PORTLAND — Nearly 200 downtown properties are now part of the city’s newest historic district, a designation the City Council unanimously approved Monday following a couple hours of public testimony from historic preservation advocates.
The Congress Street Historic District encompasses about 75 acres along Congress Street and surrounding streets. The historic designation means that any changes proposed to buildings or lots in the district will be subject to the city’s Historic Preservation review, either by staff or the Historic Preservation Board, depending on the scope of the project.
Planning the new district began in January 2006 at the direction of the City Council, following a burst of redevelopment along the city’s main commercial street. Historic Preservation staff spent nearly two years researching properties in the proposed zone and coming up with a proposal. About a year ago the city began holding forums for property owners and spent several months tweaking the district boundaries to reflect concerns from those property and business owners.
The district was approved by the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board in January.
At the public hearing Monday night, historic preservation advocates and fans blitzed City Council Chambers and took turns at the podium, repeatedly promoting the benefits of designating Congress Street as historic.
Arguments in favor of the district ranged from historic preservation being connected to the creative economy and retaining Maine’s youth, to property owners being able to take advantage of special tax credits.
Beth Humstone called the district a “catalyst for economic development.” She said that rehabilitation is often better than new construction.
Humstone was also among several speakers who touted tax credits as a benefit for property owners within historic districts.
“More than 130 properties can take advantage of (the) tax credits,” she said.
Scott Simons, president of the Portland Society of Architects, said his group also supports the proposal. The society questioned several elements of the proposal when it was first released, including height limitations it would impose on the tallest part of the city and confusion relating the the role of the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board.
“The modifications to the proposal have made us feel better about it,” he said.
Three property owners spoke against the designation.
Chris Campbell said the district would stymie future development and freeze Congress Street in its current state.
Wan Park said he was concerned about added costs and process if he should pursue fixing up his properties on Congress Street.
Ric Quesada, who owns several properties within the district, said that although he is usually a proponent of historic preservation, he does not support the proposal. He said taking advantage of tax credits requires substantial up-front costs for property owners and meeting federal standards. He also expressed disappointment that three of his buildings are included in the district, including one that is surrounded by a parking lot.
The council, however, overwhelmingly supported designating Congress Street and the surrounding area, including a large part of Free Street, as historic. The district runs from Lincoln Park to Bramhall Square.
An amendment was made and passed requiring city staff to report back annually regarding development in the district.