September 7, 2013

Maine Voices: Congress Square sale could inspire needed change in heart of the city

The proposal could expand the tax base and help revitalize a chronically depressed part of Portland.

By MICHAEL BOURQUE

PORTLAND - The City Council is contemplating selling part of the land at Congress Square Plaza to the Rockbridge Capital Group that is restoring the historic Eastland Hotel.

This restoration of the Eastland (unlike prior efforts) includes a complete renovation of the building and a total investment of more than $55 million. The result will be a four-star Westin hotel. This investment is not a promise, it's a fact, and it will be open in December.

After working with the Congress Square Redesign Committee at the suggestion of the city, the Westin has proposed to build an event center on a portion of the Congress Square Plaza. To date, three of the four city councilors on the Housing and Community Development Committee have supported the idea in concept, citing as potential benefits:

Addressing the pent-up demand for more convention and meeting space in Portland.

Attracting more vitality and people on the street to a chronically depressed area.

The potential to leverage the restored property, with the draw of a four-star hotel, to jump-start the redesign of the entire Congress Square intersection, making it a destination once again.

Opponents say many things, including calling the plaza a "park" that shouldn't be sold off. Call it what you will, but Congress Square Plaza is no Deering Oaks, nor, frankly, is it even Lincoln Park. It was called a "plaza" in the city's 1979 original federal grant application when it acquired the property.

Which brings me to another point -- this is not historically public property. Rather, this plaza is a creature of '70s-style urban renewal, replacing a Dunkin' Donuts with a seedy reputation and a few other aging buildings.

Now, some 30 years later, no one can seriously dispute that, as a public space, Congress Square Plaza hasn't worked particularly well. The problem has been compounded by lackluster maintenance and a lack of money for programming.

While the owners of the Westin have worked with the city to propose a building that will reduce the size of the plaza, this plan can also better define it. And, once combined with an overall redesign of the streets and spaces at Congress Square, it also has the potential to achieve a striking and welcome change in the center of our city.

Paired with the new retail construction already under way at Congress Square, the synergy of a revived State Theatre, the long-standing presence of the Portland Museum of Art and the Children's Museum and Theatre of Maine, and a renovated Cumberland County Civic Center, the new plaza will make a profound change to this downtown area.

As a Portland taxpayer, I think it's also fair to say that this is not an idle issue, either. Improving this part of town means businesses thrive, revenues go up, building values increase, and tax revenues increase.

As our city continues to face increasing costs and less help from Augusta, Portland will either make increasingly difficult cuts to areas like schools and public safety, or raise property taxes, or grow the tax base. Growing the tax base seems the obvious best answer.

Some might suggest that Portland should take years to mull the future Congress Square in the quest of a perfect solution to a dysfunctional urban space (and still others would argue we have already done that).

Better yet, the city can be both practical and bold and say: Now is the time. The transformation of the Eastland is the perfect time to improve the plaza, and the hotel's new owners are committed partners to help the city to make sure this is a success.

The time to act is now. Let's put the proceeds of a sale of part of the plaza to work for the redesign of Congress Square.

Perhaps there's an opportunity to create a new downtown improvement district or use the existing Arts District to capture the new value being added at the Eastland Hotel and put some of that to work revitalizing the area. But however you look at it, the proposed event center and a redesigned plaza most certainly will be a catalyst for added investment and growth. This is the very definition of a winning proposal.

Portland has earned a vote of confidence in the investments now being made in our city. Now, we can choose to further leverage this investment in a way that will pay dividends for years to come. This is a moment for the City Council to seize.

Michael Bourque is a resident of Portland and immediate past president of the Portland Community Chamber.

 

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