PORTLAND – In the late 1800s, Congress Square was essentially the religious center of the city, home to four churches.
By the 1970s, the churches were gone and the area was popular with prostitutes, pimps and vagrants, who would hang out at a notorious Dunkin’ Donuts.
Today, the nearly half-acre, sunken, hard-scaped Congress Square Plaza is one of the most hotly debated public spaces in the city.
Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital is trying to persuade city leaders and residents to sell two-thirds of the plaza so it can build an event center to complement its $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Hotel, which it purchased for $6.8 million in 2011.
The proposal would leave 4,800 square feet of public open space to be improved and maintained by the city. Rockbridge has pledged $50,000 toward that effort.
But the event center proposal has sharply divided the community.
Some residents — particularly those still involved in the Occupy Maine movement — see the proposal as a corporate takeover of a public space.
“I think the people of Portland want to make sure we’re not selling public space to private, multinational corporations such as Rockbridge,” said Holly Seeliger, a school board member who is still active in Occupy Maine. “It’s definitely part of a larger conversation Occupy has had.”
However, many businesses, including commercial landlords and caterers for special events, see the proposal as a way to stimulate the local economy by bringing thousands of visitors downtown.
“It is very difficult to get tenants in that area of Congress Street,” said Harold Pachios, a lawyer and commercial real estate owner. “We need people on Congress Street who are consumers.”
The City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee will take up Rockbridge’s proposal on Wednesday. The committee is charged with making a recommendation to the full council.
‘A LOT OF PASSION’
Bruce Wennerstrom will be the general manager of the hotel when it opens in 2014 as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The Westin is a high-end brand and visitors will expect a high-end experience.
Wennerstrom and architect Patrick Costin have presented the event center plans to more than 30 groups in the past month.
“There is a lot of passion — a lot of feeling — for Congress Square,” Wennerstrom said recently.
Most people agree that the plaza is located at a key intersection of the city and is not currently a successful or well-maintained space.
“It’s a very central location to how people view Portland,” said Mayor Michael Brennan.
But whether the space is fatally flawed or simply broken is where the agreement ends and the passion takes over.
Costin has argued that the area will not work as a half-acre park because it abuts buildings that were not originally designed to be facing a street or park; they were built up against other buildings. It’s too large to be an urban park, he argues, and faces inward with its sunken design.
Costin argues that a new building is needed to restore the “urban room” of Congress Square, which the city is poised to study for possible redesign, including converting High Street to a two-way road. That, coupled with the event center, would activate the park for various uses.
Portland resident and historian Herb Adams, a former state legislator who lives in the Parkside neighborhood, scoffed at that notion when he spoke passionately against Rockbridge’s proposal at a recent public hearing.
“For the first time in Portland’s history, Portland will sell a city park to a private entity for a public profit, based on the theory that you must build on it to open it, sell it to save it,” Adams said. “Enough. I say it is time to move on.”
State Historian Earle Shettleworth, who grew up in Portland, said the city has long valued its open spaces, which is perhaps why Congress Square is such a hot-button issue.
Over the years, residents have watched portions of the city’s prized parks become gobbled up by progress.
About a quarter of Lincoln Park was lost when the arterial was built on Franklin Street and a large portion of Deering Oaks park was lost to Interstate 295, Shettleworth said.
“I think it’s those things that are in the back of people’s minds,” he said.
FALL FROM GRACE OVER TIME
The Congress Square area was once home to four churches — a Baptist church and three Congregational churches, Shettleworth said.
Costin, who is designing the event center for Rockbridge, said the area is referred to as “Mount Zion” in a book about Congress Street because of the number of churches located on the hilltop.
Shettleworth said the first building to occupy what is now the plaza was a wooden row house constructed in the mid-19th century.
In the early 1900s, commercial uses were introduced to the ground floors of the row houses, and the area became known as the “League of Nations” because of its ethnic diversity.
Not only were there residences on the square, but also immigrant businesses, including a Chinese laundry service and Greek and Italian fruit stands, Shettleworth said.
In the 1940s, the wooden row houses were torn down and a Walgreen’s was built. In 1971, Dunkin’ Donuts took over a portion of the space. It quickly became popular with prostitutes and vagrants, because of its location near the hotel and a one-way street that made for a quick getaway.
Newspaper articles highlight the fact that Congress Square has long been a point of contention in the community.
In 1973, the city wanted to add planters and park benches to an enlarged pedestrian area in the square. Merchants feared it would attract undesirables.
Apparently, it did.
Several years later, the City Council expressed a desire to clean up the area. The council eventually seized the former Dunkin’ Donuts building through eminent domain and razed it.
In the early 1980s, the city secured a $7.3 million federal grant to convert the former building site into a plaza.
The city worked with community partners to hold events in the park. In the early 1990s, it received a $75,000 grant to add a stage and other amenities to the plaza, which featured regular concerts and events. At one point, a colorful canopy was installed to provide shade, city tour guides had a kiosk there and there were checkerboards.
The city originally allocated $25,000 a year to support special events from Memorial Day to Labor Day, said Alex Jaegerman, director of the city’s planning division. The events were coordinated by the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, which received $80,000 in city funds in 1998, but by 2002 received none.
“It was our hope at the time the events would take off and become self-funding,” Jaegerman said. “That did not happen.”
The lack of special events is a moment many people point to as the beginning of the downslide, culminating in the creation of the Congress Square Redesign Study Group in 2008. The group recommended redesigning the park and keeping it as an open space before the Rockbridge proposal surfaced.
REMINISCENT OF MAINE STATE PIER
In an article published on June 26, 1981, the Maine Times newspaper quoted a city staffer as deriding the Dunkin’ Donuts building, which was built in the 1940s.
“The way it is now, it is not a good use of space,” the planner said. “It’s only a one-story building and I don’t really know they built only one story.”
Now, it appears the past may become the future, as Rockbridge is also proposing a single-story building.
Mayor Brennan has asked developers if they were willing to explore building a taller building, but they said a taller building would not meet their needs and would only add unnecessary costs to the project.
This has led some residents to call for the city to cast a wider net for proposals. If development is the goal, then the city should allow others to submit their ideas so the city can get the best price and best use of the property, those residents say.
To some, the process brings to mind the city’s efforts to develop the Maine State Pier, a long, contentious process that ultimately led nowhere.
Resident Markos Miller, who is active in city planning initiatives, said the state pier also was described as a failing public space, with development the only savior. Once development plans fell through, claims that the pilings were failing were disproved, he said.
Like the Maine State Pier, it seems as though the city is trying to create a process around a specific proposal for Congress Square, only instead of soliciting other ideas through an open request for proposals, or RFP, the city is focusing on Rockbridge’s plan.
“It seems the city is bending over backwards to make a deal with a private developer,” Miller said.
Brennan also compared the Congress Square issue with the Maine State Pier, but he draws a different conclusion. The hotel holds a 30-foot easement on the park, making it a “natural partner,” he said.
“There’s no magic to the RFP process, as we saw with the Maine State Pier,” Brennan said. “I’m not sure the city was well served by having competing proposals.”
While most seem to agree the park is underused, Paul Trusiani, a longtime business owner next to the plaza, said that’s not correct. It’s popular with seniors who live nearby and may “look like a bunch of vagrants,” Trusiani said.
“It’s probably one of the most used parks in the city,” he said. “People just don’t like who’s using it.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: