PORTLAND – The owner of the Eastland Park Hotel is starting over with its plan to build a ballroom in Congress Square because a city panel has rejected its proposal involving the public park.

Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital requested more time to draft a plan that balances residents’ desire for the continued presence of a public park with its business needs.

The City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee granted the request and is expected to take up a new proposal on Sept. 12.

Regardless of the new proposal, the committee — and the City Council as a whole — will have to resolve the underlying issue: whether the city wants to sell a public asset to benefit a private business.

“At this point, we haven’t had that discussion as a committee,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the committee.

Congress Square is widely considered to be failing as a public space. Its recessed, hardscaped design has proved attractive only to the homeless.

But residents, neighborhood associations and advocates for the homeless have opposed Rockbridge Capital’s proposal, saying the city should simply make the park more attractive.

The Parkside Neighborhood Association said Congress Square is “integral” as public space.

The association “is against the sale of public open space to private parties,” it said in a written statement. “We urge a collaboration between the city, PNA and all other interested parties to re-create Congress Square as a public space that benefits the citizens of Portland and surrounding businesses.”

Rockbridge Capital bought the 85-year-old hotel last year for $6.9 million. It is embarking on a more-than $30 million renovation of the hotel, which will be affiliated with the Westin Hotels chain.

The Congress Square Redesign Study Group, which was formed in 2008 to look for ways to improve the park as a public space, was reconvened last year when Rockbridge Capital proposed the new ballroom.

On Aug. 1, the group voted 7-2, with two members abstaining, to reject the proposal and focus efforts on redesigning the park.

After that vote, Rockbridge asked the city for time to come up with a new proposal. The Housing and Community Development Committee agreedWednesday.

Mavodones said Rockbridge Capital’s proposal called for a 30-foot-wide swath along Congress Street to be dedicated for public space. To get his support, the public space will have to be “considerably more” than that, he said.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who serves on the committee but did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, said she is confident that the larger issue of selling public space to a developer can be resolved within the context of Rockbridge’s proposal.

“For me, it’s all going to come down to design and how one would accommodate a public space,” Leeman said.

Leeman dismissed the notion that the city is putting the developer in control by entertaining various proposals without deciding first whether the park — or any portion of it — should be sold to a private business.

Adam Valente, senior vice president of Rockbridge Capital, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

If the council decides to sell a portion of the park, it will likely draft an agreement with Rockbridge Capital that makes the development proposal binding, said Alex Jeagerman, the city’s planning director.

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings