PORTLAND – Activists trying to prevent the sale of a downtown plaza to a private developer are launching a petition drive in an effort block the sale.

A city attorney cast doubt on their chances, however.

Last week, the Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 to recommend selling two-thirds – 9,500 square feet – of the nearly half-acre plaza for nearly $524,000 to Rockbridge Capital, which wants to build a single-story event center on the site.

The deal would leave 4,800 square feet for a new plaza that would be designed by the city as part of a larger revisioning effort for Congress Square, which is generally the intersection of High, Congress and Free streets.

The Ohio-based Rockbridge is in the middle of a $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Hotel, which abuts the park. The 86-year-old hotel will reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in December.

The proposed sale has sparked an intense debate over the sale of public spaces. Activists and local neighborhood associations opposed the sale, while local businesses and others support it.

Proponents of the sale recently set up several social media sites to bolster support for the deal. A Facebook page — Revitalize Congress Square — was recently launched by residents Jill Barkely and David Farmer, who are active in Democratic politics.

On Twitter, the sale is being bolstered by “YesonCongressSq.”

The Friends of Congress Square Park, meanwhile, has been using Facebook to oppose the sale and has a strong Green Independent Party following. The group also has mobilized opponents of the sale by holding events in the plaza.

The Friends group cannot circulate a petition to directly block a potential sale of Congress Square Plaza by the City Council, so activists are instead focusing on changing the city’s land bank ordinance so that downtown open spaces become part of the land bank, according to Frank Turek, a founder of the group.

If Congress Square Plaza becomes protected as land bank property, it would require a supermajority — six votes — of the council to sell the property, rather than a simple majority — five votes. That could be enough to tip the balance in a council vote expected next month.

Turek said the group is still working on specific ordinance changes, but the goal is to better protect the plaza and other properties that are not officially part of the land bank inventory, such as Monument Square, the Eastern and Western promenades and Deering Oaks.

“As it stands now, most of the city’s iconic parks … could be sold off or paved over entirely by a 5-4 vote,” the group said in news release.

Turek said the group hopes to delay any council decision by submitting the proposed ordinance change to the city before Sept. 9, when the council is expected to vote to sell the land.

However, that may not be possible, according to Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s corporation counsel.

West-Chuhta said she has not seen any specific proposals from the group. But when the general goals were described by a reporter, she said the tactic would not likely affect the potential sale for several reasons.

West-Chuhta said the only provision to stay a council decision is when the council enacts a new ordinance. That has not happened here, she said.

Also, she said properties can only be added to the land bank with council approval — an unlikely scenario if a majority of councilors support selling it.

Finally, citizen initiatives and vetoes cannot affect “fiscal matters” of the city, she said. “Any sort of sale of property or purchase of property involves city fiscal matters, in my opinion,” West-Chuhta said.

Once the petition wording is finalized, the Friends would need to collect 1,500 valid signatures over an 80-day period, according to Election Administrator Bud Philbrick.

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings