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

(Continued from page 2)

20130522_Congress
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

REMINISCENT OF MAINE STATE PIER

In an article published on June 26, 1981, the Maine Times newspaper quoted a city staffer as deriding the Dunkin' Donuts building, which was built in the 1940s.

"The way it is now, it is not a good use of space," the planner said. "It's only a one-story building and I don't really know they built only one story."

Now, it appears the past may become the future, as Rockbridge is also proposing a single-story building.

Mayor Brennan has asked developers if they were willing to explore building a taller building, but they said a taller building would not meet their needs and would only add unnecessary costs to the project.

This has led some residents to call for the city to cast a wider net for proposals. If development is the goal, then the city should allow others to submit their ideas so the city can get the best price and best use of the property, those residents say.

To some, the process brings to mind the city's efforts to develop the Maine State Pier, a long, contentious process that ultimately led nowhere.

Resident Markos Miller, who is active in city planning initiatives, said the state pier also was described as a failing public space, with development the only savior. Once development plans fell through, claims that the pilings were failing were disproved, he said.

Like the Maine State Pier, it seems as though the city is trying to create a process around a specific proposal for Congress Square, only instead of soliciting other ideas through an open request for proposals, or RFP, the city is focusing on Rockbridge's plan.

"It seems the city is bending over backwards to make a deal with a private developer," Miller said.

Brennan also compared the Congress Square issue with the Maine State Pier, but he draws a different conclusion. The hotel holds a 30-foot easement on the park, making it a "natural partner," he said.

"There's no magic to the RFP process, as we saw with the Maine State Pier," Brennan said. "I'm not sure the city was well served by having competing proposals."

While most seem to agree the park is underused, Paul Trusiani, a longtime business owner next to the plaza, said that's not correct. It's popular with seniors who live nearby and may "look like a bunch of vagrants," Trusiani said.

"It's probably one of the most used parks in the city," he said. "People just don't like who's using it."

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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