The development boom on Portland’s Munjoy Hill has long had residents wondering, How far can it go? We think they finally have the answer: right to the edge of the cliff, but no farther.
Take Washington Avenue as an example. As you travel west from its terminus at Congress Street, you see one new business after another: brewery, meadery, distillery, shipping container full of shops, bagel shop, oyster bar, another distillery, grocery, kombuchery (yes, that’s a word). And that’s just on the north side.
On the south side of the avenue it’s a similar story, but as you approach the on-ramp to Interstate 295 the hill falls away, getting steeper and steeper. This is not a geologic feature — when the city was filling in marshland around Back Cove, workers carved earth out of this side of the hill to get enough dirt for the job.
One of the last structures before the interstate is a John Deere–green-and-yellow structure that looks like it’s in the process of sliding down into East Bayside. Upon closer inspection, the structure is more sound than it looks, partly because it’s sunk into the ground over the years, digging in for dear life against gravity’s merciless pull.
The Bollard’s original dump hunter, Patrick Banks, always wanted to write this place up, but it seemed like too small a fish to fry, just somebody’s old rundown shed. Then the sign went up: “FOR SALE … 10,000 +/- [square feet] Development Site … City and Water Views … [Zoning] Allows for 22 Units.”
Et tu, Dumpy?
Yes. It seems that even a vertiginously steep grade isn’t enough to scuttle a parcel’s development potential in this neighborhood — check out the condos perched on Sheridan Street above Washington Ave. “You have these old buildings all along Washington,” said Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization. “Developers exist to build buildings, that’s what they do.”
“As I’ve said for years, there really is class warfare going on in our city and not in a nasty way, but I see it,” Norris continued. “It’s the haves versus the haves. There were so many working-class people whose home is their only retirement. It’s easy to tell them, ‘You can’t tear your house down,’ but people are figuring out ways to retire and that’s their home.”
There’s a house on the same lot as the John Deere shed, and its owner is apparently willing to sell the whole shebang to a starry-eyed builder who’s up for the challenge of stacking 20-plus condos on this black-diamond slope. But thus far, there’ve been no takers, despite the stunning views of Back Cove, with Mount Washington off in the distance.
The property has been on and off the market for the past few years, but once the ink on the contract is dry, things can move quickly. We called the number on the sign and got a crusty old Mainer who sounded fed up with all the pretenders he’s had to handle. He provided the dimensions of the property but wasn’t interested in chatting about its history. Bona fide developers are directed to send an e-mail, and good luck after that.
The idea of another condo tower perched above the abyss doesn’t alarm Norris, “as long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s view or present other negatives to the community,” he said. “If they’re going to do it on Washington Avenue, it might as well be down that way.”
Mainer editor Chris Busby contributed reporting.