Portland council repeals redundant Munjoy Hill development restrictions

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Despite objections from the city’s major historic preservation group, the Portland City Council on June 22 unanimously repealed the Munjoy Hill Conservation Overlay District, removing what staff considered to be a redundant zoning provision impacting only one neighborhood.

Councilors heard from more than a dozen residents who expressed divided opinions about removing the overlay. They acted on a unanimous recommendation from the Planning Board, which decided the overlay was no longer required because of the creation of the Munjoy Hill Historic District last year.

Vesper Street, Portland
The Portland City Council repealed the Munjoy Hill Conservation Overlay District last week, deciding it was no longer necessary since the Munjoy Hill Historic District includes streets like Vesper Street. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Mayor Kate Snyder said the overlay was created to respond to “acute and unusual circumstances,” but was never meant to be permanent. Since much of Munjoy Hill is encompassed by the historic district, she said, it was an appropriate time to repeal the overlay.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier said it was a difficult decision that would have an impact whether the district was repealed or left in place. She also said she is concerned about the further gentrification of Munjoy Hill.

“I don’t know that repealing the overlay district will result in a resurgence of affordable housing options on the Hill,” Pelletier said, adding that people with “money to spend” are moving to Portland, and she was concerned that removal of the overlay could result in further overdevelopment of the neighborhood.

“But I also have a bigger concern with keeping the overlay district because I think if we keep it, I’m going forward with what I hate, this idea that architecture matters more than getting people into housing,” she said.

Sixteen people spoke on the issue, with a mixture of opinions.

Chris Parelius advocated for repealing the overlay. He said a neighborhood like Munjoy Hill, with access to public transit, should be a high-priority area for new housing, and to do that the city needed to remove overly restrictive zoning that “artificially limits growth.”

“If we’re going to fill the shortage of statewide units,” he said, “we need to build as much as humanly possible.”

Berry Manter, however, said repealing the overlay would only make it easier for more expensive, high-end condominiums to be built. She said that kind of development doesn’t bring new families to Munjoy Hill, just people who have the condo as a “second or third home.”

“It’s not housing that addresses the problems that we really want resolved,” Manter said.

Ian Stevenson, director of advocacy at Greater Portland Landmarks, said his organization opposed repealing the overlay district and the decision should come as part of a broader review of historic preservation.

“It’s premature to pull the overlay zone out at this time,” Stevenson said.

The overlay was enacted in 2017 to delay demolitions for up to a year and encourage the development of multi-family homes by capping the height of new single-family homes. The Munjoy Hill Historic District, which created even greater restrictions on demolitions, was enacted in April 2021.

In addition to repealing the overlay district, councilors also unanimously supported changing the zone of part of Riverton Park.

The rezoning intends to promote redevelopment of the campus off of Forest Avenue that could include affordable housing, commercial and transit use, and would allow a place of assembly.

The project was proposed by the Portland Housing Authority.

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