The Emerson School building, at the corner of Emerson and Congress streets in Portland, is part of the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District, and is listed as a proposed landmark. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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The Planning Board has backed the creation of a historic district in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood, sending the measure to the City Council for final action.

The board agreed to the recommendation in a 4-3 vote on Aug. 11, with opponents saying they didn’t believe it was the correct tool to accomplish the goals of the city Historic Preservation Board.

According to a memo to the board from the city’s Planning Department, discussions about land-use tools on Munjoy Hill date back to 2017. The Planning Board began its discussions last December and held several workshops and meetings through March before the coronavirus pandemic caused the city to shut down City Hall and transition to remote meetings.

Throughout the Planning Board process, however, the proposal has elicited consistently high public turnout and comment. 

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation director, told the board that there are 427 properties in the proposed district, meaning 51 percent of the R6 zone there would be outside of the district. Most of the buildings in the proposed district were constructed before 1924.

She said the Historic Preservation Board held several workshops on the proposal, and conducted site walks where boundary questions were answered.

“Munjoy Hill is a unique neighborhood … that has its own distinct history,” Andrews said.

She said development of the Hill was largely accomplished in a 75-year window, with most buildings erected between 1850 and 1925. She said there were several economic events that triggered the development, including the Great Fire of 1866, which displaced about 10,000 city residents.

Andrews said creation of this district would be a recognition of “the history and lives of working-class citizens” from the neighborhood, including people of color and immigrants.

“Munjoy Hill is no Western Prom, but it is every bit as interesting,” she said. “That will continue as we look at projects. This is not an area that has remained unchanged, it’s a living area. The history of the Hill is in accommodating change.”

Andrews said to qualify for a historic district designation, an area must meet a threshold of criteria for significance from the Historic Preservation Board. One of the criteria which this district meets, she said, is that it adds value and exhibits integrity. She said in an effort to “be conservative” with the district’s boundaries, the city has focused on “historic structures that retain a high degree of integrity and should be stewarded into the future.”

While there is a Munjoy Hill Conservation District, she said a historic district looks at development comprehensively, at changes to existing building stock, and has controls over demolition and construction.

Andrews also confirmed opponents’ assertions that a historic district would not prohibit demolitions or future developments. But she said with 51 percent of the neighborhood outside of the proposed district, there will be a good balance of regular development proposals and what can go on in the district.

Board members were closely divided in their decision.

The proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District would include a large portion of the neighborhood and hundreds of properties. (Courtesy city of Portland)

Chairman Brandon Mazer, who voted against the recommendation, said he didn’t believe creating a historic district was the “right tool” for an area where the majority of the properties included are not the landmarks believed to be historic.

Mazer also said the character of the neighborhood must be considered. He said it’s a neighborhood defined by its economic changes, so designation as a historic district is not the right choice.

“The Hill has been the area of the city that ebbs and flows in economic changes,” he said. “That’s what the Hill is in a lot of ways.”

Mazer also had concerns over how the district would relate to an already existing Overlay District for Munjoy Hill, which the Historic Preservation Board decided not to address. Mazer said he believes these are things that should have been addressed together.

“Given the circumstances of recent events, I think Portland as a whole would put heavier balance on social justice and other issues like affordability,” Mazer said. “Our Comprehensive Plan says historic districts lead to increased property values, which we don’t need on the Hill.”

He added he isn’t against a historic district on the Hill someday, but not at this time. “It’s not the right policy or tool,” Mazer said.

Board member Sean Dundon also opposed the district, saying he did not think it meets the threshold of historical significance, since the district was only looking at an area with a 75-year window. He said this would set a precedent for creating even more historic districts around the city by only focusing on a short timeframe.

Dundon also said the map of the proposed district was “very gerrymandered,” and there are elements of the district that are inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan and inequitable for neighborhood residents.

“We really haven’t included renters’ voices in any of this,” he said, “and they are probably most impacted.”

Dundon said he didn’t think the district would advance the city’s goals of creating more sustainable neighborhoods or higher-density neighborhoods that increase walkability and connectivity, and ultimately reduce rents.

He called the district “a regressive move” and “the wrong underlying tool to address this neighborhood.”

Maggie Stanley, the board’s vice chair, said she struggled with the decision but ultimately supported the recommendation. She said she didn’t think the district would limit density in the neighborhood and could preserve existing rentals that might otherwise be torn down for high-priced condos.

“This could be a path to create sustainability,” Stanley said.

Board member David Silk also voted for the recommendation, saying after walking the neighborhood and hearing from Andrews, he believed a significant portion of homes in the area would benefit. 

“There is a sense of place that the historic preservation ordinance tries to capture, and the Comprehensive Plan talks about the importance of the city celebrating its history,” he said. 

Silk said the homes on Munjoy Hill “aren’t the mansions on the Western Prom” or the “old houses” in the Stroudwater neighborhood. He said these are “working-class homes” that do fit the criteria for historic preservation.

“It’s a close call for me,” he said, “but I think it’s consistent with the Comprehensive Plan because I think it will preserve housing opportunities for middle-class and working-class folks.”