PORTLAND – Now that the City Council has voted to sell most of Congress Square Plaza to an out-of-state developer, the city is fast-tracking a comprehensive redesign of the entire intersection of Congress, High and Free streets.

The effort to redesign the larger area known as Congress Square is moving forward at the same time the Friends of Congress Square Park prepares to go to court in an effort to block the sale. The promised legal challenge stems from the city’s decision to deny its request for a petition drive and referendum to increase protections to Congress Square Plaza and 34 other parks.

Although no official plans for the Congress Square redesign have been drafted, initial concepts discussed publicly include making High Street two-way, redesigning the top of Free Street and building a Dutch-style street plaza that would be shared by pedestrians, bikes and vehicles.

Two public forums next week — on Monday and Wednesday — will be held to solicit resident input. Staff will then have a little more than a week to draft a call for design services. Firms will have only 15 business days to respond.

The expedited timeline was part of a series of amendments added onto the purchase-and-sale agreement approved by the City Council in a 6-3 vote Monday night. Councilors want to make sure the design of the hotel’s event center is compatible with the plaza and square, but there also was resistance to making the developer, Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital, wait too long before the land could be conveyed to it.

“If everyone wants this to run parallel lines and have it come out together, then it’s doable,” Councilor Cheryl Leeman said during the meeting.

Rockbridge’s architects are expected to work with the city over the next four months to coordinate their designs. To maximize that time, city staff was directed by the council to release a request for design services Oct. 4 and give designers 15 business days to respond.

The city and Rockbridge will share the cost of the design services. The city will use $50,000 that was previously set aside to redesign Congress Square Plaza in its entirety but never used. Rockbridge will match that amount.

Portland staff will have about a week to incorporate community comments into the request, including feedback it has received online and on marker boards that have been posted in City Hall and at Congress Square, as well as input from the two community forums next week.

A forum is scheduled for Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the State Theater on Congress Street, and the other is slated for Wednesday, Sept. 25, also from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Williston-Immanuel United Church on High Street.

“This is a time to think broadly,” Portland’s Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said in an interview Tuesday.

Improvements could range from modest upgrades to signals and curbing to a more ambitious makeover — such as a Dutch-style woonerf, a design that would give pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles equal priority.

“This would be a woonerf on steroids,” Levine said. “It gets rid of all the distinctions (between cars, bikes and people) and lets everyone figure it out.”

He quickly adds, “I can’t say we’re at a place we want to say that this is what we want to do.”

It’s too soon to provide any cost estimates for potential changes to the square, Levine said. A variety of funding options are available to implement the final design, including the city’s capital budget, an area-wide Tax Increment Financing District, and regional planning grants. “We’re going to take a good hard look at private fundraising, too,” Levine said.

Congress Square is a busy and high-profile spot in the heart of Portland’s downtown. In 2010, the intersection of High and Congress streets saw an average of nearly 14,000 vehicles a day, according to data provided by the Maine Department of Transportation.

Pedestrians often have to get from the sidewalk to a traffic island before being able to cross the street. And the wide two lanes of one-way traffic and coordinated signals often lead to commuter vehicles speeding through downtown.

The city is already studying whether to convert High and State streets to two-way roads, an effort that could eventually lead to the elimination of the right turn lane from High Street onto Free Street. That, in turn, could allow for the expansion of the plaza in front of the Portland Museum of Art, Levine said.

No determination about whether to make High Street two-way is expected for about a year, but the city will likely have to make temporary improvements to the remaining 4,800 square feet of plaza not being sold to Rockbridge until the comprehensive redesign is finished and the project, as a whole, moves forward.

“I’m nervous about slicing up a comprehensive project in too many pieces, because it all has to work together,” Levine said.

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings