February 14, 2013

Friends striving to save Congress Square Plaza

The group launches a petition drive against the sale of the public park to a private hotel developer.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A group of residents has launched a petition drive to save Congress Square Plaza, a small park in the heart of the arts district that a private developer wants to use for a hotel expansion.

click image to enlarge

In this May 2012 file photo, Congress Square Plaza.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

"Our vision is, Portland is a place that takes care of its parks," said Frank Turek, organizer of the Friends of Congress Square Park. "It doesn't sell its parks."

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

The city established the Congress Square Redesign Study Group in 2008 to draft recommendations for the little-used, hardscaped park at the corner of Congress and High streets.

The group recommended improving the parcel and keeping it public. And the city dedicated $50,000 to hire a landscape designer.

Those plans stalled when Rockbridge Capital bought the 85-year-old Eastland Hotel next to the plaza for $6.9 million in 2011. It is embarking on a $30 million-plus renovation of the hotel, which will be affiliated with the Westin Hotel chain.

The Ohio-based company submitted preliminary plans, including a 500-person ballroom occupying much of the plaza, but ran into opposition from the committee, as well as neighborhood associations and advocates for the homeless.

In August, Rockbridge said it would draft a new plan, but has not done so.

Although the park has previously hosted summer concert series and movie nights, it is considered by city officials, businesses and some residents as a failing public space. Public drinking and urination are among the complaints lodged about the plaza.

But Turek said those problems exist in other public areas as well and that Congress Square gets a bad rap because it is so visible.

"It's almost like people think there's an evil emanating out of the ground there," Turek said. "It's not the park's fault. The city has to take care of it."

The group's petition is designed to show public support for keeping the plaza a public open space.

It reads, in part:

"The goal of this petition is to prove public support for keeping Congress Square Park a public park. This proof will be presented to the (City Council's Housing and Community Development Subcommitte) to persuade them to drop the negotiations with Rockbridge and let the (study group) continue on with the redesign on the park."

The group is looking to collect as many signature as it can, especially during First Friday Art Walks, to stop what it sees as growing momentum to develop the park. It has also started an online petition (http://tiny.cc/q68gsw).

City Elections Administrator Bud Philbrick said the petition does not carry any legal weight and could not be used to place a referendum question before voters.

The group hopes to present the petitions to the Housing and Community Development Subcommittee this spring. The committee met in closed session Jan. 23 to discuss the future of the park, but has not announced any decision.

"Discussions with Rockbridge Capital remain active," Greg Mitchell, the city's economic development director, wrote in an internal email Monday. "I will work with City Councilor (Nicholas) Mavodones, Housing and Community Development Committee Chair, and Rockbridge Capital officials to finalize discussions in the next sixty days in order to resolve the development direction for Congress Square."

Adam Valente, senior vice president of Rockbridge Capital, did not respond to a phone call or email Wednesday requesting comment.

Janis Beitzer, executive director of the Portland Downtown District, said her group strongly supports selling the park for a ballroom with conference space.

"Right now we're turning away conferences and conventions because we don't have enough space to cobble together for some large conventions" of 500 to 600 people, Beitzer said.

Beitzer, who served on the redesign committee, said PDD's support is contingent on creating a new park nearby. She said a metered parking lot at the corner of Spring and High streets could be made into green space, and a redesign of Spring Street, which would narrow it to one lane in each direction, also would create opportunities.

"The best result is this win-win," said Beitzer. "We get space, we get (property tax) money to improve space, and we get jobs and more business in downtown."

But to residents like Turek, it comes down to principle and precedent. "This would be the first (park) sold to a private entity," he said.

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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