Portland council may freeze Munjoy Hill redevelopment

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PORTLAND — What 24 St. Lawrence St. residents Walter and Kelly Williams consider a sound and legal option for staying on Munjoy Hill has become a flashpoint for neighborhood redevelopment.

“We have lived here more than 14 years; we raised our daughter here,” Kelly Williams said Nov. 28. “We are looking to stay in our house, we want our daughter to be able to come back.”

The couple’s plan, filed with the city, is to tear down their two-family home, built in 1860, and replace it with a four-story building with five condominiums and parking for six vehicles on the ground level.

But it has generated objections from neighborhood residents and could be blocked by the middle of next month, when city councilors are expected to vote on a demolition moratorium in the R-6 zone on Munjoy Hill.

“The goal is to generate community conversations,” Councilor Belinda Ray said Monday about her proposal to ban demolitions for 180 days.

The moratorium will get a first reading on Dec. 4, with an expected public hearing and council vote on Dec. 18; if passed, the effective date is Dec. 4.

Ray will also propose a concurrent 45-day moratorium on the Planning Board reviewing any site plans in the R-6 district, where regulations were amended in 2015 to create more housing opportunities by allowing greater density. During the timeout, city staff would be asked to develop guidelines for site plan reviews in the zone.

Those changes, and the age and condition of their home – which makes renovations impractical – are the reasons the Williamses would like to rebuild in a fashion that has become common in the neighborhood.

Kelly Williams said narrow stairways and a lack of plumbing on the third floor would have to be remedied in renovations. She said it would also be costly to bring the building into compliance with current codes.

“Everyone said the cost would be really high with a lot of unknowns,” she said.

The plan to rebuild would provide the couple a home, with room for their daughter, and a source of income when other condominiums are sold.

“We are not rich people, we would not have spent our time and money doing something we didn’t think would be right,” Williams said.

City Planning Director Jeff Levine said his staff has been auditing how the revisions to R-6 zoning have affected the neighborhood, but the data will not be available until early 2018.

Earlier this month, two neighborhood meetings at East End School provided details of the 24 St. Lawrence St. plans, as well as plans to tear down a two-family home at 25 Monument St. to build a four-story, five-unit building with on-site parking.

Neighborhood residents Paula Agopian, Maggy Wolf and Karen Snyder are among those who are seeking a moratorium, stricter standards on tearing homes down, and an end to displacement caused by high-end housing.

Agopian, a former city council candidate, said she opposes plans at 25 Monument St. because it does not conform with its surroundings. The 47-year neighborhood resident and current vice president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association is advocating on her own for reforms, and said they should go beyond Munjoy Hill.

“Personally, I think there should be a city-wide regulation on teardowns, but I would settle for District 1,” she said.

Agopian also wants a City Council workshop held between the first reading and council hearing and vote, so she and others can present their side.

Unlike the West End, Munjoy Hill and its R-6 zone are not part of a historic conservation district that requires additional oversight from the city Historic Preservation Board.

Agopian, Levine and Ray are uncertain if that kind of zoning is a solution, and look to what is known as conservation zones to help preserve neighborhood character.

Levine helped draft a study on them in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 2005, noting the zones can be tailored to fit unique areas.

“A key difference is, a conservation district focuses on fewer elements of specific projects, including demolition or design,” he said. “That is a real struggle for us, and I don’t think zoning is the proper tool for addressing gentrification.”

Levine said is also also unconvinced conservation zones are a solution.

Standing on her front steps, Kelly Williams noted home designs on her street are hardly uniform, with a shingled triple-decker across the street, a brick home next door, and homes that have been altered to add decks.

“The nature of the Hill is a big house beside a little house,” she said.

Ray said zoning could be re-examined, including reducing allowable building heights from 45 feet to 35 feet, design guidelines, and stricter rules on demolitions.

She said the moratorium is similar to the one the council passed in 2016 to prevent development adjacent to Fort Sumner Park on Sheridan Street. The council eventually approved a special zone regulating building heights within 200 feet to avoid blocking the park’s panoramic views.

“Things are moving quickly and need to slow down,” Ray said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Kelly Williams and her husband want to rebuild 24 St. Lawrence St. on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. Neighbors object to the scope of their plans, and other redevelopment that has replaced older homes.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.