In a decision that appeared to surprise some councilors Monday night, the Portland City Council narrowly rejected a proposal to establish a Munjoy Hill Historic District.
Following several hours of public comment and council discussion, including the acknowledgment that most of the written testimony councilors received supported the district, councilors defeated the proposal 5-4. Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Spencer Thibodeau, Belinda Ray, and Mark Dion were in the minority.
Although the district has been discussed and debated for more than three years, some councilors who voted against the proposal said they didn’t have all the information they needed.
Councilor Tae Chong said while turning back the clock on gentrification is a nice idea, he didn’t think the district would achieve that goal. He said the neighborhood already has the highest rents in the city, is one of the least racially diverse, and creating a historic district would not relieve either of those problems.
Chong said the proposal seemed “backward,” based on claims it would help preserve affordable workforce and immigrant housing while that population already can’t afford to live on Munjoy Hill.
“If we want to keep affordability and target a specific population, I would think you’d target where people live now,” he said.
Councilor Andrew Zarro said he would have preferred tabling the vote to wait for an economic impact study. Zarro is one of three new councilors elected last fall; a prior vote on the district was postponed to give him and Councilors April Fournier and Dion time to get up to speed on the proposal.
Regardless of that, all three on Monday indicated they would have liked more information.
Zarro said he believes historic districts are good tools for cities to use in general, but said aside from anecdotal stories from neighbors, there was still a sense many on Munjoy Hill felt unheard.
“There are too many questions to be answered,” he said. “I think we have more work to do.”
Thibodeau, on the other hand, said this was an easy decision to make.
The District 2 councilor represents an existing historic district in the city’s West End, which he said has worked well. He said residential concerns about what you can do with your property once it is part of a historic district are typical and part of the process.
However, he said zoning may always change, wherever a person buys a home. He also said based on his experience in the West End, the suggestion that a historic district would price out future affordable housing projects doesn’t hold true.
“There’s a struggle about pricing and demand, and that will not get any better with allowing structures to get torn down and replaced with multimillion-dollar condos,” Thibodeau said.
Plans for what would have been the 12th historic district in the city date back to 2017, when the Historic Preservation Board unanimously approved the proposal. In a 4-3 vote last year, the Planning Board recommended the project to the council.
The three Planning Board members who opposed it – Chair Brandon Mazer and members Sean Dundon and Marpheen Chann – all addressed the council Monday night.
Dundon said it wasn’t clear that the proposal was in line with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and said the proposed district also gave no voice to renters. Chann said since there was no analysis of how many homes are owned by immigrants or people of color, he did not believe the proposal was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan’s statement on equity.
More than 40 people spoke during a two-hour public comment portion. The Munjoy Hill discussion took approximately four hours of the council’s 5 1/2-hour remote meeting.
Several people who live in the West End Historic District spoke in support of the proposal, saying historic districts generally are beneficial to their residents.
Carol De Tine, of Vaughan Street, said her neighborhood enjoys the stability a historic district provides. She and others said historic districts don’t prevent change, but manage it.
“This district is no different than any other tool in the toolbox,” De Tine said.
Alex Jeagerman, who lives in the West End and owns property on Munjoy Hill, also said he doesn’t find the requirements of a historic district burdensome.
Others, meanwhile, said the Munjoy Hill proposal went too far.
Lauren Ashwell, of Emerson Street, supported the establishment of individual landmarks, but not the district as a whole. She said the movement behind the district was not about history, but about preserving certain aesthetics. She also said it’s not ideal for a neighbor to dictate what another property owner can do with their home.
“Nothing here stops anything about condo-izing,” Ashwell said. “You’re not preserving the working-class history or doing anything to impact accessibility on lower-class incomes.”
Councilors approved amendments that will designate five Munjoy Hill homes that would have been outside the boundaries of the proposed district as historic landmarks. A sixth was proposed but was removed from consideration in a separate amendment.
There were 427 properties on more than 60 acres that would have been included in the sprawling district. Most of the buildings that would have been included were built before 1924.
City staff, including Historic Preservation Director Deb Andrews, said the biggest goal of the district was to preserve the historic culture of the working-class neighborhood and its roots as a landing place for immigrants.
However, city staff also acknowledged the neighborhood in recent years has become the most expensive place to live in the city.
Councilors who supported the district also expressed a desire to stem a recent pattern where existing single- and multi-family homes have been torn down to be replaced by high-end condominium buildings. Several residents who spoke in favor of the district said many of these condos are not occupied year-round.
Charter Commission nomination papers available
Nomination papers for candidates in Portland’s June 8 Charter Commission election are now available.
The nine elected commissioners will include one representative from each of the city’s five voting districts and four at-large members. The three remaining members – Peter Eglinton, Michael Kebede, and Dory Waxman – have already been appointed by the City Council.
Nomination papers are available at the city clerk’s office, Room 24 in the basement of City Hall. The entrance is via Myrtle Street, and masks are required. Papers are due back by March 29.
Candidates running in a specific district must collect a minimum of 75 signatures and a maximum of 150. A candidate running for one of the four at-large seats must collect at least 300 signatures, and no more than 500.
— Colin Ellis