Homes along Vesper Street in Portland would be included in a proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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The debate is continuing as the Portland Planning Board approaches a vote on whether to recommend a new historic district in one of the city’s most in-demand neighborhoods.

The proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District, which would be the city’s 12th such district since a historic preservation ordinance was adopted in 1990, has been before the Planning Board since last winter, just before city operations were suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The district, according to information from the city, was proposed by the Historic Preservation Board at the end of 2019. More than 50 people spoke on the issue at a March 10 Planning Board meeting, with more than 40 in support of the district.

The board is now slated to vote Aug. 11 on whether to send the designation to the City Council for final action.

Carle Henry, a Munjoy Hill resident and former member of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, has been trying to stop the movement toward a historic district. He said that while the Historic Preservation Board did a lot of research and work, it never supplied an adequate reason for the designation.

“There’s no justification,” Henry said.

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

The proposed district, which includes large portions of streets from the intersection of North and Maple streets essentially down to Fore Street along the Eastern Promenade, includes several dating as far back as the 1850s – notably structures associated with the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad and the former Portland Company. There is also a residential building that dates back to the fire of 1866, and a handful of buildings established by recent immigrants.

The city’s historic preservation ordinance was adopted as a means to preserve major assets, including historic architecture and landscapes. It now encompasses more than 2,000 properties and manages the character of various pockets and neighborhoods.

The ordinance does not prevent changes in these areas, according to the city, but buildings within these districts do get additional scrutiny for demolition or significant changes. New construction is also closely monitored.

City Assessor Christopher Huff has said historic district designation is not a factor in valuation. A tax credit would be available, once the city registers the district with the National Park Service, for buildings within the district as long as they are maintained as income properties. That would encourage owners to keep their buildings as rentals rather than condominiums.

Henry, however, suggests while there are historic buildings in the neighborhood, this district is far too large and would designate as landmarks buildings and homes that aren’t historically significant.

He also believes the designation of a historic district leads residents to believe it will accomplish something it actually won’t.

For example, Henry said there is a belief that establishing a historic district would mean buildings can’t be demolished in the future, thus preserving the historic nature of the area. This is a false claim, he said, since a historic district is not the same as a zoning requirement. Not only would this historic district not prevent new buildings from being built in the neighborhood, he said, but it wouldn’t prevent developers from demolishing old buildings to make way for new ones.

“Buildings can be knocked down as a matter of right,” he said. “People are actually losing protections.”

He also said because a historic district is not a zoning issue, it would not prevent things like high-end luxury condominiums from being built in the neighborhood.

“It’s misleading from a number of organizations, including the Historic Preservation Board,” he said.

Overall, development has declined in the neighborhood, Henry said, shrinking from 11 projects between 2015 and 2018 to four approved projects as of July 2019. No projects have been approved since April this year, which he said is telling “in the midst of a housing crisis.”

Henry said the city never conducted an independent survey of the neighborhood and based on a survey he and others did on their own, most homeowners are opposed to the district being established.

While the intent of a historic district may be good, against the backdrop of a housing crisis it just becomes a housing prohibitor, he said. In addition to keeping away affordable housing projects in general, Henry said, a district may end up causing a spike in rental and housing costs since developers hoping to build affordable housing would likely be priced out.

Henry said the bottom line is that historic districting does not make a city more livable. He said the city should focus more on creating housing for a diverse workforce.

“This closes the door on affordable housing on the Hill,” he said. “Our 2030 Master Plan says we’re supposed to be equitable. That’s not going to be the outcome.”