Ever since John Ryan first visited Munjoy Hill 40 years ago, there was something about the neighborhood that kept drawing him back. It was the connection to the harbor, the eclectic mix of apartment buildings and houses, and the rich history and traditions of the families who’d lived there for generations. In the early 1980s he and his wife moved into the third floor of a triple decker on Vesper Street, then bought and rehabbed a Victorian home across the street. Even after they moved away in the mid 1990s, “we always had a soft spot for the Hill and its unique character,” says Ryan, president of Wright-Ryan Construction.
So a few years ago, when the opportunity came up to build a triple-decker condominium on Waterville Street with some friends, and once again live in an apartment on the third floor, Ryan jumped at the chance. “I feel as if we have come full circle,” he says.
Indeed, Munjoy Hill is the kind of place that transcends the details of physical address or the passage of time. Even as years pass and storefronts change, there is this enduring captivating quality about the neighborhood fabric that wedges a place into people’s hearts and creates a magnetic pull. It ignites effusive enthusiasm. Those who have a relationship to it feel fiercely protective of it.
When Boothbay Harbor residents Susan Morris and Chip Newell decided to buy a second home in Portland, they found their ideal location on Munjoy Hill: spectacular views, a thriving core of shops and eateries like Hilltop Coffee, Rosemont Market, the Front Room, and Blue Spoon, along with the St. Lawrence Arts Center and easy access to the Eastern Promenade—to bike, kayak, and run—all within a walk to restaurants, galleries, and theaters that have gained national renown. There was just one thing they didn’t see: their dream home.
“We wanted one-level living, with indoor parking, that was functional and reflected our lifestyle,” says Morris. She and Newell had moved to Maine ten years ago, after developing condos and retail projects in Washington, D.C., and other cities. In recent years, they had been making several trips a week to Portland to attend lectures, concerts, and meetings for nonprofit groups, driving 75 minutes from Boothbay each time.
Their housing search ended—and the 118 on Munjoy Hill luxury condos were born—when they met Ed Theriault, a design consultant who owned land at the corner of Congress and St. Lawrence Streets. Theriault contributed the land for and became an equity partner in the project.
Perhaps if Morris and Newell had waited a bit, they would have found something to buy. Surely they would have plenty to choose from. Their condo development, which includes 12 units ranging from $600,000 to $1.15 million, is part of a wave of high-end development now underway on Munjoy Hill. At least 52 new condos ranging from $350,000 to $1.135 million are currently in the works and will be complete by next spring. Some of the units sold before the projects even broke ground.
Just a few blocks from where Morris and Newell are building, four-story contemporary townhouses now stand at 9 and 11 St. Lawrence Street, where a dilapidated home stood for years. Over at Walnut and Sheridan streets, Munjoy Heights, a complex of 29 townhomes, is rising on a 1.5-acre parcel that once housed undeveloped lots, apartments, and a single-family home. Marquis Lofts, six loft-style condos, is being built at 33 Lafayette Street on a lot previously occupied by a church. Over at 152 Sheridan Street, on a 45-degree vacant slope, a five-unit complex will be complete in the spring.
Developers are betting that affluent buyers will flock to the neighborhood for the same reasons that have attracted many of them to build homes of their own there. Observers say demand that was pent up during the recession is now being filled. Empty nesters are looking to downsize, and younger professionals are in search of a higher quality of life than they could find in other East Coast cities, such as Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C.
“There’s been a lot of recognition of the arts, open space, historic character, and the lifestyle—all the things that we’ve worked so hard to nurture, protect, encourage, and promote here,” says Alex Jaegerman, director of planning for the city of Portland.
All those amenities have attracted people like Paul Andrews, a 57-year-old native of Poland Spring, who bought a unit in Munjoy Heights sight unseen. “I wanted to be close to theater, good restaurants, shopping without dealing with the big-city costs and traffic,” says Andrews, who is retiring from financial services, and downsizing from his 4,000-square-foot home in Springfield, Illinois. “Growing up in Maine I couldn’t wait to get out, because I thought it was too small,” he says. “Now it’s grown enough—and I’ve grown enough—and it’s exactly the right place for me.”
For French architect Pierre Vial, who developed the townhomes on St. Lawrence Street, the opportunity to build in the neighborhood has been a long time coming—40 years, in fact. “When I first visited in 1973, I thought Munjoy Hill was the best place, with the best views, and would have gladly bought something there had I had the money or the need to be there,” says Vial, who lives in Biddeford Pool.
In 2012, he met broker Chris Lavoie, who showed him a neglected property for sale on St. Lawrence. Although the home had crumbling concrete, rotting wood, and a weedy sideyard, Vial was enchanted by the panoramic vista from the second floor. “When I saw the views towards the city and the harbor, I fell in love with the place and knew it was the one,” he says. He signed a contract that same day.
The 2,000-square-foot townhomes, which are selling for $1.105 and $1.135 million, have three bedrooms and two and a half baths. The homes are flooded with light from windows designed to capture solar energy and give the homes an airy feel.
Similar to Morris and Newell, some of the developers’ investment in the area was spurred by their own desire to live on the hill. A physician who is downsizing from his suburban home is building the development at 152 Sheridan Street. He’ll occupy the 2,400-square-foot unit on the top floor. He plans to rent the other units, and then sell them as condos. David Lloyd, principal of Archetype Architects, is designing the project. Lloyd moved to a triple-decker on Waterville Street in 2011, which he developed with Ryan and Peter Bass, who is developing Marquis Lofts. (Wright-Ryan and Lloyd are working on 118 on Munjoy Hill and other projects in the neighborhood.)
All have seen interest in the area steadily grow over recent years. But perhaps their confidence stems from the quality of life they’ve personally enjoyed there. Since moving in from Gorham, where he lived for 30 years, “my lifestyle has changed pretty dramatically,” says Bass, whose Marquis Loft condos are priced at $350,000. “I rarely get into a car. I either walk or ride my bike everywhere.” Not having to spend an hour a day driving to work has allowed him to get more involved in local organizations like the St. Lawrence Arts Center and Creative Portland. “When you can ride your bike somewhere, you have no excuses,” he says. “I feel healthier, and I feel much more connected to the community than I ever have.”
The same quality of life is also drawing other boomers, like Caron Zand and Donald Head. For 19 years the couple has lived on an Edenic, eight-acre expanse in Cape Elizabeth. Since a major renovation in 2000, which doubled the size of their home to 4,300 square feet, their home has been a showcase for their collection of works by living Maine artists. But in recent years the couple traveled more and spent less time there. “We put our heart and soul into this house and love it, but it was time to simplify,” says Zand, a board member of the Maine College of Art. “With just the two of us, this footprint was too big for us.” Zand and Head are among four buyers who have already committed to 118 on Munjoy Hill.
With the throng of construction in the area, one has to ask: are developers overestimating the demand?
Observers say that with the steady growth of Portland’s professional sector, the influx of baby boomers, and the city’s national reputation as a great place to live, supply and demand are in balance for now. “I think the underlying factors shaping the Portland market do not suggest that demand will fall off any time soon—barring any sort of national economic disaster,” says Charles S. Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine.
In partnership with the Maine Real Estate and Development Association (MEREDA), Colgan compiles the MEREDA index, a gauge of real estate activity that includes factors such as mortgage origination, property sales, and vacancy rates. The index has increased in each of the last four quarters, rising eight percent over the last year.
John Ryan sees demand growing in the years ahead as development along the waterfront continues, and a diverse group of people are drawn to the qualities that make the area so special: easy access to the water, walkability to restaurants, markets, cultural venues, and offices.
“Many people who are later in their careers and whose children may have moved on are interested in simplifying their lives and living in smaller, more efficient spaces with easy access to amenities,” says Ryan. “They want to be less dependent on their automobiles, and they don’t want to spend their free time working on their houses. Interestingly, a lot of young, not-so-well-heeled people want the same things.”
Developers report that demand is swift. Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties reports that all but 11 of the 29 condos in his Munjoy Heights development have been sold. Each of the three- and four-story units, which range from $529,000 to $799,900, has a rooftop deck and private garage.
Culley says he’s been pleased to see interest not only from baby boomers, but also from professionals in their 30s and 40s. That includes people like Presque Isle native Catherine York, 43, and her partner John Powers, 44. After living in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for more than two decades, York and Powers moved their home and their company, Gilded Nut Snack Co., from San Francisco to Portland in 2012. York is eager to be a ten-minute walk to work and to favorite restaurants like Eventide and Lolita Vinoteca and Asador, as well as to have easy access to the Eastern Prom, where she can go for a run or play Frisbee or tennis. “The location is unbeatable,” she says.
But the real draws for York, who previously worked in the renewable energy industry, are the green building features of Munjoy Heights, including the south-facing windows for passive solar heating and insulation that meets LEED standards. “These aspects are really important to me,” she says. “The building envelope maximizes energy performance. It has a number of benefits, not the least of which is savings on heating and cooling.”
Since the market has started to rebound in recent years, Bay House, a two-building complex initially offered in 2007, is back on the market. Just off India Street at Middle and Hancock Streets, 71 of the 86 units have been sold or are under contract, says Sandy Johnson, a broker at Town and Shore Associates, which is marketing the condos. Prices on the single-level units range from $180,000 for a studio to $825,000 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom unit. Johnson is not concerned about competition from the new condos on Munjoy Hill, as the projects and locations are distinct enough that they won’t attract the same buyers. “Everyone’s offering something different,” she says.
Beyond the forces of supply and demand, there are other, more complex questions for which there are no easy answers right now. Will the luxury developments jack up rental prices and make Munjoy Hill unaffordable for the residents who live there now? Will the parking, the views, and the diverse community that gives Munjoy Hill its character disappear? Residents are watching carefully.
Andrea Myhaver, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization (MHNO), the 35-year-old organization that focuses on building community and quality of life in the area, says members of her group have a wide mix of reactions to the new wave of development. “Some people are thrilled and excited; others are worried about losing middle-class housing and being able to afford to live where we do,” she says.
“It’s very exciting in many ways,” she says. “We all know it’s a wonderful place to live and a lot of other people are discovering that too. The key is balance. What makes our neighborhood magical is that mix of different kinds of housing. We just want to keep the right mix and keep the magic. We want to prevent it from becoming all one extreme or all another, and see it lose that special thing that Munjoy Hill has.”
Indeed, with the development along the waterfront, Ryan hopes to see a balance of housing options for young and long-time residents in the neighborhood. “The broad mix of ages, occupations, and incomes is an important part of the fabric that makes the hill such an attractive place to be,” says Ryan. “ Maintaining that balance will be challenging, and will require a commitment to thoughtful planning and development from the public and private sectors.”
Developers say they’re working hard to build a connection to the community and not take anything away from it. The ground floor of Morris and Newell’s project is being reserved for commercial use, an effort to continue the pedestrian-friendly energy of the strip between the Portland Observatory and the other shops down the hill. Morris and Newell created maps showing shops, restaurants, historic sites, and parks in the neighborhood, which they distributed to local businesses.
“We’re not out to be developers extraordinaire,” says Morris. “Our interest is in the long-term economic sustainability of the state and the city of Portland.”