September 13, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Portland plaza reality gets lost in the kerfuffle

By Bill Nemitz

I'm trying very hard to get my blood boiling about the proposed sale of Congress Square Plaza to a private developer.

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An April 2013 file photo of Congress Square Plaza in Portland, Maine.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Phootgrapher

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It's not working.

Sure, I sat through Monday night's three-plus hours of sometimes mind-numbing testimony to the Portland City Council on Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital's offer to pay the city $524,000 for two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza.

And I'm well aware that those who spoke, by a better than 2-to-1 ratio, pleaded with the council to hang onto this admittedly failed public space because to do otherwise would somehow signify the beginning of the end for what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once called "the beautiful town that is seated by the sea."

Still, with all due respect to the wordsmith who sits to this day high above nearby Longfellow Square, this kerfuffle over Portland's least appealing plaza (sorry, folks, but I refuse to call it a park) has me mystified.

From where I sat, Monday's public hearing consisted of three basic groups: the forward looking, the backward looking and the just plain loony.

Let's begin with the latter.

First came the guy who ignored Mayor Michael Brennan's repeated request to put down his "Don't Sell Our Park" sign, only to vamoose when it became apparent the cops were on the way.

Then came former state Rep. John Eder, who clearly had been watching too much coverage of the crisis in Syria when he implored the council, "Don't do this! My gosh, you're going to war with the city of Portland!"

Then came the guy in the balcony who strongly insinuated that Rockbridge Capital got its project this far by bribing the City Council, followed by the woman from Freeport who queried, "If (the folks from Rockbridge Capital) are such great neighbors, why don't they open those (construction site) porta-potties to the general public?"

(Hey, it might solve the plaza's public urination problem.)

I'd love to keep going because this crowd – a mix of Occupy Mainers, Green Independents and the weak-bladdered – was hands-down the most entertaining. But alas, they were also the least influential, so we need to move on.

Next up are the backward looking, also know as the "Leave it to Beaver" crowd.

These people remember, with more than a little longing, those days long past when Congress Square Plaza was the venue for outdoor movies, ice skating and other wholesome, family-friendly activities.

Now mind you, this nostalgia goes back only to the early 1980s, when the corner in question was cleared via a federal Urban Development Action Grant. (Before that, it was home to a Walgreens Drug store and later a Dunkin' Donuts that became ground zero for Portland's prostitution trade.)

Speaker after speaker on Monday resurrected gauzy memories of a place where drug deals were nowhere to be seen, panhandlers didn't talk back and public pooping began and ended with the pigeons.

Holly Seeliger, a Portland School Committee member and burlesque dancer who performed Friday evening during a save-the-plaza demonstration (I can't wait until former Christian Civic League of Maine leader Michael Heath reads this), spoke eloquently about how she was actually conceived at the same Eastland Hotel that Rockbridge Capital is now spending $40 million to renovate.

When people ask her why she's so fixated on the plaza, Seeliger said, she tells them of the day in the mid-1980s when she was on a school field trip to the nearby Portland Children's Museum and the Portland Museum of Art.

"We got out of the museums and we ate lunch at Congress Square park to the sound of steel drums and musicians and dancers all in the park at the same time," recalled a wistful Seeliger. "I really fell in love with the idea that people would just play music and dance at the park just for the sake of doing so."

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