September 6, 2013

Group files petition to protect Portland plaza, other public spaces

The effort would add Congress Square Plaza and 34 other properties to the city's land bank and require eight votes and a public referendum to sell them.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The Friends of Congress Square Park on Friday filed an affidavit at City Hall for a citizens' initiative that could save the nearly half-acre downtown plaza – as well as nearly three dozen other urban open spaces – from being sold and developed.

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A view of Congress Square Plaza at the corner of Congress and High streets in downtown Portland.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Frank Turek, president of the Friends of Congress Square, announces the group's plan to seek a citywide referendum that he believes would prevent part of the plaza from being sold to the developer of the former Eastland Hotel.

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Frank Turek, president of the friends group, said the initiative could change the city’s land bank ordinance to require eight votes of the nine-member City Council, or six votes and a citywide referendum before any land bank property could be sold.

The initiative would add Congress Square Plaza and 34 other properties to the city’s land bank, which currently comprises 21 properties, Turek said during a press conference at Lincoln Park.

“What came out of our gut instinct was to protect all of Portland’s parks,” Turek said.

Attorney Robert H. Levin, who is working for the friend’s group at a “heavily discounted” fee, said the effort would put on hold any council decision to sell the plaza.

The city attorney previously expressed doubt the initiative could affect the sale, but Levin said he met with Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta on Wednesday and the two came to an agreement.

“I think that issue is resolved between the two of us,” Levin said. “We’re moving at lightning speed, because the city is moving at lightning speed to sell Congress Square park.”

The council is expected to vote on Monday on whether to sell two-thirds of the plaza to Rockbridge Capital for $524,000. Since the plaza is not a land bank property, it can be sold by simple majority of the council.

Rockbridge is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Hotel, which will reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in December. The developer would like to build a single-story event center on the plaza, leaving 4,500 square feet for a smaller public open space.

Cumberland Avenue resident Pat O’Donnell, 64, said she was shocked to learn that the city could sell the park. This is the first time she has been civicly active, she said.

O’Donnell said she’d rather see the city improve the park, rather than sell it to the developer.

“It’s not an attractive park. It needs work,” she said. “It can be fixed and more people will use it if it’s fixed.”

The friends need to collect 1,500 signatures to put the ordinance changes to voters. Turek noted that the group easily collected roughly 900 signatures from Portland residents by spending a few hours a week at the park.

Turek predicted the group would collect the required signatures “with ease” and Portlanders would vote to protect the city’s parks.

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