May 27, 2013

Our View: Congress Square plan good deal for Portland

City councilors should consider whether they could ever get a better offer if they say 'no' now.

Congress Square Park has sparked a fascinating community conversation about the role of public open space in a busy downtown. The time for talk, however, is nearly over.

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Congress Square, Portland

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

An architect’s rendering of the redesigned Congress Square Plaza proposal shows an addition to the nearby hotel and a park along Congress Street.

Rockbridge Capital, the developer that's completing a $40 million renovation of the historic former Eastland Hotel, has proposed buying or leasing the rights to about two-thirds of the city-owned property and building a one-story addition to host large weddings, small conventions and other such events.

On Wednesday, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee will take up the offer. We think that committee members should say "yes."

The issue has been controversial and has sparked strong feelings on both sides.

Last week, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, which has been looking for ways to improve what most people consider a failed public space, deadlocked with a 6-6 vote, making no recommendation to the council.

Opponents of the plan make some compelling arguments about the need for public open space in the city's downtown, but in the end we don't find their analysis convincing.

If the city were to take Rockbridge's offer, Portland would not lose Congress Square. The remaining public space would still be almost 5,000 square feet, much bigger than other city plazas that are more loved and better used, such as Longfellow Plaza and Tommy's Park. If it were well designed, a smaller plaza could have a bigger benefit than the current park.

People shouldn't be worried that allowing this project would set a dangerous precedent. The city often conveys public property, such as no-longer-needed schools, but that doesn't put other parks in danger of being sold.

That design should remind people that Congress Square is not just the park adjacent to the Eastland but also the entire public space from the hotel to the Hay Building across Congress Street and in front of the Portland Museum of Art. One of the most attractive aspects of the Rockbridge plan is that it does more to tie the whole square together so that it is a more unified public space.

Congress Square has been in its current configuration for more than 30 years, and while there have been many complaints about it, this is the first serious proposal to fix it. There is no reason to assume that if Portland doesn't agree with this plan, a better one will come along.

This is a very good offer. The city should take it.


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