September 17, 2013

Disputed Portland plaza sale approved by council

Foes threaten to sue after the 6-3 vote to allow an event center and a smaller public space on the downtown site.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

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Portland City Councilor John Anton raises his hands in exasperation while discussing the proposed sale of Congress Square Plaza to an Ohio investment firm during the city council meeting Monday, Sept. 16, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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Silent protestors kneel in front of the Portland City Council as they vote to approve the sale of Congress Square Plaza to an Ohio investment firm on Monday, September 16, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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"Yet you agreed to have the city pay those costs and approved it in the purchase-and-sale agreement," Leeman shot back. "I felt it was important to put the onus on Rockbridge because it's their building that's displacing the clock."

The event center, which needs approval from the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Board, would include a pre-event area with glass walls facing Congress Street that would also be used as an art gallery.

Under the purchase-and-sale agreement, the hotel must operate an event center in the hotel's addition for at least 10 years, and hold at least six public art shows a year in the space. The hotel, however, retains final decision-making authority and could cancel those events.

Hotel Manager Bruce Wennerstrom, who has represented Rockbridge Capital during the negotiations with the city, said the developer would like to get the foundation built by this winter.

The purchase-and-sale agreement would allow Rockbridge Capital to back out of the sale if approvals are not received before Feb. 15.

The agreement would allow the city to withdraw the sale if approvals are not granted by June 1.

The nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park, which sought to prevent the plaza sale through a referendum, was thwarted last week by the city attorney, who said citizens cannot petition the council on fiscal matters, such as selling city property.

On Monday night, the group put out a news release saying it will challenge the city's ruling in court.

"Tonight's vote is an offensive move on the (city of) Portland's park system," Frank Turek, the group's president, said in a written statement. "The city is forcing our hand. If we continue our work to protect Portland's parks, our only choice is to take this to court."

After the council's vote, some protesters voiced their displeasure, using the proponents' argument that the event center is needed to fix a failed public space.

"City Hall is a failed public space," said one protester as he walked out of the council chamber. "We should sell that too."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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Additional Photos

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In this May 2012 file photo, Dawn York of South Portland picks up trash in Congress Square Plaza.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Congress Square Plaza in downtown Portland on April 18, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

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Congress Square Plaza in downtown Portland on Aug. 13, 2013.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Left to right, Matthew Coffey, Carl McKenney and Michael Anthony lead a march down the center of Congress Street to City Hall on Monday, September 16, 2013, to protest the sale of Congress Square Plaza.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer


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