September 4, 2013

Activists prepare to occupy Portland plaza

Those for and against selling part of Congress Square Plaza try to drum up support for their views.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – With the City Council poised to decide whether it will sell most of a downtown plaza to a developer, activists on both sides of the debate plan to capitalize on the crowds expected at this week's First Friday Art Walk to drum up support before Monday's meeting.

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An aerial view of Congress Square Plaza in downtown Portland on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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Congress Square Plaza currently is used as a public space.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, members of Occupy Maine, which protested the perceived corporate takeover of government in 2011 with a four-month encampment in Lincoln Park, is calling for a three-day occupation of the nearly half-acre plaza at Congress and High streets.

"There should be a better balance between the rights of the public and big business," said Samuel Swenson, who has been active in the Occupy Maine movement since the beginning.

The council will hold a public hearing and is expected to vote Monday on whether to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Ohio-based developer Rockbridge Capital, which would like to build a single-story event center. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.

The 9,500-square-foot facility would be attached to the former Eastland Hotel, which is undergoing a $50 million makeover and will reopen in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Rockbridge could purchase the plaza for nearly $524,000, while also contributing $50,000 toward a comprehensive planning effort for the Congress and High street intersection and $45,000 for sidewalk improvements.

The proposed sale of the plaza has pitted many residents against business owners.

Opponents want the plaza redesigned into a new park and see the sale as a shady back-room deal with a powerful, multinational corporation.

Proponents, meanwhile, see the sale as an opportunity to provide a new convention space that will bring 300-400 visitors per event and provide new jobs, while leaving room for a smaller, but better plaza.

The two sides have been debating the sale in public hearings and through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But on Friday, both groups plan to set up shop in the plaza during one of the busiest nights of the month in the Arts District -- the First Friday Art Walk.

On Friday, the Friends of Congress Square Park plan to collect signatures in hopes of forcing a citizen referendum to save the park and other downtown spaces.

Holly Seeliger, who has been organizing events in the plaza over the summer and opposes the sale, said she is planning to host a performance of live music and a burlesque show from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday to draw attention to the cause.

In addition to collecting signatures, Seeliger and the group Save Congress Square Park are looking to raise money through an online fundraising site, WePay, in an effort to match Rockbridge's offer and create an endowment to maintain a new park there.

"We've learned that money talks," said Seeliger.

Meanwhile, members of Occupy Maine are planning a three-day encampment in Congress Square Plaza.

According to a Facebook post, Occupy Maine plans to stay in the park from Friday night through Monday, before marching to City Hall for the council meeting. The group is seeking donations to get it through the encampment.

Swenson noted the importance of the council's impending action.

"It speaks to what the original intention of what the Occupy movement was about -- standing up against big business and corporations and their affecting our government in every way," said Swenson, a 40-year-old painter and designer who lives on Munjoy Hill. "The city should be on the people's side."

Parkside resident Jill Barkley, meanwhile, recently teamed up with David Farmer, a prominent Democratic operative who is working on U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud's campaign for governor, to promote the sale of the plaza.

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