PORTLAND — Since 1920, the Schwartz Building on Congress Square has occupied one of the city’s most visible commercial locations.

Thousands of vehicles and hundreds of pedestrians pass through the intersection of Congress and High streets every day.

A major renovation of 600-604 Congress St. began last fall – one city officials believe has “the potential to transform this key intersection of downtown,” according to city documents.

But since demolition was completed last October, the four-story building topped by a clock tower has become something of a ground-level eyesore, leaving many people wondering whether the project has been abandoned.

“It’s proceeding, despite the appearance,” said city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell. “Some of these things just take time.”

In October, crews removed the building’s ground floor facade. The work used a nearly $11,000 grant from the city’s Facade Improvement Plan.

Its large, glass windows have been replaced by sheets of plywood that now function as billboards for everything from announcements about local concerts and summer jobs to going-out-of business sales.

There are also piles of loose bricks and even some street art.

Progress on the building’s restoration has been stalled in part by owner Geoffrey Rice’s decision to seek tax credits for renovations to the historic building.

But the appearance of the building during the delay could be smudging the city’s reputation, just as the tourist season starts.

Janis Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, would not discuss how the state of 600 Congress St. could be affecting visitors’ perceptions of the city.

But, in general terms, Beitzer said it is important for all property owners to keep their buildings looking good to maintain the city’s No. 1 source of economic activity, tourism.

“It’s vitally important to our economy that properties always look their best, even when under construction,” Beitzer said. “We encourage everyone to keep their properties free of peeling paint, graffiti, posters, litter and construction debris so that visitors have a positive experience while here.”

Project architect Jim Sterling said the project has been in the works for about two years and was originally slated to be finished last summer. But it became eligible for tax credits when Congress Street was certified last spring as a historic district.

“That sort of derailed the project,” Sterling said.

There are about 2,000 historic properties in eight local historic districts, five historic landscape districts and about 60 individual landmarks in Portland, according to Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager.

When the National Parks Service certified the Congress Street Historic District in May 2010, projects within that district became eligible for tax credits, Andrews said.

Attorney Paul Bulger, who represents Rice on the project, would not provide information about how much in tax credits his client is seeking. But he said Rice had received conditional approval for his requests.

Bulger, however, noted the project is also being delayed by the need to upgrade the electrical supply in the building for what is expected to be a first-floor restaurant.

“That would be the ambition,” Bulger said. “But I don’t have a lease yet.”

Bulger said the project was originally envisioned as $500,000 in fire safety upgrades, including the installation of a sprinkler system, elevator, modern alarm systems and emergency egress.

“That barely scratches the surface,” he said of the costs. “Now, it’s going to be a much more ambitious project.”

The city Economic Development division estimates the project costs will be near $1 million, but Bulger said it will be costlier.

Sterling said the project will also convert about 20 studio apartments, which did not meet minimum standards set by the city, into 12 more modern, spacious apartments.

The project will not trigger the city’s housing replacement ordinance, which requires developers to replace lost housing units or pay a fee, since it is preserving the total residential square footage.

Applying for the tax credits is a complex process that requires workers to closely document what they find and remove from the building, Sterling said. It also requires new construction to mirror the previously recorded state.

Sterling said he is currently seeking ways to restore the buildings original facade, which has been hidden several recent renovations. Similar efforts are expected in the interior.

Sterling said the documentation for the tax credits is largely complete, so he expects work to restart within the next few weeks. If it does, the project could be finished by December, he said.

City officials are echoing that optimism, especially since they are counting on the rehab to transform the busy intersection. 

“I am very confident we are going to get there,” Mitchell said. “It’s an important corner for us. We are as anxious as anyone in the community to see what the end use might be.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

Sidebar Elements

The 1920 Schwartz building at 600 Congress St. in Portland has been boarded up since demolition was finished last October. Renovations are expected to resume soon on the Congress Square building.

The plywood exterior of 600 Congress St. in Portland has become a popular place to hang fliers and display street art. The Portland Museum of Art is across High Street.

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