Portland city planners are beginning discussions about creating two historic districts on Munjoy Hill as part of a strategy to address concerns over the rapid pace of development that’s leading to large boxy condominiums replacing smaller, more traditional New England-style homes.
Although there are no specific boundaries yet proposed for the two districts, maps created by city planners show the general areas under consideration. One potential district may run along the Eastern Promenade and Fore Street from Turner Street to Atlantic Street, reaching a block or two from the outside edge into the neighborhood. The other potential district could run along North Street, from Congress Street to Walnut Street.
These homes along the Eastern Prom may be suitable for a historic district, but a local real estate attorney notes there are many working-class houses on Munjoy Hill that don’t have the same historic attributes.
Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director, said those areas are being looked at because they have the largest concentrations of buildings that have maintained their historic integrity. But Levine said it will take months of discussions with city councilors, neighborhood residents and historic preservationists before staff will decide whether to formally recommend creating any specific district.
“We want to have a starting point for the conversation,” Levine said. “The starting point is not that all of Munjoy Hill should be a historic district.”
The Maine Real Estate and Development Association hosted a forum in February about potential zoning and regulatory changes for Munjoy Hill. However, as a statewide organization, MEREDA is not taking an official position on the potential historic district, a spokesman said.
But Gary Vogel, a local real estate attorney who was a panelist at the February forum and has clients doing development projects on the hill, said he is concerned that a historic district will make it more difficult for average homeowners to do simple projects, such as replace windows and doors that are visible from the street.
Vogel said many of the landmark buildings on Munjoy Hill are already – or could easily be – protected without creating a historic district, which is better suited for neighborhoods with more historical and architectural cohesion than the hill has.
“Munjoy Hill doesn’t really, in my view, fit that definition of a historic district like you might have on the Western Prom or the Old Port,” he said. “It’s really kind of an amalgamation of the working-class neighborhood that’s been around for a long time but in and of itself, with the exception of the Eastern Prom or a few small properties, does not necessarily have those same kind of attributes that draw it together as a historic district.”
HISTORIC DISTRICTS REGULATED
Portland currently has 11 historic districts. The most well-known include the West End, Congress Street and Portland Waterfront/Old Port. In 2015, the city created the India Street Historic District, and in 2016 it created a historic district for the former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St.
While unique, each district has buildings designated as landmarks, “contributing” or “noncontributing.” If a building is deemed to be a landmark or contributing, it is much more difficult to demolish and the standards for altering or adding on to it are more rigorous. Projects within historic districts are reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Board or staff, depending on the scale or complexity, to ensure that the size, scale and design are compatible with the rest of the district. Proposed projects require a site plan in a historic district and undergo reviews by both the Historic Preservation Board and Planning Board.
Greater Portland Landmarks, a nonprofit historic preservation advocacy group, has been studying the historic integrity of Munjoy Hill for several months. The group has offered its own proposals for potential districts that are generally highlighted by the city, only encompassing more areas. For example, the Eastern Prom/Fore Street district would extend beyond Atlantic Street, going as far as Waterville Street.
Julie Larry, advocacy director for the group, said the proposed districts help tell the story of Munjoy Hill’s evolution over the years, including areas that were not incinerated by the Great Fire of 1866, which consumed one-third of Portland’s downtown area before burning out on the slopes of Munjoy Hill.
“They both contain resources from pre-Civil War settlement, post-1866 fire development, and development in the late 19th and early 20th century to accommodate Portland’s growing immigrant population,” Larry said.
Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said a recent meeting on establishing historic districts drew about 155 people, and that several board members have already expressed support for the effort. The organization may also solicit input from residents through a survey, he said.
“We have not taken any official position, but it’s clear from our meetings and verbal polling that the overwhelming majority in the community supports some sort of historic protection,” Norris said.
OTHER PROTECTIVE MEASURES
A potential historic district is only one way that city planners are looking to address concerns about the rapid development on Munjoy.
In December, the City Council enacted a six-month moratorium on demolitions on the hill. It later adopted an Interim Planning Overlay District to address design concerns. The so-called IPOD required a specific style of roof and other standards to ensure the first floor of each new building was active with living spaces, rather than parking garages and stairwells.
Levine said that on April 10, the Planning Board will review a proposed conservation overlay district that would maintain the requirement prohibiting first-floor parking. But the proposal would also loosen the roof requirements and add some flexibility for projects that contain affordable housing, he said.
Staff is also recommending creating a process of delaying the demolition of certain buildings. The so-called demolition delay would allow the city to buy time – from six months to 18 months – to work with the applicant to find alternatives to demolition.
“We’re trying to balance the concern (about) growth and change with the fact that cities do need to grow and change over time, with limits,” Levine said. “We’re trying to find that balance.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: