PORTLAND – Despite loud protests and an arrest, the City Council voted 6-3 on Monday night to sell Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge Capital, the Ohio-based investment firm that hopes to build a single-story event center on the site at an estimated cost of $3.5 million.
However, the nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park said after the meeting that it will take the city to court in an effort to save the half-acre concrete plaza at High and Congress streets.
Councilor Jill Duson, who was one of two undecided councilors going into the meeting, said she supported the sale because it is a unique situation that would benefit businesses in the area.
Under the purchase-and-sale agreement approved by the council, Rockbridge Capital will pay $524,000 for two-thirds of the plaza, leaving 4,800 square feet for a new, smaller public space.
The 5,000-square-foot event center, expected to draw 300 to 500 people per event, will be built in a 9,500-square-foot addition to the former Eastland Park Hotel. Rockbridge Capital is expected to reopen the hotel in December, after a nearly $50 million renovation, as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.
According to a memo to the council, the event center is projected to generate $67,950 a year in additional property taxes and create 25 new jobs — banquet staff, valets, front desk staff, bell staff and engineers.
“I am a ‘yes’ on this item. I think it will result in a usable and inviting space for the people who live in the neighborhood,” said Duson, who acknowledged faults in the sale terms. “I think it’s a little stingy. … I wish it was more money.”
Councilors John Anton, Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall voted against the sale.
Anton and Donoghue argued that the city should demand a better development proposal for one of Portland’s most prominent intersections.
“I wish we’d aim higher,” Anton said.
The vote followed an impassioned debate that divided the community and played out last week as councilors heard more than three hours of testimony, mostly opposing the sale.
No public comment was taken Monday night, but both sides showed up in numbers.
More than a dozen protesters, carrying signs and banners and beating drums, rallied in Congress Square Plaza and then marched down Congress Street to City Hall, blocking one lane of traffic.
Supporters of the sale, wearing “Yes on Congress Square” stickers, arrived at City Hall early to get their seats and sat quietly as the noisy protest continued on the steps of the building.
Once the meeting got under way, Erika Elkins, 63, began shouting from the crowd and did not heed Mayor Michael Brennan’s request to be seated and quiet. After about 10 minutes, she was arrested by two plainclothes officers on a charge of criminal trespass, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.
Other protesters were quiet but made their presence known. Two put tape over their mouths during deliberations, then turned their backs to the council and kneeled on the floor. They were joined by someone dressed like a ninja, wearing a dark mask, sunglasses and gloves.
Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who went into the meeting undecided, was moved to support the sale after several changes were made to the agreement, including making Rockbridge Capital pay for the relocation of the Union Station Clock from the plaza.
Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, which negotiated the agreement, argued against the amendment because there was no cost estimate or plan to relocate the clock.
“Yet you agreed to have the city pay those costs and approved it in the purchase-and-sale agreement,” Leeman shot back. “I felt it was important to put the onus on Rockbridge because it’s their building that’s displacing the clock.”
The event center, which needs approval from the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Board, would include a pre-event area with glass walls facing Congress Street that would also be used as an art gallery.
Under the purchase-and-sale agreement, the hotel must operate an event center in the hotel’s addition for at least 10 years, and hold at least six public art shows a year in the space. The hotel, however, retains final decision-making authority and could cancel those events.
Hotel Manager Bruce Wennerstrom, who has represented Rockbridge Capital during the negotiations with the city, said the developer would like to get the foundation built by this winter.
The purchase-and-sale agreement would allow Rockbridge Capital to back out of the sale if approvals are not received before Feb. 15.
The agreement would allow the city to withdraw the sale if approvals are not granted by June 1.
The nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park, which sought to prevent the plaza sale through a referendum, was thwarted last week by the city attorney, who said citizens cannot petition the council on fiscal matters, such as selling city property.
On Monday night, the group put out a news release saying it will challenge the city’s ruling in court.
“Tonight’s vote is an offensive move on the (city of) Portland’s park system,” Frank Turek, the group’s president, said in a written statement. “The city is forcing our hand. If we continue our work to protect Portland’s parks, our only choice is to take this to court.”
After the council’s vote, some protesters voiced their displeasure, using the proponents’ argument that the event center is needed to fix a failed public space.
“City Hall is a failed public space,” said one protester as he walked out of the council chamber. “We should sell that too.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: