August 17, 2013

Agreement outlines plan to buy Congress Square Plaza

Reactions to the proposal are mixed. Opponents say the $524,000 price for part of the Portland park insults those 'who know the value of this space.'

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - The Ohio-based developer that is renovating the former Eastland Hotel would pay nearly $524,000 to purchase two-thirds of the adjoining Congress Square Plaza, with plans to build an events center on the site.

Today's poll: Event center

Should Rockbridge Capital build an event center on 9,500 square feet of Congress Square Plaza?

Yes

No

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click image to enlarge

Congress Square Plaza currently is used as a public space.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Rockbridge Capital would purchase about 9,500 square feet of the park, which abuts the hotel, for $55.12 per square foot, according to a purchase and sale agreement made public Friday.

The purchase would clear the way for Rockbridge, which is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the hotel, to build a single-story event center on the site while leaving 4,800 square feet of space for a public plaza. The hotel is expected to open in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Some city residents and neighborhood associations have voiced opposition to the potential sale and launched a public awareness campaign. Local businesses support the sale, saying it would fuel economic development and fill a need for convention space.

"I think the price is pretty much an insult to the people who know the value of this space," said Holly Seeliger, who has been working to save the open space. "People still have time to influence their city councilors."

Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the hotel, believes the negotiations resulted in a fair price -- based on a market appraisal -- for the property, which is in the heart of the Arts District.

"It's been a long, healthy process," Wennerstrom said. "We're looking forward to the future of that entire square."

In May, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 to draft a purchase and sale agreement.

The committee, which hammered out the details of the agreement in closed sessions, will take it up in a public session for the first time at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

At that time, the committee could make a recommendation to the full City Council, which would make the final decision. The sale must also be reviewed by the city's Tax Acquired Property Committee.

The purchase and sales agreement outlines deed conditions that would be attached to any sale.

According to a memo from city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell to the committee, those conditions are:

The event center must be the primary use for at least 10 years; after that it could be converted to "uses customarily found in hotels,"

Conversion to other nonhotel-related uses allowed by zoning would require City Council approval.

Rockbridge would have until Feb. 15, 2014, to receive all necessary approvals for the event center. If not, Rockbridge can rescind the transaction and sell the property back to the city at the purchase price.

If approvals aren't received by June 1, 2014, the city may rescind the sale. The project must be "in substantial conformance to the quality of plans" previously presented to the Housing and Community Development Committee, Mitchell wrote.

The sale does not include the Union Station Clock.

Rockbridge would pay $45,000 for infrastructure improvements, including a new sidewalk. Construction of the event center would also have to be timed with the redesign of the smaller plaza.

The agreement also requires that public art shows be offered at least six times a year, although Rockbridge can terminate that clause with notice to the city.

In the 1990s, the plaza was well-tended and hosted movies and other events, but a lack of funding led to the cancellation of those events.

A task force, appointed by the council in 2008, recommended the city hire a landscape architect to redesign the plaza, which many consider to have a flawed design, its dark corners promoting illicit activity.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Event center

Should Rockbridge Capital build an event center on 9,500 square feet of Congress Square Plaza?

Yes

No

View Results