Every moment in the life of a city is a moment appealing to three realms of consciousness: a memory of the past, a preoccupation with the present and a dream of the future.
In the ongoing and inescapably contentious discourse between these realms – a discourse that defines the very essence of human civilization – the city is both the principal arena of debate and the cumulative, absolutely authentic, minutely accurate record of its outcome.
The great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss perhaps said it best when he wrote that the city “stands at the point where nature and artifice meet. … By its form, as by the manner of its birth, the city has elements at once of biological procreation, organic evolution and aesthetic creation. It is both a natural object and a thing to be cultivated; individual and group; something lived and something dreamed; it is the human invention, par excellence.”
Despite the many grievous injuries, too often self-inflicted, that the urban fabric of Portland has suffered during the century just past, Falmouth Neck (what is now Portland) remains today a wonderfully beguiling marriage of nature and artifice: nature as embodied in its seductively saddle-shaped topography, and artifice as embodied in the network of streets that adapt themselves so adroitly to its distinctive landform while weaving together the ever-more-diverse communities that share the privilege of inhabiting this splendid peninsula in Casco Bay.
At the center of this network is Congress Square Park. This public open space in the heart of Portland’s Arts District is now the focus of intense debate, centered on how best to seize the important opportunity here presented to enhance Portland’s present life while also celebrating the memory of its past and giving voice to a dream of its future.
Six years ago, in response to the widely held perception that Congress Square Park had become a “failed public space,” the City Council did precisely the right thing by appointing a Congress Square Redesign Study Group, including representatives from many of the diverse constituencies who have an interest in the future of the square and its environs.
The public record shows that this study group first met in April 2010. While it subsequently sponsored several lively discussions of possible strategies for improving the park, the only specific proposals received and considered have been those submitted by a developer who envisions an event center that would occupy a substantial portion of the park adjoining the newly renovated Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.
In May 2013, after receiving a presentation of the developer’s revised proposal and hearing extensive testimony for and against, the final vote of this study group was evenly split, six in favor and six opposed.
Four months later, in September 2013, the City Council did precisely the wrong thing by deciding to sell two-thirds of the park to the developer of the event center.
That premature and ill-advised action understandably provoked strong opposition – leading to a citizen-sponsored referendum in June, the narrowly decided outcome of which was that the sale has been blocked, thus creating a stalemate between those who favor the event center and those who favor preservation of the entire park.
There is one clearly promising way out of this impasse: The City Council can and should now direct the Congress Square Redesign Study Group to fulfill its mandate – at long last! – by initiating and supervising a comprehensive professional study of Congress Square and its park, led by gifted designers working collaboratively with specialist consultants and representatives of affected constituencies.
Pending the outcome of this important urban design initiative, which must include ample opportunity for participation by an interested public, both sides of the current debate should back away from polarizing confrontation and agree to allow time for the imagination of Portland’s citizens, assisted by the best professional advice, to envision and evaluate alternative futures for Congress Square Park.
This course of action is the best way to ensure that this precious, though heretofore troubled, open space will become – as it clearly has the potential to become – a treasured emblem of its city and a model of 21st-century place-making for cities everywhere.
— Special to the Press Herald