September 16, 2013

Portland plaza turns into flash point

The debate over Congress Square's underused park seems to go beyond the fight on open space to issues of rich vs. poor and corporate intrusion.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - When the City Council meets Monday to decide whether to sell a section of Congress Square Plaza to an out-of-state developer, many observers will see more at stake than the plaza's fate.

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The space at Congress and High streets, which started out holding a wooden row house, has undergone many changes over the years. Walgreen’s replaced the row house, and Dunkin’ Donuts moved in later. In the 1980s, the space was converted into a plaza.

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Those with opposing views see the deal for the nearly half-acre concrete plaza at Congress and High streets as either a symbol of all that's wrong in the world or an opportunity to bolster Portland's economy.

The debate is about gentrification -- sweeping homeless people (or people who appear homeless) out of view to make way for a shiny building and affluent people.

It's about preserving a public space for civic discourse and maintaining Portland's history of creating and valuing open spaces.

It's about economic development, turning a liability into a tax-producing asset that provides jobs.

For the more radical factions, like the handful of remaining Occupy Maine members, it's about corporate welfare and corporate domination of working men and women. It's about backroom deals, perceived corrupt politicians and even the subversion of democracy.

All of that has led to shouting matches, public demonstrations and an attempt to start a petition drive.

But it all begs the question: What is really going on?

"I just can't seem to get my arms around it," said Cheryl Leeman, one of two city councilors who say they are undecided on the deal. "Something has gone amok."

The other undecided councilor, Jill Duson, who is up for re-election in November, did not return a call for comment.


The council is expected to vote Monday on whether to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital. The developer wants to build a single-story event center there as an addition to the former Eastland Park Hotel, which it is renovating. The deal would leave 4,800 square feet for a new public plaza.

The dispute appears to be centered on process -- too much process for supporters of the sale, not enough for opponents, and not the right kind of process for independent observers.

For years, the city has been studying ways to fix what most agree is a failed, underused public space.

Rockbridge Capital ran into opposition last year when it presented a plan to develop the entire plaza. It returned this spring with a scaled-down proposal.

Bruce Wennerstrom, who has been representing the developer in its negotiations with the city, says he has held meetings with about 30 residents, neighborhood groups and professional associations.

"In my opinion, it has been a very thorough and complete process, giving everyone a chance to weigh in," said Wennerstrom, who will manage the renovated hotel when it reopens in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. "Now it's time to vote and move on."

Opponents, however, criticize a series of closed-door meetings between the developer and the council's Housing and Community Development Committee to negotiate the sale. When an agreement was reached, the committee quickly recommended passage to the council. The agreement sets an aggressive timeline for the project to move forward.

Frank Turek, president of the Friends of Congress Square Park, a nonprofit group that opposes the sale, says a community-led process that concluded the downtown space should be redesigned entirely was usurped.

The city was prepared to spend $50,000 to redesign the plaza, but withheld the call for proposals when Rockbridge Capital bought the adjacent hotel. City officials have acknowledged that they approached the company to ask whether it was interested in developing the space.

"With Congress Square Park, there has never been any indication that the city had a desire to be rid of the property," Turek said. "It was never anyone's intention to sell the park until Rockbridge came on the scene."

(Continued on page 2)

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