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City council postpones decision on future of Portland art museum expansion

The Portland Museum of Art
Craig Becker
Courtesy Portland Museum Of Art
The Portland Museum of Art.

City councilors postponed a decision Monday night on the future of the Portland art museum's proposed expansion.

Portland's historic preservation and planning boards had recommended that the city keep a historic designation for the former Children's Museum on Free Street. The Portland Museum of Art owns the neighboring building and wants to demolish it to make room for a proposed expansion.

The topic drew more than three hours of public comment and debate on Monday night.

Art museum leaders argued that renovations done over decades have changed the historical significance of the building they would like demolish.

And Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, said he believes a campus expansion will spark an economic revitalization in Congress Square.

"Supporting this reclassification will lead to a $100 million investment in our community, where businesses are closing and commercial occupancy is down," he told city councilors Monday night.

But preservation advocates said 142 Free St. still meets the criteria for what's known as a "contributing structure" under the city's historic preservation ordinance. Some said they believed the museum had used this debate to advance a positive PR campaign about its proposed expansion.

Earlier this year, the museum laid off 13 employees, citing declining attendance during the pandemic.

"Leaders of the PMA are convinced that they can get you to give them a pass on an ordinance that you are charged with enforcing," said Carol De Tine, vice president for the Portland Greater Landmarks board of trustees. "Don't buy this. The expansion of the museum does not depend on tearing down 142 Free St. The PMA already has more than enough property to build on."

Bessire and others associated with the museum, however, argued that the organization needed more room for its collections and for visitors. The museum solicited designs for a new wing at the PMA and received more than 100 proposals. The museum chose a concept from LEVER, a Portland, Oregon, based architecture firm.

The chosen design incorporates Wabanaki history, said Chris Newell, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe who advised the architects on the concept.

"We can design a building that pays attention to more history than just the last 200 years," said Newell, who called the project a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for Portland. "We can design a building that pays attention to the last 12,000 years of Wabanaki occupation of this land."

Mayor Mark Dion said he received hundreds of emails about the museum and its expansion, which he described as a "debate between law and architecture."

Though the promise of an expansion and an economic boost to the downtown is appealing, he believes it's up to the council to strictly weigh the proposal under the city's historic preservation ordinances.

"It's almost as if there was an underlying recognition that the law is not in our favor, so let's talk about outcome," Dion said. "Let's talk about glitter, let's talk about future. Let's really not get into this idea about what it means to preserve the past."

But other city councilors disagreed. They said they have an opportunity to consider how 142 Free St. had changed over the years after its designation as a historic property — and contemplate what the museum's proposed expansion could mean for downtown Portland more broadly.

Portland City Councilor April Fournier was among those who said 142 Free St. — with its colonial revival façade — should be considered a "noncontributing structure."

"When I look at this building in question, it's a style of building that's actually not comfortable for me. In fact, a lot of buildings that are traditionally historic to some are not comfortable for me and for many, because the buildings, the institutions, the governments have not always worked for myself and my Native American relatives and communities," Fournier said. "I agree, we absolutely need to look at the current ordinances, our purview and the facts. But I would also offer that in my mind, historic preservation itself and the ways in which things are classified are subjective, based on who is telling the story of the community."

In the end, a majority of city councilors indicated they would like to reclassify the former Children's Museum as a "noncontributing structure," which would allow the art museum to move forward with its proposed campus expansion. But city councilors agreed they wanted more time to draft a new order.

The city council is expected to reconsider the issue at its next meeting in two weeks.