’s preservation program, providing stability and reducing the need for local taxpayer funding.

Portland’s historic preservation ordinance was audited and submitted to National Park Service again in 2009, when the city sought its certification of the new Congress Street Historic District to make contributing buildings eligible for the use of state and federal historic tax credits.

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Because both the ordinance and district were determined to be in compliance with NPS requirements, rehabilitation tax credits totaling more than $25 million have spurred redevelopment of many contributing buildings in the Congress Street Historic District including the Press Hotel, the New England Telephone Building on Forest Avenue, the Baxter Library Building, the Fidelity Trust Building and the Francis Hotel.

Pending projects are eligible for tens of millions of dollars more in tax credits to help create housing and revitalize downtown Portland.

These historic rehabilitation tax credits, which when added to other federal and state credits may cover up to 55% of rehabilitation costs, are a key funding mechanism for affordable housing developments and a reason why such projects are disproportionately created in historic districts.

All of this is to say that certification of our historic preservation ordinance has brought many benefits to the city – benefits that we would not have received if Portland had retained the “project of special merit” provision in its ordinance. The PMA can argue that its proposed expansion deserves special consideration, but the fact remains that what it wants to do is against the law in Portland and threatens Portland’s CLG status – and all the good work that has been accomplished because of it.

It’s not worth the risk.


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