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Debate over controversial Portland Museum of Art expansion set to resume Monday

The Portland Museum of Art
Maine Public
The Portland Museum of Art

On Monday night, the Portland City Council is expected to reconsider a controversial expansion plan by the Portland Museum of Art.

Museum officials said the plan would require demolishing the former's Children's Museum next door. But others, including two Portland governing boards, said the structure at 142 Free Street has historic significance and must be protected.

The disagreements have, in some ways, evolved into a debate over the museum's future, involving details over the city's preservation standards, ordinances, historic dates and architects.

But on Thursday, a group of preservation advocates tried to make their case clear.

The art museum already has the space it needs to expand without demolishing the former children's museum, said Carol DeTine, vice president for the Greater Portland Landmarks board of trustees, during a press conference at their offices on Thursday.

"They can put something shiny and new right here, and it will be visible from Spring Street," said De Tine, pointing to a map of an alternative location for the PMA's addition that preservation group had drawn.

Greater Portland Landmarks Board of Trustees Vice President Carol DeTine, center, at a press conference held at the non-profit's offices in Portland on May 16, 2024.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public
Greater Portland Landmarks Board of Trustees Vice President Carol DeTine, center, at a press conference held at the non-profit's offices in Portland on May 16, 2024.

The preservation non-profit said it met with the museum three times about its expansion proposal.

And Mark Bessire, director for the PMA, said the museum has drawn up alternative plans and considered the possibility of expanding on Spring Street or elsewhere. But he said the other options would have been more expensive.

"We want to focus our community on Congress Square, not on Spring Street," Bessire said Thursday in a phone interview. "[On] Spring Street we don't really want to put an entrance to something on the backside, and that piece of property might have a future use that is probably as important to the city in the future."

Opponents also said the reclassification of the former children's museum could put Congress Street historic district designation in jeopardy, and potentially make it more difficult for future projects to receive state and federal historic tax credits and be redeveloped.

Bessire disagrees.

"This property has changed countless times over its history, and its integrity is no longer contributing to the district," he said.

It's why, he said, the Portland City Council should decide that the former Children's Museum is no longer considered a "contributing structure" in the Congress Street Historic District — and reclassify the building.

At its meeting two weeks ago, a majority of city councilors signaled they agreed.

And Bessire said the museum expansion, with its architectural design informed by a Wabanaki cultural historian, would bring something new to Congress Square.

"This is really an innovative project that's thinking about what's in it for Maine in the 21st century? How can we think differently about our future and really create an icon or a beacon for Portland moving forward?" he said.

But preservation advocates also argue that it's not up to the city council to consider how the proposed museum expansion fits into their broader vision for Portland.

Sean Turley, an attorney with Murray, Plumb and Murray representing Greater Portland Landmarks, believes the council has one job — to strictly weigh the historic significance of 142 Free Street under the city's preservation ordinances.

"It's not a kind of... the does the museum need this?" Turley said. "Does the city need it? That's not the calculus here, as much as the PMA tries to make that about that type of decision."

Bessire said he trusts city councilors will make the right decision for Mainers.

Carol DeTine with Portland Greater Landmarks said the non-profit isn't sure how it will proceed if the council does decide that PMA expansion should move forward as the museum envisions. The council's deliberations, she said, will play a big role in how the preservation group moves forward.

"I don't think we'll just lick our wounds," DeTine said. "But we'll figure out what comes next. We really don't know yet."

The Portland City Council is expected to again consider the issue over 142 Free Street at its meeting on Monday evening.