PORTLAND — A development team told city councilors Wednesday that revised plans for an event center on city-owned land next to the former Eastland Park Hotel could transform the area.
Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital is doing a $40 million renovation of the historic hotel, which will be renamed the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel when it opens late this year or in early 2014.
Soon after Rockbridge Capital bought the hotel for $6.8 million in 2011, it began discussions with city officials about ways to turn around Congress Square Plaza, which many people describe as a failing public space, with public drinking and urination.
Adam Valente, a managing partner with Rockbridge Capital, told the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee on Wednesday that one reason the Eastland name wasn’t kept for the new hotel was unflattering consumer reviews associated with the plaza.
“People relate the Eastland to scary, unsafe behavior, character-type issues they had, specifically with the square,” Valente said. “We’re guilty by association.”
Last summer, Rockbridge Capital’s proposal to buy a portion of the nearly half-acre, hardscaped park and build a ballroom there was rejected by city leaders, several neighborhood associations and advocates for the homeless.
Rockbridge Capital presented new plans Wednesday to the Housing and Community Development Committee, which is scheduled to vote on a recommendation to the council May 29.
Although no public comment was taken during the work session, the council chamber was packed with spectators.
The prospect of private development of a portion of the public space has generated debate. Some business owners say a space for events would enhance the area, while a group of residents has circulated petitions seeking to save the plaza.
Rockbridge Capital’s plan calls for a 9,500-square-foot addition to the hotel, said Patrick Costin, an architect with Canal 5 Studio in Portland. The “unabashedly contemporary” addition, made of glass, wood and stone, would have a 5,000-square-foot event center that could be subdivided into three rooms, he said.
The addition would leave space for a 4,200-square-foot public plaza. It would eliminate three parking spaces on Congress Street so the sidewalk could be expanded, Costin said. Trees and bench seating are proposed for the plaza.
Mayor Michael Brennan said the proposal is “substantive and credible” but he stopped short of endorsing it as presented.
“It’s a great starting point for discussion,” Brennan said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end point.”
The project that the developers proposed last year would have left 30 feet along Congress Street for a public plaza. Costin said the new plan increases that to 40 feet.
Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, said in an interview that means a 2,000-square-foot reduction of the addition.
Costin said the plaza now is too big, contains isolated pockets and turns inward rather than engaging the street. He said the new plan would create a plaza like Longfellow Square or Lobsterman Park, more popular public spaces.
Costin said the plan includes a glass-walled corridor around the event center for pre-event gatherings, and rotating art displays in collaboration with local galleries.
A granite bench would run outdoors along the glass wall, beneath an overhang, he said.
“We want the building to engage with the plaza,” Costin said. “The interior space will feel as though it’s connected with the outdoors.”
Costin said Rockbridge Capital is recommending a public art display, featuring light and water, in the plaza as a statement about its location in the heart of Portland’s arts district.
“We think this should be a memorial to art,” he said.
Councilors asked whether the developers could increase the amount of public space — by building the addition up, or down into the ground.
Costin said Rockbridge Capital is open to those discussions but the cost would likely make it unfeasible. The event center must be at least 5,000 square feet to be marketable for many corporate events, he said.
After the meeting, members of the Friends of Congress Square Park, which opposes selling the space for development, said they were not impressed with the new design but planned to meet with the development team to get more information.
Joan Grant said the proposed plaza is little more than a “widened sidewalk” and could not host events or public rallies.
Frank Turek, who is leading a petition drive in support of sprucing up the plaza, said he was shocked by the developers’ attitude that the corner of Congress and High streets will never be a successful park.
“What the hotel needs is a better gateway to the hotel,” Turek said. “I was surprised to see a carbon copy of the plans that were rejected previously.”
City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said many residents have strong opinions about the plan. He encouraged neighborhood groups and residents to meet with Wennerstrom and Costin to get educated about the proposal.
Wednesday’s presentation will be posted on the city’s website, along with contact information for the development team.
Some people have already made up their minds “and they haven’t even seen anything,” Mavodones said. “I suspect there are a lot of people in the middle.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: