PORTLAND – Developers of a $50 million hotel renovation project are pushing back against activists’ claims that they have changed the direction of the debate about whether the city should sell a portion of Congress Square Plaza.

The back-and-forth comes as the city is poised to make a final decision about the nearly half-acre plaza at High and Congress streets in the coming weeks.

Since May the city has been negotiating the sale of two-thirds of the plaza to Ohio-based Developer Rockbridge Capital, which bought the former Eastland Hotel for $6.8 million in 2011.

Opponents of the sale said in a press release Monday that the city was reneging on the sale because of public opposition. They cited the city’s announcement of a “visioning process” for all of Congress Square, where the plaza is located, as evidence.

“That part of the statement couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel when it opens later this year.

Wennerstrom said Tuesday negotiations with the city were “going well” and details of the proposed sale would soon be made public. He would not disclose the proposed sale price, but said the event center planned for the site would still be located in a single-story, 9,500-square-foot addition, leaving about 4,800 square feet for a public plaza.

In an executive session that will be closed to the public, the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee on Wednesday will take up a proposed purchase and sale agreement for two-thirds of the plaza for the event center.

Wennerstrom said the committee, which in May voted 3-1 to negotiate a sales agreement for a portion of the plaza, could review and vote on the final sales agreement on Aug. 21, which would allow the City Council to vote on the sale as soon as Sept. 4.

“Now it’s time to move on,” Wennerstrom said of the debate about whether to sell. “I think (opponents) are looking back, where the majority of the people are looking forward.”

Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell, who has been negotiating with Rockbridge, did not return phone calls on Tuesday for comment.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who leads the committee, said the panel could vote as soon as next week if members are comfortable with the negotiations. He said a Sept. 4 council vote sounded like “an aggressive time line.”

“I want to make sure it’s going well for the city,” Mavodones said.

On Aug. 1, the city announced it was collecting feedback about improvements to Congress Square, which is the intersection of High, Congress and Free streets. Those improvements would include amenities residents would like to see in Congress Square Plaza.

Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director, said that feedbackwill be used to hire a consultant this fall to redesign the five-way intersection — which is one of the busiest in the city.

He said this effort is “parallel and somewhat separate” from the negotiations over the sale of the plaza. It will also take into account other planning efforts, such as the Congress Street bus priority study and making High and State streets into two-way roads.

Levine said the consultant will likely draft concept plans for nearby public spaces — including a plaza near the Portland Museum of Art — in its final report. The scope of the consultant’s designs for the Congress Square Plaza will depend on whether the council moves forward with the sale, he said.

“We’re trying to make sense of all of (planning efforts) for this overall intersection,” Levine said.

Activists, however, argue the effort was proof the city was losing interest in selling the plaza.

“The city responded to citizen input and they’ve gone back to the drawing board because of the public demand to keep all of our parks in Portland public,” Friends of Congress Square Park co-founder John Eder said in a written statement.

A task force, appointed by the council in 2008, recommended the city hire a landscape architect to redesign the plaza, which many consider to have a flawed design, its dark corners promoting illicit activity.

The city allocated $50,000 to hire the consultant, but that process was put on hold in 2011 when Rockbridge purchased the Eastland. A previous proposal to develop the whole park was rejected by the city, leading to the recent proposal and sales negotiations.

Concerns about Congress Square arose in the 1970s, when the nearly half-acre plot at the corner of High and Congress streets was the site of a Dunkin’ Donuts that was popular with prostitutes and vagrants.

The city seized the property through eminent domain and built Congress Square Plaza with a $7 million federal grant in the early 1980s. In the 1990s, the plaza was well-tended and hosted movies and other events.

It has since fallen into disrepair and is largely considered a failed public space because of neglect.

Rockbridge has pledged another $50,000 toward the redesign of the plaza. Wennerstrom said the hotel will participate in future planning efforts for the plaza.

Levine said the city is collecting feedback about Congress Square — especially from people who don’t usually attend city meetings — through new avenues, including Twitter, Neighborland.com, online surveys and poster boards at City Hall and Congress Square.

The city will also host a public forum in September, he said.

“We’re excited about trying new things to get people involved,” he said. “So far, based on the amount of responses we’re getting, it looks like it’s working.”

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings