September 13, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Portland plaza reality gets lost in the kerfuffle

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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

click image to enlarge

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

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Phootgrapher

Related headlines

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."

The problem, of course, is that the steel drums, the musicians and the dancers are all long gone. And leaving your kid alone in Congress Square Plaza these days is a good way to get yourself reported to the Maine Office of Child and Family Services.

Which brings us to Penny Carson, a longtime Congress Street property owner who bluntly told the council, "We have seen everything in that park ... I've seen the movies there. I've seen the skating rink there. None of it worked."

Carson is a member of the Pachios family, whose holdings in downtown Portland date all the way back to the 1940s. Nevertheless, she belongs squarely in the forward-looking group.

Carson's take: Without a vibrant business community, you don't attract people. And without people, the nicest public space in the world will inevitably deteriorate into just another no-man's land.

"I don't even want to say the words 'economic development' because it apparently is going to upset some people here," said Carson, who occupied Maine long before any Occupy Mainer. "But the way things get done in this city is (through) a partnership with the elected officials, the citizens and the businesses. It is the businesses that hire people, it is the businesses that pay their taxes as well as the citizens. We have a say. We want to see some change there."

As does everyone. The question is, what kind of change?

Should the council side with those who yearn for the long-ago sound of steel drums and hope that this time (unlike last time), a rehabilitated plaza will retain its magnetic hold on young and old, rich and poor, well-groomed and grizzled? And if so, how much will it cost and who's going to pay for it?

Or should the council accept that this 30-year experiment in urban oasis building is a failure, allow Rockbridge Capital to build its event center with a modest plaza attached, and see how the public-private approach works for a few decades?

Or should it look for something in between, which is exactly what Councilor Cheryl Leeman spent Thursday doing?

"I met with both sides today," said Leeman, who, along with Councilor Jill Duson, is widely viewed as a potential swing vote when the deal goes back to the council for final action on Monday.

Leeman said she's working on "some amendments" that she hopes will "bring the contentiousness out of this issue" and head off a protracted lawsuit or a citywide referendum -- or both. (She might start by asking the people who are fighting to save the plaza why they abandoned it in the first place.)

"I've never seen anything that has me so conflicted," Leeman said. "I'm waking up at night over this thing."

She's not the only one.

I keep dreaming that Occupy Maine just moved into the porta-potties.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)