May 26, 2013

Tension on Congress Square Plaza: Sell public spot to save it?

A plan to turn over most of the plaza to private use incites passions in a city that prizes its open spaces.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - In the late 1800s, Congress Square was essentially the religious center of the city, home to four churches.

click image to enlarge

Congress Square Plaza, across from the Portland Museum of Art at right and the renamed Westin Portland Harborview Hotel at far left, is located at a key intersection of the city, but many agree it is not a successful or well-maintained space.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

By the 1970s, the churches were gone and the area was popular with prostitutes, pimps and vagrants, who would hang out at a notorious Dunkin' Donuts.

Today, the nearly half-acre, sunken, hard-scaped Congress Square Plaza is one of the most hotly debated public spaces in the city.

Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital is trying to persuade city leaders and residents to sell two-thirds of the plaza so it can build an event center to complement its $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Hotel, which it purchased for $6.8 million in 2011.

The proposal would leave 4,800 square feet of public open space to be improved and maintained by the city. Rockbridge has pledged $50,000 toward that effort.

But the event center proposal has sharply divided the community.

Some residents -- particularly those still involved in the Occupy Maine movement -- see the proposal as a corporate takeover of a public space.

"I think the people of Portland want to make sure we're not selling public space to private, multinational corporations such as Rockbridge," said Holly Seeliger, a school board member who is still active in Occupy Maine. "It's definitely part of a larger conversation Occupy has had."

However, many businesses, including commercial landlords and caterers for special events, see the proposal as a way to stimulate the local economy by bringing thousands of visitors downtown.

"It is very difficult to get tenants in that area of Congress Street," said Harold Pachios, a lawyer and commercial real estate owner. "We need people on Congress Street who are consumers."

The City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee will take up Rockbridge's proposal on Wednesday. The committee is charged with making a recommendation to the full council.


Bruce Wennerstrom will be the general manager of the hotel when it opens in 2014 as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The Westin is a high-end brand and visitors will expect a high-end experience.

Wennerstrom and architect Patrick Costin have presented the event center plans to more than 30 groups in the past month.

"There is a lot of passion -- a lot of feeling -- for Congress Square," Wennerstrom said recently.

Most people agree that the plaza is located at a key intersection of the city and is not currently a successful or well-maintained space.

"It's a very central location to how people view Portland," said Mayor Michael Brennan.

But whether the space is fatally flawed or simply broken is where the agreement ends and the passion takes over.

Costin has argued that the area will not work as a half-acre park because it abuts buildings that were not originally designed to be facing a street or park; they were built up against other buildings. It's too large to be an urban park, he argues, and faces inward with its sunken design.

Costin argues that a new building is needed to restore the "urban room" of Congress Square, which the city is poised to study for possible redesign, including converting High Street to a two-way road. That, coupled with the event center, would activate the park for various uses.

Portland resident and historian Herb Adams, a former state legislator who lives in the Parkside neighborhood, scoffed at that notion when he spoke passionately against Rockbridge's proposal at a recent public hearing.

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