Opponents of the Munjoy Hill Historic District, which will be reconsidered April 5 by the Portland City Council, say properties like 30 Monument St. couldn't have been built under the proposed district's restrictions. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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The Portland City Council Monday night narrowly agreed to reconsider the creation of a Munjoy Hill Historic District, just three weeks after councilors rejected the proposal by an equally thin margin.

The proposal by Councilor Andrew Zarro was tabled until April 5 to give councilors who were uncertain about their vote more time to get additional information from city staff.

The measure to reconsider passed 5-4, with Zarro joined by Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Mark Dion, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau. The move to postpone passed 7-2, with Councilors Pious Ali and April Fournier opposed.

Zarro said he decided to seek reconsideration after struggling with the Feb. 1 vote, where he voted with four other councilors to reject the historic district. He said he had wanted to delay the previous vote, but didn’t see an appetite for that among other councilors since it had already been postponed from last fall.

Initially, he said, he wasn’t comfortable supporting the creation of the district. But since that vote, and following subsequent conversations with proponents of the district, he said he would reconsider the designation if he could get more information.

Zarro had expressed a desire for an economic impact survey and data on racial equity in historic districts. Ultimately, he said, he hopes the council can update its policies on historic districts to ensure better economic and racial equity for residents of the districts.

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

Since Monday’s action was only a vote on reconsideration, public comment was not required, although the proposal has already generated hours of public discourse as it made its way through the Historic Preservation Committee, Planning Board, and council over the last three years.

Proponents of the district had said they would bring the proposal forward again regardless of the council’s decision, even if it had to be a ballot referendum.

Mercy Hospital has occupied a major portion of State Street between Pine and Spring streets in Portland’s West End since 1918. Redevelopment of the property is planned to begin in 2022. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Council OKs zoning change for hospital redevelopment, limits some public comment

A plan to redevelop the Mercy Hospital property on State Street in Portland’s West End passed another milestone Monday night when the City Council unanimously approved zoning amendments for the proposal.

They included a zone change, a text amendment to allow self-storage, and a height extension overlay needed because of the project’s proximity to a historic part of the neighborhood.

The council also changed some rules governing how it conducts meetings, including setting a limit on some public comment.

The hospital property was in the R6 zone and will now be in B3. Christine Grimando, the city director of planning and urban development, said R6 is predominantly a residential zone while B3 is the downtown zone. She said the change connects the property to other nearby business zones.

The change was proposed by the developers, NewHeight Group and Redfern Properties, which plan to build approximately 400 units of housing, with many stipulated as senior housing, workforce housing, and affordable units.

The mixed-use property will also include commercial and public space.

Council rules

The rule changes approved by the council include moving meeting start times up half an hour to 5 p.m.

Councilors also decided to limit public comment for items not on the agenda; comments will still begin at 6 p.m. but will end at 7 p.m. Currently, public comment for non-agenda items does not have a specified end time.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who chaired the ad hoc rules committee, said the changes are about agenda preservation and will help ensure the Council is able to get to everything on its agenda. Throughout last summer and fall, he said, the council routinely had to postpone items because of how long the meetings were running.

He said the council still has the ability to reopen non-agenda public comment later in any meeting.

The change was criticized by some members of the public participating in this meeting.

Joey Brunelle, who frequently speaks during council meetings, said this move would severely limit the public’s ability to have their voices heard in a time of crisis. He said there are times when there are things going on that the council doesn’t have on its radar, and public comment is one of the few ways to bring such matters to councilors’ attention.

Frequent council critic George Rheault agreed, saying public comment is the only way the public can be sure the council is listening since there is no way to know if councilors actually read their email from constituents.

“This is about enhancing your power and diminishing the power of people who want to be interested in what you’re doing,” Rheault said.

Councilors tried to change the procedure for public comment last year but ultimately agreed to keep the existing rules.

— Colin Ellis