News that the city has started a “visioning” process for the redesign of Congress Square gave opponents of a proposed event center addition to the Eastland Hotel a jolt of false hope. The city’s call for public input must mean that negotiations to sell a sizable chunk of the existing Congress Square Plaza to the hotel company had fallen through, they thought.

But they were disappointed. The talks, which were authorized by the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee in May, are reportedly progressing well, and could result in a deal that would be up for final approval soon.

City planners were calling for ideas for Congress Square — made up of public space around the five-way intersection of Congress, High and Free streets, including the open space in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the triangular Hay building, not just the controversial plaza. People are invited to visit the website and contribute their ideas.

This process is going forward more or less independently of the hotel project. And it is something to which everyone, whether they are for, against or indifferent to the Eastland expansion, should give some thought. The back and forth over Congress Square Plaza has brought forward strong arguments about the importance of good public open space in the heart of the city.

What’s often forgotten is that there is considerable public space on both sides of Congress Street, much of which is chopped up by a street design that gives vehicles cutting through the center of the city priority over all other modes of transportation.

Ideas such as narrowing Congress Street or closing part of Free Street could unify the public space and create an attractive and well-used area, even if part of the existing park is used for development.

This study coincides with other ongoing planning projects that could change the character of this key section of downtown. The Spring Street-Free Street area plan, the creation of bus priority lanes on Congress Street and the idea of turning High and State streets into two-way roads could change how people move through this neighborhood.

The debate over the park’s future shows that public space is important to residents of Portland. This study is an opportunity to help design a space that really works.


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