May 23, 2013

Group deadlocked over Congress Square proposal

A proposal to build an events center in the downtown Portland plaza will be presented to a City Council committee May 29.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A study group deadlocked Wednesday over whether to support a proposal for an event center next to the former Eastland Park Hotel.

click image to enlarge

An aerial photo of Congress Square in Portland on Wednesday, May 29, 2013.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

Rockbridge Capital, which bought the hotel on High Street for $6.8 million in 2011, wants to build an events center in Congress Square Plaza, leaving about 4,800 square feet for an improved public space that would be owned and maintained by the city.

The proposal is a scaled-down version of a ballroom that Rockbridge Capital proposed last year. That plan was voted down by the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, 7-2 with three abstentions.

On Wednesday, the group voted 6-6 on a motion to support the new proposal. The recommendation, which suggests a long-term lease of the city land rather than a sale, will be presented to the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee on May 29.

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who co-chairs the study group and serves on the council committee, voted against the latest proposal.

"It's not clear what the public benefit is," he said. "It hasn't been shown to me convincingly, but I remain open-minded."

Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital is spending $50 million to covert the hotel into a Westin hotel, which is expected to open in 2014. It wants to build a 5,000-square-foot event center as part of a 9,500-square-foot addition to the hotel that would take up two-thirds of the nearly half-acre Congress Square Plaza.

Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, pledged to invest $50,000 toward the city's effort to redesign the plaza. Since the new proposal was made last month, Wennerstrom said, he has had about 30 meetings with various groups and residents.

"There is a lot of passion -- a lot of feeling -- for Congress Square," he said.

More than 20 people spoke during a public hearing Wednesday. Most of them were business or commercial property owners who support the project.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city," said Nick Morrill, vice president of Portland's Downtown District.

But others, like Pat O'Donnell of Cumberland Avenue, say that allowing a developer to acquire and build on a public space downtown could lead to the loss of more irreplaceable public space.

"It sets a dangerous precedent," O'Donnell said. "If they sell this park, why wouldn't they sell the park down the road?"

The Congress Square Redesign Study Group first met in April 2010. The group noted the plaza's problems, particularly its sunken, hard-scaped design and a lack of attention by the city and police.

The group originally recommended hiring a landscape architect to redesign the plaza as a public space. The city allocated $50,000 and drafted a request for proposals toward that effort.

But the city never solicited proposals because Rockbridge was buying the hotel. Officials gave Rockbridge Capital time to come up with ideas for the plaza.

Although the study group opposed Rockbridge's proposal last year, some members were swayed by the developer's willingness to respond to community concerns.

Since the new plan was presented last month, Wennerstrom said, the event center has been further reduced to leave a 48-foot-wide space between the event center and the Congress Street sidewalk.

"I see this as gaining more than we lose," said Peter Bass, a study group member representing Creative Portland Corp.

Jack Lufkin, who represents the Portland Development Corp., said the proposal would achieve the city's economic development goal of adding event space downtown, while bringing in funding to improve the plaza.

Opponents want the city to cast a wider net for a potential development or redesign of the plaza.

"The public is being asked to put all of our eggs in Rockbridge's basket, and that is something we oppose," said Rosanne Graef, who represents the West End Neighborhood Association.

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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