September 18, 2013

Our View: Congress Square lawsuit won't advance discussion

The process that led to the land sale was flawed, but there's still a chance to shape other public space.

The City Council has made its decision: Two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza is going to be sold to an investment firm that's planning an addition to the former Eastland Hotel. The remaining 4,800 square feet will comprise a new, smaller public space.

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Residents’ input is being sought into the future of the public space around Congress, Free and High streets, as well as the space remaining after the sale of Congress Square Plaza.

2013 File Photo/John Patriquin

Critics of the plan say they're considering taking legal action against the city now that the council has backed the purchase-and-sale agreement.

While we agree that the deal was destined to be divisive, a protracted legal dispute wouldn't do anything except cement the divisions in place. The agreement that was approved Monday night addresses some of the flash points of the original Congress Square Plaza proposal. Now it's time to move on and take a broader look at the entire public space.

Most people acknowledge that Congress Square Plaza hasn't succeeded as a public space. It didn't turn into a hot-button issue, though, until a deal was presented to sell part of it.

The public justifiably felt shut out of what had been a community discussion of the plaza's future, centering on a city task force's recommendation to redesign the plaza and keep it as open space. Rockbridge Capital became the dominant voice in the debate almost as soon as it entered the debate, and it seemed to set the pace for the decision-making process as well.

Still, the Congress Square Plaza deal wasn't rubber-stamped. Councilor Cheryl Leeman introduced several amendments that placed more restrictions on the sale, including one that requires Rockbridge Capital to get Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission approval before the sale can take place.

Both supporters and opponents of the deal should keep in mind that the fate of Congress Square as a whole is hardly set in stone. The remaining space in the controversial plaza will be redesigned, and the city is also seeking ideas for the public space around the intersection of Congress, High and Free streets. The public, then, has a chance to speak up, and the city has a chance to start -- and follow through on -- a more inclusive dialogue.

No doubt, many people are still upset over the city's Congress Square Plaza decision. They have some right to be, but maintaining an adversarial stance won't change anything. Instead of trying to undo this deal in court, it would be more productive for them to channel their energy into improving the public space that the city still has.


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