PORTLAND – About a dozen protesters occupied and set up four tents in Congress Square Plaza on Friday evening in an attempt to mobilize support to stop the sale of the downtown public space.

The protesters had hoped to stay overnight, but police peacefully cleared the plaza by 10:30 p.m., saying it was closed for the night under city ordinance. Police Chief Michael Sauschuck arrived before 10 p.m., described the situation and gave them 30 minutes to discuss what they wanted to do.

“The park’s closed,” Sauschuck said. “It’s symbolic. I can appreciate that. … (But) I’m not here to negotiate on behalf of the city. Tenting out in city parks isn’t allowed (without a permit).”

Portland lawyer John Branson, who spoke on behalf of the protesters, disagreed with the police chief’s edict and relayed his beliefs to the protesters and police.

“This symbolic gesture is protected,” Branson said. “The Constitution is higher law than the city ordinance.”

He praised Sauschuck for coming to speak to the protesters, but he promised to represent all protesters pro bono if they were arrested. The protesters ultimately decided to leave the park, however, rather than face arrest.

Evan McVeigh, 28, of Portland, said the protest was successful despite the low turnout and police intervention.

“We showed how many we could mobilize who love this space,” McVeigh said.

During the evening, the protesters were joined by performers and carried signs in the sunken, concrete plaza to try to raise awareness about a proposal to sell part of the public space to a private hotel next door.

The Portland City Council is set to vote Monday on the $524,000 pending sale to the investment company Rockbridge Capital for an expansion of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Several performers took to the plaza’s stage to support preserving the park for public use, including Portland school board member Holly Seeliger, who did a burlesque-style dance.

The performances drew some passers-by from the First Friday Art Walk, whom the small group of protesters then engaged to make their case.

Several members of the Friends of Congress Square Park were also at the plaza during the Art Walk, passing out fliers opposing the sale.

No one in the park visibly supported the sale of the public space.

The friends group Friday filed an affidavit at City Hall for a citizens initiative that could save the nearly half-acre downtown plaza — as well as nearly three dozen other urban open spaces — from being sold and developed.

Frank Turek, president of the friends group, said the initiative could change the city’s land bank ordinance to require eight votes of the nine-member City Council, or six votes and a citywide referendum, before any land bank property could be sold.

The initiative would add Congress Square Plaza and 34 other properties to the city’s land bank, which currently comprises 21 properties, Turek said during a news conference at Lincoln Park.

“We’re doing everything we can to save the park,” Turek said. “We respected the City Council and the process, but it was so obvious they have already decided.

“What came out of our gut instinct was to protect all of Portland’s parks.”

Attorney Robert H. Levin, who is working for the friends group at a “heavily discounted” fee, said the effort would put on hold any council decision to sell the plaza.

The city attorney previously expressed doubt the initiative could affect the sale, but Levin said he met with Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta on Wednesday and the two came to an agreement.

“I think that issue is resolved between the two of us,” Levin said. “We’re moving at lightning speed, because the city is moving at lightning speed to sell Congress Square park.”

Rockbridge is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Hotel, which will reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in December. The developer would like to build a single-story event center on the plaza, leaving 4,500 square feet for a smaller public open space.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or

kbouchard@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @KelleyBouchard