Quebec Street on Portland's Munjoy Hill, where residents are weighing their options after the City Council narrowly rejected a proposal for a historic district. Proponents said they plan to keep fighting for the designation, and could seek a referendum in the future. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Following the Portland City Council’s narrow rejection of a proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District last week, proponents of the plan said they plan to try again.

Wayne Valzania, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, said since the council’s 5-4 decision he’s heard feedback from many neighbors, including people who never spoke up while the district was being debated for more than three years.

“Some people reacted more angrily than others,” Valzania said, “some people were disappointed.”

Munjoy Hill resident Michael Petit, former head of the state Department of Human Services, said he and other supporters of the designation are “licking their wounds,” but plan to bring the proposal back.

“I think right now we’re looking at all the options before us, whether they are legal, whether they are regulatory, whether they are policy or whether they are political,” Petit said. “We’re going to examine this one end to another and at some point put it back before the council.”

Valzania said there was a segment of the neighborhood that remained quiet, mostly because it was assumed the district would eventually be approved. Valzania said these were mostly “professional property owners,” people who are retired from corporate life and own property on the Hill and want to be able to continue providing affordable housing.

“These are people who didn’t typically uncloak for much of this stuff going on at City Hall,” he said.

This otherwise quiet segment, which Valzania said gravitates towards the multi-unit buildings, were surprised when the motion failed. And he said it’s that population that creates the density and diversity on the Hill, providing housing at slightly below market rates.

“They are concerned, and that was something new to me,” he said. “That was quite interesting.”

As for those who had more closely followed the situation, Valzania said there was also some surprise at the council’s decision, but it wasn’t shocking. The council had delayed an earlier vote on the designation to give three new councilors more time to get up to speed. Ultimately, two of the three – Councilors April Fournier and Andrew Zarro – voted against the measure.

“I think that was notable,” Valzania said. “I think it’s complicated. You have three years’ worth of history, and that’s a lot for anybody new to absorb. I don’t think that helped. I think their intentions were good but they were overwhelmed by the amount of information that would have to be ingested. And by the extreme importance of the issue and not wanting to make a mistake.”

While he said proponents needed time to debrief following the decision, Valzania said they would soon begin to formulate the best path forward since those in favor of the designation still want to pursue the district. He said there seems to be interest in continuing the conversation, and they also want to see if there was a failure on their part in providing enough information to the city.

“We hate to be pushy too, we’re just one part of Portland,” he said. “Then how do we get back into the conversation and pick up where we left off, to see if maybe there’s another shot at it? We believe really strongly it’s the best thing for Munjoy Hill.”

He said all avenues are going to be discussed, including the possibility of going to a referendum. In the meantime, he said they are getting feedback from the councilors who supported the district – Dion, Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Belinda Ray, and Mayor Kate Snyder – to see what they could have done better.

Petit, meanwhile, who chastised the council at the end of 2020 for delaying the vote on the designation, said last week’s decision was “highly predictable.”

The downside of not creating the designation, he said, is that it opens up Munjoy Hill to development that will change the way the area looks like now. He said it creates the possibility for more intense construction, with larger buildings that will not address affordable housing.

“This is a decision that holds implications for the next 50 to 100 years in terms of what this part of the city is like,” Petit said.