September 10, 2013

Portland postpones vote to sell Congress Square Plaza

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The City Council voted shortly before midnight Monday to postpone its decision on selling Congress Square Plaza to an out-of-state developer.

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Wells Lyons of Portland voices his opposition to the sale of Congress Square to the Portland City Council in front of a packed chambers Monday, September 9, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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City Councilman Nicholas Mavodones, at right, rubs his eyes during a city council meeting Monday, September 9, 2013, that went longer than three hours as citizens packed the city council chamber to speak on the proposed sale of Congress Square. At left is City Councilwoman Jill Duson.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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No public comment will be taken when the council meets again on Sept. 16.

After more than three hours of passionate testimony in which opponents outnumbered supporters of the sale by more than a 2-to-1 margin, councilors said it was too late to begin deliberating on the proposed sale.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman made the motion to postpone action, citing a list of questions that arose from the hearing.

The hearing was interrupted at times until order could be restored.

One protester, Michael Anthony, disrupted the proceedings by standing with a sign saying "Don't Sell Our Park!" and refusing to comply with Mayor Michael Brennan's request to sit. He left before police arrived.

An hour later, the hearing was stopped again when an opponent of the sale told the mayor that a supporter was mumbling profanities, making him feel threatened.

Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital has offered to pay the city $524,000 for two-thirds of the nearly half-acre Congress Square Plaza, in the heart of the arts district at High and Congress streets.

The purchase would allow the developer to build an event center and art gallery in a 9,500-square-foot addition to the former Eastland Park Hotel.

Rockbridge is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the 86-year-old hotel, which will open in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Its expansion plan would leave 4,800 square feet for a smaller plaza, which would be redesigned along with all of Congress Square, which includes the intersection of Congress, High and Free streets as well as the adjoining sidewalks and plazas.

"I think this is the worst land deal since Manhattan went for rum and a bag of beads," said Herb Adams, a Parkside resident who said the plaza should be improved, maintained and monitored. "You have choices. Sale is the last and least of them."

Supporters see the sale as a way to clean up a failed urban space and provide a new event center that could boost downtown businesses.

Opponents decry the potential loss of an open space downtown and the precedent that could be set by selling city-owned space.

Chris O'Neil, who represented the Portland Community Chamber, said the city should go through with the sale because the city staff and Rockbridge Capital have done everything that has been asked of them.

Edward Pollack, who owns a gallery on Congress Street, said small businesses need more visitors to help sustain them. That foot traffic isn't there, which leads to empty storefronts, he said.

"I am a small business and a very precarious one," Pollack said. "They're blighting influences to see empty storefronts."

According to a series of staff memos to the council, the $3.5 million event center would generate an estimated $70,000 a year in additional property taxes and create 25 jobs.

Opponents, however, said the city should make the needed investment in Congress Square Plaza to make it a place that people want to use.

"Good parks are good for our economy. Good parks are good for our people. And good parks are good for the community," said Wells Lyons, a candidate for an at-large council seat.

Other opponents said that since the issue has sharply divided the council, it should put the sale out to a citywide referendum. "Let the public decide what it wants to do with the park," said Chris Clark.

Public Policy Polling, a national polling firm from Raleigh, N.C., conducted a two-day poll about the potential sale at the request of someone who wanted to remain anonymous.

According to results released during the weekend, residents largely oppose the proposal, saying the price is too low and any sale of the plaza should be put directly to voters.

"Don't do this," John Eder said. "My gosh, you're going to war with the city of Portland."

The Friends of Congress Square Park, a group that formed as a caretaker of the neglected space, filed a petition with the city last week that could protect the plaza from development. The group needs at least 1,500 signatures to put the proposed ordinance to voters.

Sally Oldham, a member of Greater Portland Landmarks' board of directors, said the proposal has potential to be a win-win but the agreement in its current form is too weak.

The expansion would have to remain an event center for at least 10 years. After that, it could be converted to another hotel use. Any non-hotel use would require the council's approval.

The hotel would be asked to hold public art events at least six times a year but retain the power to cancel public events that conflict with private events.

The city would retain the rights to the Union Station Clock and any other materials from the plaza, including the granite.

Members of Occupy Maine protested the sale over the weekend. They had hoped to spend the entire weekend at the plaza, but left at night under police orders.

Opponents held a rally at the plaza before Monday's council meeting, while supporters got to the council chambers early, filling most of the first-floor seats. Several supporters, wearing "Yes on Congress Square," reviewed the same set of talking points.

With signs, opponents marched down Congress Street chanting, "Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Rockbridge has got to go," and "Save democracy. Save Congress Square."

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

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Additional Photos

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Bonnie Johnstone of Portland leaves the podium at the Portland City Council chambers after speaking in opposition to the sale of Congress Square Monday, September 9, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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Two men who refused to give their names appeared briefly at the Portland City Council meeting Monday, September 9, 2013, to protest the sale of Congress Square.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer


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