PORTLAND – There is considerable discussion over the future of Portland’s Congress Square Park.
Rockbridge Capital, the developer of the adjacent former Eastland Hotel, has proposed constructing a private event space for weddings, meetings, etc., which will consume the majority of the park’s physical footprint.
If the developer converts park space to event space, this means that formerly public land will be privatized and Portlanders soon will be excluded from the very space they once owned.
Perhaps the event space is the best solution to the problem of Congress Square Park, but what exactly is the problem we are trying to solve?
First, though, what is the rush? With the second round of the developer’s proposal for the park just released, actions are occurring fast and decisions being requested.
Clearly the developer’s proposal is not crucial to the development of the hotel — important, maybe, but not crucial. If it were crucial, logic suggests that this would have been addressed before the purchase of the property and certainly before construction began.
While calling for a time-out may be viewed as a frustrating slowdown, it is time we step back, take a deep breath and think this through carefully. If the city accepts the offer to sell the park, this decision is irreversible and bounds future generations to a decision made today that will have a permanent impact on the character of the city.
This does not mean that the developer’s plan is without merit. I argue that we need to step back and think about this decision more carefully than we have thus far. It is more important to take our time than to make a quicker but regrettable decision.
An argument being made is that Congress Square Park is a failed public space. Is it truly failed, or is it merely unsuccessful or performing below current expectations?
This is not just semantics. When the park is framed as a failed space, it is easy to justify draconian action to “save” the space.
The developer’s plan — which is intriguing — attempts to address the problems of the park: insufficient usage, visitor fear, illicit behavior, litter and so forth. But these are symptoms of a problem, not the causes. The causes of the space’s lack of success include the sunken layout, lack of seating, poor sight lines, city neglect, users’ ability to hide and so forth.
The developer’s proposed solution is not to fix the park but to eliminate it. Eliminating the park clearly will solve the problems, but the social cost (the loss of valuable park space) will be high.
In seeing the architect’s concept drawings, some of their justifications of why a small plaza is better than the park have merit. A plaza may be more successful in attracting public usage. But the question remains: Is this is the only solution?
We do not know because we have been presented with a false dichotomy: Keep a failed space or build a functional urban plaza with a private event space.
I argue that there are other viable solutions and that we should examine each one of them on their merits using the most fundamental and important criterion: What is the benefit to current and future Portlanders?
An idea offered at the Portland Parks Commission’s recent annual Green Space Meeting was to engage the Portland architectural community by challenging them with a design contest to present alternative concepts for rebuilding the park. It may be that the construction of a private function space is the best option for Congress Square Park, but then again, without alternatives to assess, we cannot know for sure.
Therefore, we should call on Portland’s landscape architectural community to first brainstorm the causes of the problem, then offer design concepts on addressing the causes by maximizing usage as opposed to minimizing usage.
Both the developer and Portland have a stake in the future success of Congress Square Park. Let us make the most of this cooperativeness coupled with the creative power of Portlanders to establish the park as a centerpiece to welcome and show off the city’s growing Arts District.
By carefully evaluating multiple proposals and making a reasoned decision, we can hope that future Portlanders will look back and say that in 2013, we made the best and wisest decision about the future of Congress Square Park.
Travis Wagner of Portland is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine.