PORTLAND — A proposal to designate 73 downtown acres as historic is on its way to the City Council, but not without opposition from the business community.
The Congress Street Historic District was the subject of a council workshop on Monday. All five of the councilors in attendance – Nick Mavodones, Cheryl Leeman, John Anton, Dory Waxman and John Coyne – said they are ready to debate the issue.
“I personally am comfortable with it coming to council,” Anton said. The other option was to send the proposal to a council subcommittee for further review.
The Portland Community Chamber, meanwhile, released a statement Tuesday morning expressing strong opposition to the proposed historic district.
The chamber board said the district should not be approved because historic districts increase expenses for property owners, who must make costly renovations, go through longer approval processes, use specialty materials and pay for more legal and architectural consultations. The chamber also said the district would freeze evolution on Congress Street by not allowing new and innovative construction, and that the proposal would inhibit growth by not allowing large enough parcels for major developments.
“We believe that the present regulatory infrastructure is more than adequate to protect what we value in our city,” the chamber’s statement said.
The proposed district would capture 25 landmark buildings, 115 “contributing” buildings and 51 vacant lots and non-contributing buildings. Contributing buildings, according to the city’s Historic Preservation manager, Deb Andrews, are the “fabric of an area.”
About 130 structures would be eligible for historic tax credits. The proposed district runs from Lincoln Park to Bramhall Square, capturing side streets and the Free Street corridor.
Andrews said Congress Street is no less worthy of historic designation than the Old Port. When questioned by Leeman about why 51 vacant lots and non-contributing properties are included in the proposed district, Andrews said that the National Parks Service, which is responsible for certifying districts, demands that district be continuous.
The district was originally more broad, but Andrews said public opposition and consultation with the Maine Historic Preservation Authority reduced the district from 99 acres to 73, removing such properties as the Top of the Old Port parking lot, the Portland Press Herald’s old printing press property and the former YWCA property on Spring Street, which is now owned by the Portland Museum of Art.
While endorsing the proposed district, the Portland Downtown District and Anton requested that two properties on Free Street – including the former Portland Conservatory building and 48 Free St. – be excluded from the district. Those properties are surrounded by parking lots and noncontributing structures.
The district has also been endorsed by Portland Landmarks, the Portland Society of Architects and several downtown property owners. The Planning Board recommended the proposal to the council by a 5-2 vote in January.
The council is expected to have a first reading of the proposed district on Wednesday, Feb. 18. A public hearing is expected in March before the council makes a decision.