After four years of review, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group has completed its work. Those stakeholders deserve our thanks for delivering a helpful report that will benefit Portland as it continues its discussion on the future of Congress Square, the adjacent Congress Square Plaza and the need for meeting space to support our year-round visitor industry.

A significant component of today’s Congress Square is Congress Square Plaza, which has long been regarded a failed urban space. The Redesign Study Group devoted much attention to the plaza, and the new report includes two redesign concepts for the City Council’s consideration. While neither concept is a shovel-ready plan, together the two concepts will help frame our choices going forward.

One concept envisions a park to be built by the city on the site of the old plaza at a taxpayer cost of between $1 million and $1.5 million. The other concept envisions a public-private partnership to create a park combined with an event center on the site.

In a split vote the group favored a “park only” concept. This concerns us, as it incorporates no private investment, puts initial and ongoing costs on taxpayers, and does not create any property tax revenue.

Congress Square is one of the oldest intersections in Portland, and it was only 35 years ago that Congress Square Plaza was conceived as an urban renewal project, a prescriptive cure for failed space. The cure was to demolish an unwanted row of buildings and replace it with trees, benches and a public gathering space.

The plaza has not achieved the cure or the goals of the original planners, for both physical and fiscal reasons.

Physically, Congress Square, a formerly vital commercial center, lost definition as an urban square when the plaza was constructed. The plaza has become a gaping hole in this longstanding, historic urban landscape. While recent efforts by the Friends of Congress Square Park have enlivened parts of the plaza with food trucks, occasional programming and tree lights, in the long term we all agree that the space must be rebuilt to ensure its sustainability.

Fiscally, the city had committed $50,000 per year for events and programming, but funding has long since been cut from the city budget. Now, nearly a generation later, we could repeat the “park only” prescriptive cure for this failed urban environment, hoping that redesigning a taxpayer-funded public space will deter undesirable behavior and create a viable park.

However, the adjacent Westin Harborview Hotel has expressed interest in improving the plaza. This public-private concept of a completely reimagined public park combined with an event center is the sustainable cure, and the City Council has an opportunity to make it happen.

Proceeds from selling part of the space will pay some or all of the costs for creating a new public park that would be fully incorporated into the redesigned Congress Square. Alternatively, it is possible that the land for the event center could be retained by the city and leased to the hotel.

The newly created park can be the same size as the current plaza, offering residents and downtown workers a comfortable environment to enjoy. Moreover, the city would receive property tax income, create jobs for our growing workforce and provide year-round economic activity that benefits businesses in the Congress Square/Arts District and the entire city.

Portland’s important meeting and visitor capability would be greatly enhanced, and Congress Square would finally have the sustainable economic vitality that it needs and deserves.

With serious long-term fiscal difficulties and uncertainties before us, the city can and must invest prudently in Congress Square and the plaza. With a public-private approach, the neighborhood will have a high-value renewed public space and economic development that will benefit the entire city.

— Special to the Press Herald