The groups that helped force Tuesday’s successful ballot initiative on Portland’s public lands pledged Wednesday to keep working to improve Congress Square Plaza, even as city officials and a hotel developer decide whether to try again to develop part of the plaza.
Tuesday’s vote made it harder for city officials to sell any of the 60 city-owned parcels now protected by the Portland Land Bank. But the most immediate impact was to shelve city officials’ plan to sell most of Congress Square Plaza to the owner of the adjacent hotel.
The ballot question was decided by a margin of just 283 “yes” votes. Strong support from residents of the city’s urban peninsula overcame opposition from most off-peninsula voters.
Whether the sale is scrapped or merely delayed depends on whether the developer is still interested in a deal after a costly campaign and legal battle. The city could continue with the sale plan under the terms of the approved ballot proposal, but it could have to ask voters to approve it in another, more limited referendum.
“I don’t know what the next step will be,” said Bruce Wennerstrom, general manager of the Westin Portland Harborview hotel. “We will take a little time, analyze things and decide the next step.”
Rockbridge Capital, which renovated the Eastland Park Hotel before reopening it under the Westin brand, planned to build a one-story event center on part of Congress Square Plaza. The rest of the plaza would be redesigned to make it more attractive to people in the heart of the city’s arts district, according to supporters of the plan.
Friends of Congress Square Park, which opposed the sale and development of the plaza, plans to continue the gradual face-lifts that many have credited with rejuvenating a neglected public space with a bad reputation.
Frank Turek, president of the friends group, said a second food truck is expected to begin serving the plaza next month, and the group plans to stage several musical performances and add seating and flower beds.
Turek said he and other supporters of the plaza feel “optimistic, now that we have the political stuff behind us.”
“I think the best thing we can do is what we are doing right now, by making people realize this is a valuable space,” Turek said. “The city, by neglecting it for so long, made a good sales pitch for selling it.”
Turek and others could face another heated political campaign if Rockbridge Capital and city officials press forward with the company’s proposal to buy part of the plaza for $523,640.
Portland residents voted 4,888 to 4,605 – 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent – to pass the ballot initiative that raises the threshold for city officials to sell 60 parcels of city-owned land.
Under the new policy, the sale of any parcel protected by the newly expanded Portland Land Bank, including Congress Square Plaza, needs approval from at least eight of the nine city councilors. If six or seven councilors endorse a sale, voters will make the decision in a citywide referendum.
An 8-1 council vote to sell Congress Square Plaza – if Rockbridge Capital remains interested – appears unlikely, given September’s 6-3 vote to sell and the months of controversy that followed.
Less than 24 hours after the vote, the next step for the city and Rockbridge Capital was unclear.
“There is no guarantee of a next vote,” Jessica Grondin, the city’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday.
Tuesday’s precinct-by-precinct voting results revealed a clear divide between Portland’s neighborhoods on the issue.
Question 1 passed with 59 percent of the vote or more in all four precincts on the peninsula, and among voters on Peaks Island and those who cast absentee ballots. “No” votes prevailed in all of the other precincts.
For instance, at the polling station for the North Deering and Riverton neighborhoods, 66 percent of voters rejected the proposal.
“The ‘yes’ vote clearly had a lot of support on the peninsula and the opponents had a lot of support off of the peninsula,” said Mayor Michael Brennan, a vocal supporter of the sale to Rockbridge Capital.
The close vote indicates that both sides made compelling arguments, Brennan said.
“The people who live closest to the park are the ones who treasure it the most,” said Herb Adams, a former state legislator from downtown Portland and an officer of Friends of Congress Square Park.
Adams, a well-known local historian, said the debate over Congress Square Plaza is the latest in “a fight as old as the Baxters.”
Mayor James Phinney Baxter waged a long campaign to establish additional parks and public space in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But the proposals were controversial among residents who wanted public investment in schools and roads, and Baxter’s focus on parks was a factor in his eventual loss of office, Adams said.
Baxter’s son, Gov. Percival Baxter, failed to persuade the state to create a state park around Mount Katahdin. He later bought up the land piecemeal and donated it to the state, creating what is now 200,000-acre Baxter State Park.
As for the potential for another fight over Congress Square Plaza, Adams said he hopes Rockbridge Capital “would consider their options very carefully before marching back into battle so dented and bruised.”
Brennan said it was too early Wednesday to say what will happen.
“There are a number of options that are available, but there is going to have to be a lot of discussion with the players and the people involved,” Brennan said.
Jim Cohen, chairman of Forward Portland, the organization that led the fight against Question 1, said everyone in the debate wants to work to enhance the city’s downtown.
“At this point we don’t have any immediate next steps,” he said Tuesday night after the vote became clear. “We continue to be strongly motivated to improve Congress Square. The referendum … sets up a process and it is now in the hands of the City Council whether to exercise that process or not.”