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May 21, 2024

Portland paves the way for Free Street building demo, museum's planned $100M expansion

File photo / Peter Van Allen At the request of the Portland Museum of Art, whose Payson Building is shown at the right, the Portland City Council has agreed to reclassify the building next door, 142 Free St., so that the PMA can demolish it.

In a low-key climax to an often-heated, months-long public debate, the Portland City Council on Monday removed a downtown building's historic designation — and along with it, a major obstacle to the Portland Museum of Art's planned $100 million expansion.

The museum, which owns the 19th-century building at 142 Free St., had requested that it be reclassified as a "noncontributing structure" in the Congress Street Historic District. The change is necessary if the PMA, whose campus abuts the property, is to move forward with a massive build-out.

Under the museum's plan, 142 Free St. would be demolished to make room for a 60,000-square-foot addition, doubling the PMA's footprint.

Both the Portland Historic Preservation Board and the Portland Planning Board had previously rejected the reclassification request. But with the final say, the city council on May 6 took up the matter in a four-hour meeting that drew dozens of strongly worded comments from the public.

On May 20, after approving a wording revision in a meeting that lasted little more than an hour, councilors voted 6-3 to approve the reclassification. Mayor Mark Dion, Councilor Regina Phillips and Councilor Pious Ali voted in opposition.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made yet here on the council,” Councilor Kate Sykes said during the meeting. “I’ve been really saddened to see the way that it’s torn our community apart. … No matter how we vote today, there will be disappointed and sad people on the other side of this vote."

The proposal had faced months of opposition from a nonprofit group, Greater Portland Landmarks, and others who believe 142 Free St. has architectural significance. The opponents have said the building, constructed in 1830 but later renovated and modified, should remain a "contributing structure" under the city's historic preservation ordinance.

At its May 6 meeting, councilors had noted the possibility of a legal fight if they ultimately approved the reclassification. But by Tuesday morning it was not yet clear what if any legal appeals might be underway.

The building at 142 Free St. has been used as a theater, a church and an office for an area chamber of commerce. More recently, it had been home to the Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine, until it moved to a newly built center at Thompson's Point in 2021. The PMA purchased the property in 2019 and began using it for offices and storage after the Children's Museum & Theatre left.

The art museum's plan to expand at the site has provoked strong reactions, both from the opponents and from PMA supporters and business advocates — who say expansion would revitalize the downtown with hundreds of jobs and millions of tourism dollars.

The design for the new PMA wing was chosen through an international competition and announced in January 2023.

rendering of big brick building with arches
A rendering shows the proposed new building at 142 Free St., at left in the photo above, where the Portland Museum of Art plans to expand.

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