May 30, 2013

Panel OKs selling downtown Portland plaza

The city must still strike a deal with Rockbridge Capital, which would turn it into an events center and smaller plaza.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A City Council committee voted 3-1 Wednesday to negotiate the sale of most of city-owned Congress Square Plaza to provide space for a new event center.

click image to enlarge

Aerial view of Congress Square Plaza in downtown Portland on Wednesday, May 22, 2013.

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Congress Square Plaza in downtown Portland on April 18, 2013.

Tim Greenway / Staff Photographer

The decision by the Housing and Community Development Committee came after a nearly two-hour public hearing. Opponents of the plan outnumbered supporters.

The city's staff will begin negotiating a sale agreement for two-thirds of the plaza in sessions that will be closed to the public.

The Housing and Community Development Committee will consider a formal offer and forward its recommendation to the council for a final decision.

Many residents oppose selling the public space to a private corporation and prefer to have the open space redesigned.

Business owners support the event center, saying it would meet a need for the city's tourist-dependent economy and help all businesses downtown.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, committee chair, said he's not opposed to selling city property if there is a public benefit.

"I think there's a real potential for a win-win here," he said.

Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital began talking to city officials about building a ballroom on Congress Square Plaza after it bought the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel in 2011.

After its initial proposal was turned down, Rockbridge Capital changed it to a single-story event center on two-thirds of the plaza, leaving the remaining 4,800 square feet for the public.

Rockbridge Capital is about midway through a $50 million renovation of the hotel, which is expected to open later this year as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

The prospect of selling the plaza has been contentious.

Concerns about Congress Square arose in the 1970s, when the nearly half-acre plot at the corner of High and Congress streets was the site of a Dunkin' Donuts that was popular with prostitutes and vagrants.

The city seized the property through eminent domain and built Congress Square Plaza with a $7 million federal grant in the early 1980s. In the 1990s, the plaza was well-tended and hosted movies and other events.

It has since fallen into disrepair and is largely considered a failed public space because of neglect.

Before Wednesday's meeting, several protesters demonstrated against "corporate welfare" on the steps of City Hall.

"City Hall is a failed space. Sell it, not Congress Square," they chanted.

Nearly 40 people spoke passionately against the proposal during the public hearing. Most pointed to the plaza's central location as a reason to redesign it and maintain it. Others said the plaza is valuable to the residents who live nearby.

"Is it too much to ask, with all of the development going on, that one block of the city not be developed?" asked resident Harlan Barker.

Other residents asked the city to examine proposals for a designed park – citing Post Office Park at Middle and Exchange Streets as models – or other development to maximize the public benefit. Some said further study is needed, while others said the city should put it to public referendum.

Business owners and advocacy groups said the city should seize the opportunity to work with Rockbridge Capital, which has pledged $50,000 to design the 4,800-square-foot plaza that would be left after the event center is built.

Doug Fuss, president of Portland's Downtown District, said there is plenty of open space on the peninsula and Rockbridge Capital has shown a willingness to invest in Portland, which has been reluctant to fund park improvements.

"The city really hasn't had its skin in the game. This developer does," Fuss said. "We believe this can be a showcase and a gateway to the arts district."

Both sides found one area of agreement: that Congress Square Plaza must be considered as part of a bigger planning process to make the intersection of High and Congress streets more pedestrian-friendly.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who cast the only vote against the sale negotiations, said he has long supported studying Congress Square, but tying it to the Congress Square Plaza process is unnecessary.

Donoghue said the key point is what the new plaza would look like, but Rockbridge Capital is leaving that design to the city.

"What's hanging me up is I can't see the plaza," he said. "To me, the sale needs to be made by the quality of the plaza. Because I can't see it now, I can't support it."

 

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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