September 30, 2013

Maine Voices: Portland sees 'failed space' where it should envision 'opportunity'

Congress Square Park is a great chance to create a public oasis, as other U.S. cities have done.

By DAVID LaCASSE

PORTLAND - One thing has gotten lost in the public fight over Congress Square Park: what it could be if we fixed it up. While some people choose to only see an eyesore, I look at Congress Square Park and see an opportunity we must seize.

Picture this: The sunken concrete pit is gone. In its place is a beautifully landscaped park with open access from both Congress and High streets, an abundance of seating scattered throughout, public art and distinct areas animating all corners of the park. 

A couple leaving the Portland Museum of Art grabs lunch at a food truck and sits at one of the park's many cafe tables.  Next to them, two young parents from the neighborhood enjoy coffee while their children run in and out of the water fountain. 

Tourists staying at the newly renovated hotel rest on a park bench in the shade of a tree after shopping and visiting the galleries along Congress Street. A group of elderly friends chat and play cards while waiting for the outdoor movie sponsored by the Friends of Congress Square Park. 

In my vision, Congress Square Park has become a thriving urban green space at the heart of our city for both visitors and the 17,000 citizens who live within five minutes of the park to gather, relax and play.  The revitalized public space is managed through a successful public-private partnership with the Friends of Congress Square Park, a recently organized Maine nonprofit, the city and other Arts District stakeholders. 

All of this is within the realm of possibility. From the High Line in New York City to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines, Iowa, to the 50 Parks Initiative in Los Angeles, to Pioneer Courthouse Square in the "other" Portland, cities across the country and around the world are choosing to invest in their parks, not divest themselves of them. 

These cities recognize the vital role great public spaces play in enhancing our quality of life and in attracting visitors. Yet here we are, poised to sell one of our own precious parks, located at one of the most important corners in the city, for a rock-bottom price -- appraised as if it were a vacant lot. 

No doubt selling the park feels like an easy solution to solving what some now consider a "failed space." Yet, sadly, this short-term thinking has irreparable consequences.

A valuable public asset will be lost forever for the promise of a small, private event center, which must remain an event center only for 10 years. 

So what do we, the citizens of Portland, get in return for giving up one of our valuable public parks? A one-story structure with no public access, completely out of character with the surrounding buildings -- a blemish on our cityscape.

Recognizing the true social and economic value of our city's precious public spaces and the frightening ease with which the city can sell them out of the public realm, on Sept. 6, the Friends of Congress Square Park submitted a citizens initiative, the Parks Initiative.

The purpose of the initiative is to ensure that 35 of our diverse and iconic parks -- such as Deering Oaks, the Eastern Promenade, Payson Park, Capisic Park and Congress Square Park -- have rigorous protections in place, including a requirement that a council vote of 6-3 or 7-2 to sell a park must be put to a public vote.

On Sept. 13, the city improperly rejected the Parks Initiative. None of the city's stated reasons are legally adequate to justify their refusal to issue the petitions.

Instead, the city's statements are designed to mask the real reasons for the denial: that city officials wish to rid themselves of their responsibility as stewards of the park and do not want to allow voters to have any say in the process by which the council disposes of city park lands. 

We cannot and will not allow for such an abuse of power.  On Wednesday, the Friends of Congress Square Park filed a lawsuit against the city of Portland to force the city to allow the Parks Initiative to proceed in order to ensure proper stewardship of these valuable public assets. 

Portland's public parks, including Congress Square Park, belong to the citizens of Portland, and the citizens of Portland should decide their fate.

I choose to protect and invest in our public parks. I choose to aim higher. I urge you to join me in supporting the Parks Initiative and saving Congress Square Park. 

David LaCasse is a resident of Portland and one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the Friends of Congress Square Park against the city.

– Special to the Press Herald

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