What’s so special about Portland? Its public spaces make the city walkable and welcoming, encouraging people-watching, reading, walking hand in hand, enjoying a sandwich or taking a break from work.
But one of these open spaces doesn’t fit this scenario. Congress Square Plaza, at Congress and High streets, is a relatively lightly used, sunken, hardscaped area, infamous for attracting litter and loiterers.
Acknowledging the space’s shortcomings, the city in 2008 set up a task force that recommended sprucing up the lot and keeping it public. The city then dedicated $50,000 to hiring a landscape designer to create a plan for the space.
Since 2011, however, when a developer bought the former Eastland Park Hotel adjacent to Congress Square, the city’s efforts have taken a back seat to the developer’s proposals to use part of the space for a hotel expansion.
Last summer, city leaders turned down one such plan. On Wednesday, the developer, Rockbridge Capital, presented a smaller, revised project that not only improves a space that has been recognized as a problem but also manages to integrate that space into the streetscape. This proposal deserves and should get serious consideration from the city.
Congress Square Plaza doesn’t work as a public area, and it’s no wonder. The unlovely parcel, created by tearing down old structures, wasn’t designed for the purpose it serves now. “It was never meant to be a park — it’s a space where there used to be a building,” project architect Patrick Costin said in an interview.
The plaza also is handicapped by its design. Three feet below sidewalk level, it’s a space whose seclusion allows for behavior such as public drinking and urination. This puts off both passers-by who might want to stop for a moment and the businesses that help fund city services — like the redesign of public plazas — hit hard by a recession-driven drop in tax revenue.
Opponents do raise a good point when they cite the possibility of corporate control of a public space. Should the Rockbridge Capital proposal advance, city officials and residents need to read it closely and make certain it leaves no room for the hotel to oversee or annex Congress Square Plaza.
The hotel should have no control over who spends time in the plaza. If people are enjoying themselves there in a way that accords with city-enforced public conduct ordinances, there is no right to roust them from a public space just because they may not look like they belong to a high-income demographic.
In the next step in the process, the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee is scheduled to vote next month on a recommendation to the full council.
Wisely vetted, the proposed addition would leave room for a plaza that allows street life to flourish and brightens a highly visible intersection in the heart of Maine’s largest city, and we hope the Housing and Community Development Committee recognizes this and moves the proposal along.
Correction: The name of the Housing and Community Development Committee is corrected above.