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 rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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

"For the first time in Portland's history, Portland will sell a city park to a private entity for a public profit, based on the theory that you must build on it to open it, sell it to save it," Adams said. "Enough. I say it is time to move on."

State Historian Earle Shettleworth, who grew up in Portland, said the city has long valued its open spaces, which is perhaps why Congress Square is such a hot-button issue.

Over the years, residents have watched portions of the city's prized parks become gobbled up by progress.

About a quarter of Lincoln Park was lost when the arterial was built on Franklin Street and a large portion of Deering Oaks park was lost to Interstate 295, Shettleworth said.

"I think it's those things that are in the back of people's minds," he said.

FALL FROM GRACE OVER TIME

The Congress Square area was once home to four churches -- a Baptist church and three Congregational churches, Shettleworth said.

Costin, who is designing the event center for Rockbridge, said the area is referred to as "Mount Zion" in a book about Congress Street because of the number of churches located on the hilltop.

Shettleworth said the first building to occupy what is now the plaza was a wooden row house constructed in the mid-19th century.

In the early 1900s, commercial uses were introduced to the ground floors of the row houses, and the area became known as the "League of Nations" because of its ethnic diversity.

Not only were there residences on the square, but also immigrant businesses, including a Chinese laundry service and Greek and Italian fruit stands, Shettleworth said.

In the 1940s, the wooden row houses were torn down and a Walgreen's was built. In 1971, Dunkin' Donuts took over a portion of the space. It quickly became popular with prostitutes and vagrants, because of its location near the hotel and a one-way street that made for a quick getaway.

Newspaper articles highlight the fact that Congress Square has long been a point of contention in the community.

In 1973, the city wanted to add planters and park benches to an enlarged pedestrian area in the square. Merchants feared it would attract undesirables.

Apparently, it did.

Several years later, the City Council expressed a desire to clean up the area. The council eventually seized the former Dunkin' Donuts building through eminent domain and razed it.

In the early 1980s, the city secured a $7.3 million federal grant to convert the former building site into a plaza.

The city worked with community partners to hold events in the park. In the early 1990s, it received a $75,000 grant to add a stage and other amenities to the plaza, which featured regular concerts and events. At one point, a colorful canopy was installed to provide shade, city tour guides had a kiosk there and there were checkerboards.

The city originally allocated $25,000 a year to support special events from Memorial Day to Labor Day, said Alex Jaegerman, director of the city's planning division. The events were coordinated by the Portland Arts and Cultural Alliance, which received $80,000 in city funds in 1998, but by 2002 received none.

"It was our hope at the time the events would take off and become self-funding," Jaegerman said. "That did not happen."

The lack of special events is a moment many people point to as the beginning of the downslide, culminating in the creation of the Congress Square Redesign Study Group in 2008. The group recommended redesigning the park and keeping it as an open space before the Rockbridge proposal surfaced.

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