August 4, 2012

Our View: City should keep talking about Eastland ballroom

Congress Square Plaza does not work as a park, and its commercial reuse makes sense.

We hope that Wednesday's vote by the Congress Square Redesign Study Commission won't be the last word over expanding the Eastland Hotel and using part of what has been a public space.

click image to enlarge

In most people's opinion, Congress Square Plaza is a public space that did not work.

Staff file photo/Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The Eastland is a historic building in the midst of a $40 million renovation. An expansion on its Congress Street side that would give it a better presence and improve its interaction with life on the city's main street is something that would benefit everyone, even if it comes with the loss of some public space.

It's important to remember why the study commission was created back in 2008, long before RockBridge Capital, the Eastland's owner, proposed its ballroom idea. In most people's opinion, Congress Square Plaza was a public space that did not work.

It is underused by most of the public, despite being in the heart of downtown, and its sunken design makes it a semi-private spot for public drinking and drug use. Its benches are most used by the city's homeless residents, and they and their advocates dominated the study commission's public hearing Wednesday.

We are sympathetic to people who don't have anywhere else to go, but their needs don't trump all others. The city should be looking at every economic development opportunity to pay for, among other things, the social services that homeless people rely on. Putting a property on the tax rolls and boosting an important local business are also concerns the city should weigh.

It is important for everyone to remember that Congress Square Plaza is a relatively new addition to the city's inventory of public spaces. Before it burned down in 1981, a doughnut shop on the plaza site was notorious for prostitution. The plaza as it is now was an attempt to reclaim that space from blight and turn an embarrassment into an asset. It obviously still needs some work.

The issue will now go before the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee, which will take up where the study commission left off.

We hope that the city's political leaders can work with the developer to produce a design that will improve the corner of Congress and High streets for the hotel and the public.

We think a good solution can be reached and hope both sides keep talking.


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