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May 10, 2012

Hotel’s plan to develop plaza stirs controversy

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - The owners of the Eastland Park Hotel are asking the city for permission to build a ballroom on Congress Square Plaza as part of a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion of the 85-year-old hotel.

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An architectural rendering of the proposed Eastland Hotel ballroom shows how the expansion would take up most of the area of Congress Square Plaza.

PFVS Architecture rendering

With the project's completion next year, the hotel would have New England's largest convention center outside Boston, with capacity for 1,000 people, the developers told city councilors Wednesday night.

The ballroom would take up nearly all of the public park. Advocates for the homeless and many residents of the neighborhood said the city should improve the park rather than sell it to developers.

But supporters of the project said the little-used park is home to loiterers and a magnet for litter, and the project would draw more people and investment to the city's arts district.

The plan calls for renovating the entire hotel and upgrading it to a four-star hotel affiliated with Westin Hotels & Resorts, an upscale chain, said Gerald Chase of Newcastle Hotels & Resorts, which is managing the Eastland and developing the project in a joint venture with Rockbridge Capital, which is providing most of the money.

Chase said the franchise agreement with Westin Hotels & Resorts has been finalized. He said the project would include upgrading the Top of the East restaurant and lounge and expanding it by about 1,000 square feet, renovating the existing ballroom and building a second ballroom with capacity for 500 people.

Every room in the building would be renovated, and the electrical and plumbing systems would be completely updated, he said.

He declined to specify the total cost of the project, but said as much as $15 million would be spent on labor by local contractors, not including building supplies.

The new ballroom would take up nearly the entire park, leaving a small "passive park" about the width of a driveway along Congress Street.

After the developers presented their plan, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee discussed the project in a closed meeting. State law permits municipal committees to meet privately to discuss certain financial issues, such as real estate transactions.

When the Eastland was built as a 12-story luxury hotel in 1927, it was the largest hotel in New England. Charles Lindbergh, who that year became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, was honored with a banquet in the ballroom.

Today, the hotel is classified as a "mid-range" hotel, its status in Portland long eclipsed by newer hotels such as the Hilton Garden Inn and the Portland Regency Hotel.

The city established Congress Square Plaza in 1981, after a Dunkin' Donuts shop at the site was torn down. The plaza has never been popular. In his blog about architecture and town planning, Portland architect Michael Belleau describes the plaza as a "sunken, empty, tar-covered space often filled with vagrants."

Four years ago, the City Council established a 15-member group to look at ways to redesign the plaza. In October, the group gave its support to a concept proposal by the Eastland Plaza Hotel to build a ballroom on a portion of the plaza.

Wednesday's meeting at City Hall was the first time since then that officials from the hotel have publicly discussed their plans. More than 40 people, some sitting on the floor, crowded into Room 209 at City Hall to hear the developers.

The decision to invest in the project is a "no-brainer" because there are enormous opportunities in Portland and its arts district, Adam Valente, senior vice president of Rockbridge Capital, told the committee.

"We want to embrace the arts and -- I'm not sure this is a technical term -- the foodie aspect of Portland," he said.

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