PORTLAND — The Planning Board is expected to vote later this month on a plan to turn the downtown stretch of Congress Street and the surrounding area into a historic district.
The proposed Congress Street Historic District has been in the works for nearly three years. If recommended by the board and approved by the City Council, the designation would give the Historic Preservation Board significant oversight on development and suggested changes along the corridor.
The proposed district at first included a much greater portion of downtown, but concerns and suggestions from the public and from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission convinced the Historic Preservation Board to shrink the scope of the district and remove 31 properties.
About 130 properties are still captured in the current proposal.
The proposal also categorizes properties and buildings according to historic significance and calls for Historic Preservation Board oversight of proposed development on properties close to, but not in, the district.
Properties within 100 feet of the district would be labeled “not incongruous” properties and require developers to go to the Historic Preservation Board. The labeling of these properties was the subject of much debate at a Planning Board workshop Monday, with architects arguing the term basically means “compatible;” planning board members arguing the term doesn’t make sense and is hard to understand, and historic preservationists saying it is a standard term among historic preservation authorities.
Deb Andrews, the city’s Historic Preservation Program manager, said the city needs to follow state and federal guidelines in designating the district or risks losing its certification, which in turn would mean the loss of funding for the program.
Some of the properties carved out of the district included Portland Press Herald’s parking lot and former printing press building and the former YWCA lot on Spring Street, now owned by the Portland Museum of Art. That left owners of some of the properties left in the district scratching their heads and accusing the city of gerrymandering and bowing to requests from influential city entities.
A couple of people questioned why 48 Free St. was included in the district, calling it an unremarkable building. Cyrus Hagge, the president of the Portland Downtown District board, said including corner properties like 48 Free St. could prevent future development of nearby empty lots.
“We don’t want the city’s hands tied for future development,” Hagge said. “Don’t tie up those corners.”
The proposed Historic District runs from Lincoln Park to Bramhall Square and captures several side streets and portions of Free Street. Properties within the district are also designated according to historic significance.
The Planning Board is scheduled to vote Jan. 27 on whether to recommend the proposal to the City Council.