As large, modern condominiums replace older smaller buildings on Munjoy Hill, the Portland Planning Board is considering creating a historic district to better manage the changes sweeping the neighborhood.
But some people question whether such a district will be effective or support city goals like increasing housing density.
At a Feb. 11 workshop, city staff presented information to help the board determine whether the area would meet the definition of a historic district and if a designation would support the goals of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The Planning Board will hold a final hearing and vote March 10 on whether to recommend the district to the City Council.
A historic district would protect from demolition buildings designated as contributing to the district and would mean that any new construction, alterations or additions within the district would be subject to design review by the Historic Preservation Board.
“That’s a key piece of this initiative,” Historic Preservation Program Manager Deb Andrews said. “That those alterations also affect the integrity of a neighborhood.”
According to city ordinance, historic districts may be applied to areas determined to have historic, cultural and/or architectural significance, with identifiable visual character that contributes to a strong sense of place. The majority of buildings must retain sufficient integrity to communicate the period in which they were constructed.
The proposed Munjoy Hill district has a period of significance from the 1850s to around 1930, reflecting three key periods of development activity.
The initial laying out of streets and first round of residential construction occurred in the 1850s with the establishment of the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad and The Portland Company. Another period of growth occurred immediately following the Great Fire of 1866, and the period between 1890 and 1925 saw an influx of European immigrants, which spurred construction of triple-deckers and multi-family apartment houses in the neighborhood.
There has been an increase in demolitions and new construction on the Hill since 2015 when the council approved changes to the R6 zone to allow development of smaller lots. Residents were concerned this trend was threatening the fabric and character of the neighborhood.
“While the Hill has traditionally been a place where working people have lived and raised families, its character is rapidly being compromised by speculative development of ‘big box’ type condo housing,” resident Erna Koch wrote in comments submitted to the Planning Board. “The housing thus added is far out of the financial reach of most Maine residents. … it is not compatible or consistent with the type of design, and scale of housing here.”
Koch also noted that one unit in a new condo building went for $1.5 million – a trend that would raise the valuations of surrounding properties, leading to higher property taxes, forcing owners to raise rents and putting greater pressure on them to sell.
To address some of these concerns, the City Council established a six-month moratorium on demolitions on Munjoy Hill in December 2017 and in June 2018 adopted a Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District with new zoning provisions, as well as a one-year demolition delay ordinance to encourage developers to consider other options.
The council also asked the Planning Board to look into establishing the historic district in the neighborhood.
Many residents spoke in support of the designation Feb. 11, saying it would give aesthetic stability to the neighborhood, as well as providing owners the knowledge about what can and can’t be done with their properties and the properties around them. One speaker said that across from her home a building she believed should have been protected was demolished immediately after the one-year delay expired and that a historic district would prevent that from happening to other buildings.
A few opponents, however, questioned whether the designation would put aesthetics ahead of important city needs. They warned against “fossilizing the neighborhood,” and “knee-jerk reactions” that do not consider the need for more affordable housing and improved building efficiency. Some expressed concern that the designation would make it more difficult for owners to make important safety improvements.
Others questioned the effectiveness of the designation. Because the underlying zoning rules still apply, developers can still build to the same maximum dimensions as they can outside a historic district, and for buildings in the district designated as “non-contributing,” demolition could still occur.
Andrews said that while it is true the historic district designation does not prevent building to the maximum dimensions allowed in the zone, there are ways to reduce the apparent scale by adding more projections that relate to nearby buildings and break up the facade.
Planning Director Christine Grimando confirmed that contributing buildings in the district could be demolished by requesting a reclassification if, for example, the building is structurally unsound. A developer may also claim economic hardship if there is no reasonable use of the property, but she said that is hard to prove.
Andrews said the Planning Board can also use its discretion on demolitions. She gave an example of a small contributing building in the West End Historic District that was demolished to allow for a 39-unit apartment building that blended in with the surrounding neighborhood, and which the Historic Preservation Board determined to be a better use of the space.
Regarding the ability of homeowners to make safety or efficiency improvements and changes to the interior, Andrews said only the external elements would be reviewed, and the Historic Preservation Board would work with homeowners to find products that are affordable and reflect the character of the buildings.
To answer questions about the effect of a historic district on property values, staff consulted with Tax Assessor Christopher Huff, who 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.
Andrews said the historic district would interact with the surrounding Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District. The historic district supersedes the overlay district, but the underlying R6 zoning rules still apply, she said.
A major difference in the historic district, however, is that alterations and additions would be subject to review by the Historic Preservation Board; in the overlay zone, Andrews said, those are reviewed by planning staff.
Another significant difference is that in a historic district, the buildings are classified as contributing or not contributing at the time the historic district is put in place, while in the overlay zone, whether a building is preferably preserved is determined at the time of application for demolition. In the historic district, non-contributing buildings can be demolished without a delay.
Some opponents suggested that the multiple layers of regulations on the Hill should instead be addressed in the city’s recode process, or that owners could pursue individual landmark designations rather than designating a whole district.
Andrews said the recode process would not cover what can be accomplished with historic district designation and its required historic preservation review of alterations and additions. The board discussed the possibility of amending the overlay district to better sync with the R6 zone and the historic district, if it is adopted.
A benefit to having a district rather than individual landmark designations, Grimando said, is that it is easier for a building to be designated a contributing part of a district than to be designated a landmark, and so more buildings would be eligible for tax credits.
Several board members expressed support for the proposed historic district.
Board member Maggie Stanley said that under a historic district designation, construction projects in the district would not necessarily be smaller, but they would be better designed and accommodate greater density, supporting the city’s goal for more housing without negatively affecting the historic character of the neighborhood. And although there would be some more restrictions in a historic district, she said staff has shown it would not be much more restrictive than current regulations.
She also suggested it would support the city’s environmental goals. “The most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” Stanley said.
An article by the research firm Place Economics, which staff provided to the board, states reusing buildings was overlooked in the green architecture movement for decades, so much so that the LEED certification program awarded more points for a single bike rack than for reusing an entire building.
Other studies have found greater environmental benefits to historic preservation than demolition. One by Preservation Green Lab compared retrofitting a historic building or building new green structures and found that it takes 10-80 years of operating savings of a green building to recoup the negative climate change impacts of the construction, and that adaptive reuse demonstrated better environmental outcomes than demolition and new construction in nearly all buildings studied.
Board Chairman Brandon Mazer and board member David Eaton said they were concerned about the displacement that could occur on Munjoy Hill if values continue to inflate, but that it is not a factor in valuation.
“The historic district itself does not affect property values,” Mazer said, “but it doesn’t stop someone from creating a condo that gets assessed at a higher value that makes your neighborhood higher value with higher valuation.”
However, the Place Economics article states property values do tend to increase in historic districts, and points to analyses that have shown properties in local historic districts have greater rates of appreciation than properties elsewhere in the same city. The authors argue that while rising property taxes may cause financial difficulties for some owners, these can be addressed by taxation policies, and “the short-term cash flow problem is offset 40 to 67 times by the increased wealth.”
It is uncertain whether the appreciation that might occur through designation of a historic district on Munjoy Hill would be more or less than the increase in property values that might result from more condo development.
Another study referenced by city staff was done in 2016 by The Atlas of ReUrbanism. It looked at neighborhoods in 50 U.S. cities, including Portland, and gave each a “character score” based on the median age of buildings, diversity of ages of buildings, and the size of buildings and parcels, and compared other characteristics of the neighborhoods.
It found that across all the cities studied, residential densities and job densities are higher in areas with a mix of older, smaller buildings compared to areas with large, new buildings. These neighborhoods were also more diverse. The areas with higher character scores also had 46 percent more jobs in small businesses and 33 percent more jobs in new businesses than areas with large, new buildings.