April 17, 2013

Developer again eyes Congress Square Plaza

The park near the Eastland Hotel is linked to an 'event center' plan; critics say preserve and upgrade it instead.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – An Ohio hotel developer is working on a new plan to buy a portion of Congress Square Plaza so it can build a facility to host events at the adjacent Eastland Hotel.

click image to enlarge

Dawn York of South Portland picks up trash in Congress Square Plaza in this Tuesday, May 22, 2012 file photo. An Ohio hotel developer is working on a new plan to buy a portion of Congress Square Plaza so it can build a facility to host events at the adjacent Eastland Hotel.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

The city announced Wednesday that it expects Rockbridge Capital to present plans for an "event center" next week. The city provided no further details and Rockbridge officials could not be reached.

Rockbridge Capital is undertaking a $30 million renovation of the 85-year-old Eastland next to the plaza. It purchased the hotel for $6.9 million in 2011 and is working to turn the building into a new hotel affiliated with the Westin Hotel chain.

The company initially presented a proposal to build a 500-person ballroom on Congress Square Plaza, a half-acre hard-scaped open space at the corner of High and Congress streets. That plan was opposed last summer by councilors, neighborhood organizations, homeless advocates and community members who want to preserve and upgrade the park.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who leads the council's Housing and Community Development Committee, said last August that the plan incorporated only about a 30-foot swath of public space along Congress Street and that "considerably more" would be needed to gain his support.

In February, a group of residents opposing the plan began collecting signatures online and in person at Congress Square for a nonbinding petition calling for city leaders to reject the proposal and improve the park.

As of late March, organizer Frank Turek said the group had collected 900 signatures. "I think it demonstrates that we could easily get the required 1,500 to put it on a city ballot, should it come to that," Turek said in an email last month.

The plaza was created in 1981 after being home to several businesses, including a Walgreens and a Dunkin' Donuts. It is now the site of the old clock salvaged from Union Station.

City officials, businesses and some residents view the park as a failed public space. Complaints have included public drinking and urination.

The city established the Congress Square Redesign Study Group in 2008 to draft recommendations for the park and recommended improving the parcel and keeping it public.

The city dedicated $50,000 to hire a landscape designer but reconsidered that plan when Rockbridge proposed the ballroom.

Proponents of Rockbridge's proposal say a ballroom would provide much-needed event space in Portland, and be a boost to the local economy. It's unclear how the new proposal may differ from the original plan.

The City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee will receive the new proposal on Wednesday. The meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall.

The city said representatives from Eastland will meet with any interested groups from May 2 to May 28.

The Congress Square re- design group, which voted against the previous ballroom proposal, will review the new plan on May 22 and vote on a recommendation to the Housing and Community Development Committee, which is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal May 29.

The proposal would need to be approved by the full council.

"The Council and administrative staff fully understand the high degree of community interest in this subject," the city said in its memo Wednesday.

"This time frame allows constituent organizations to receive the information and confer with their governing bodies in developing their recommendations and comments."

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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