Portland City Council members showed no urgency Monday night on moving forward with a proposal to sell part of Congress Square Plaza, meaning city voters will not likely see the issue on the November ballot.
Councilors could not reach a consensus during a 90-minute workshop on how to proceed in the wake of a June referendum that blocked the proposed sale of two-thirds of the plaza to a developer and raised the threshold for future sales of other city-owned parcels. While some members wanted to explore additional options, others questioned whether the city should spend more time and money on an issue that has deeply divided the council and Portland residents for months.
“Tonight’s workshop proved that there are not seven councilors who want to sell part of Congress Square,” said council member Kevin Donoghue, referring to the minimum support needed to send the issue to Portland voters for consideration.
“It is time to move on.”
As a result of Monday’s inaction, it is unlikely that work on crafting any sale proposal would be complete in time to send the issue to city voters this fall. Instead, the issue could be remanded to a study group that spent several years exploring ways to improve a city-owned plaza often described as neglected by the city and underutilized by local residents.
Last month, city voters approved a new parks ordinance that shelved plans to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza – also called Congress Square Park – to the developer Rockbridge Capital for $523,640. Rockbridge had hoped to build a multi-use event center on the site adjacent to the former Eastland Park Hotel, which the company renovated and reopened as the Westin Portland Harborview.
Under new requirements imposed by the June referendum and a separate ordinance passed this spring by the council, proposals to sell any of 60 city-owned properties would have to be approved by the Portland Land Bank commission and win the endorsement of at least eight City Council members. If seven councilors endorsed the sale, the issue would be sent to city voters for approval.
On Monday, councilors heard staff presentations on several options for the plaza in the wake of the June referendum. Those options included:
— Redesign the plaza without an event center.
— Sell two-thirds of the plaza and redesign the remaining third, similar to what was originally proposed by Rockbridge and the city.
— Sell two-thirds of the plaza but develop plans for a rooftop park on top of the one-story event center.
That third “hybrid option,” supporters said, would maintain the size of the plaza while still allowing a development supported by many in Portland’s business community.
A representative for Rockbridge Capital told councilors during the workshop that the company was open to discussing public space on the event center’s rooftop as long as the city bears the cost of the park. The anticipated price tag of $1.5 million to $2.5 million provided by the city did not include the additional cost of building a roof capable of supporting a park or ways to access the rooftop.
Several councilors said they were concerned about the true cost.
“I do like the vision but I am skeptical that we wouldn’t be dealing with a different magnitude of cost,” said Councilor Jon Hinck.
Opponents of the city’s plan to sell part of Congress Square Plaza organized the June referendum as a way to give the public a stronger voice in future decisions to sell city-owned properties. In recent months, the organization Friends of Congress Square Park has worked with the Westin hotel and other groups to breathe new life into the plaza with improved landscaping, new seating and the addition of a popular food truck.
David LaCasse, one of the leaders of the Friends group as well as the political action committee Protect Portland Parks, said he was pleased with Monday’s work session. LaCasse said the 15-member Congress Square Redesign Study Group is the best “representative body” to craft a compromise amenable to all sides.
“I don’t think it should go back [to the study group] with any preconceived design,” LaCasse said.
The basement conference room where the City Council held its workshop was standing room only, illustrating the strong interest in the fate of Congress Square Plaza.
“We have had an election and there are still a lot of strong feelings one way or another on this issue,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones. “Whether it is at Shaw’s or Hannaford or wherever, I continue to hear from people.”
The City Council is expected to discuss the issue again during one or both of its August meetings.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: