It’s lunchtime in downtown Portland, and Congress Square Plaza is unusually busy for a park often described as neglected and underused.

An Arizona couple who happened upon “this nice little space” while exploring Portland soak up the sunshine while enjoying curried dishes from a food truck parked in the plaza’s recessed center. The truck’s recent arrival and added seating also have drawn Bonnie Durham and Michael Gatlin from Portland’s Parkside neighborhood to the plaza, which they long shunned because of its “uninviting” and unsafe character. They still avoid it at other times.

Meanwhile, a recovering alcoholic eight months clean – and determined to stay that way – watches the traffic on Congress Street from a spot popular with those struggling to avoid the drink and those who have had too many. Nearby, an apparently homeless man dozes on a bench.

And amidst it all are volunteers trying to persuade passers-by to vote “yes” on an upcoming ballot question that could decide the future of the small plaza.

Congress Square Plaza – or park, as some prefer – has emerged as Portland’s most controversial public space in recent months in a debate dominated by competing visions for the plaza and narratives about what ails it. The city’s move to sell much of the plaza led to a petition effort to block the deal and to limit sales of other public spaces. All the attention has helped bring some life back to the corner of Congress and High streets, at least for now.

At its core, the June 10 referendum would add a layer of protection to 60 parks, plazas, squares and playgrounds in the city by raising the threshold that city officials would have to meet before selling any part of them. Future sales would require the support of at least eight of nine city councilors or a majority of city voters.

“The ordinance we are voting on on June 10th is to strengthen the Portland Land Bank and to add 35 properties to it,” said Bree LaCasse of the group Protect Portland Parks, referring to the Portland Land Bank Commission, which was established in 1999 to protect certain city-owned properties. “Certainly the sale of Congress Square Park was the impetus, but it was because the process that was followed really cut out the public’s voice. … We believe that, at the very least, citizens deserve to have that vote.”

Yet it is also a referendum on the city’s attempts to sell part of Congress Square Plaza – the flash point behind the ballot initiative and the trigger for the broader debate about the city’s parks.

A divided City Council voted last September to sell two-thirds of the park to the developer of the renovated Westin Portland Harborview Hotel – formerly known as the Eastland Park Hotel – for $523,640 in a no-bid agreement.

If passed by voters, the referendum would apply retroactively to the half-acre park. It would also invalidate the council’s vote, thereby shelving at least temporarily Rockbridge Capital’s plans to build a one-story event center on the site and provide funds to renovate the 4,800-square-foot portion that would remain park space.

A well-funded and influential group leading the opposition to the proposal, called Forward Portland, accuses the petitioners of orchestrating a sweeping referendum all to achieve a simple goal: block the sale of Congress Square Plaza.

Jim Cohen, a former Portland mayor and city councilor, said the suggestion from referendum supporters that Portland’s parks are threatened or at risk “is completely contrary to what the city of Portland has done” to expand park and recreation space in recent years.

“Our first concern is the referendum appears to be about the Land Bank, but the fine print makes it about Congress Square, and it does a disservice to voters not to let them know this is about changes to Congress Square,” said Cohen, who serves as chairman of Forward Portland, a group backed by many in the business community who strongly support the private development plan and oppose the referendum.

Opponents also warn that the proposed ordinance could actually require public votes on new conservation easements or even large events similar to the successful concert held by the band Mumford & Sons on the Eastern Promenade in August 2012.

Back in Congress Square Plaza, those using the public space were divided and sometimes confused over the question facing Portland voters.

“Save the park,” said Starr Sarabia, a West End resident who makes daily trips to the plaza to feed the pigeons he affectionately calls “da flock from da block.” The pigeons, in turn, flock to Sarabia, even landing on his arms and hands when he calls to them.

Sarabia said he plans to vote “yes” both for Congress Square Plaza and for the city’s other parks.

“It was the first place I found in this city that felt like home,” said Sarabia, who moved to Portland a decade ago from Salem, Massachusetts, and works at Mercy Hospital.

Sarah Schindler had a different take – one obviously informed by her specialization in property and land use law as a professor at the University of Maine School of Law. Schindler was critical of how the city handled the park sale, arguing that it should have received market price and should have negotiated public access to the privately owned event center.

But she does not believe in putting an issue such as land sales to voters. And she plans to vote “no” on Tuesday of next week.

“I think the City Council often has more insights into what development would be good for the city than the public does,” Schindler said while eating her lunch with two friends. “I think (the referendum) is about this square. I’m not worried about the (future) of parks in this city. I think this is about an underperforming public space.”

Congress Square Plaza has only been a park for 30 years. And for much of that time it has been underused by the public or overlooked by the city. Before that, it was the site of a Dunkin’ Donuts known for being a hangout for prostitutes, drug dealers and other seedy characters of 1970s Portland.

The park still has a reputation as a gathering place for the homeless, drinkers, drug users and others who find themselves out of sync with cultural norms. But the recent addition of the Small Axe lunch truck, tables and a square wooden sitting area – all organized by the Friends of Congress Square Park – has brought new life and clientele to the maligned public space, users said.

“They should keep it like this. Since the truck began coming here it’s been quiet,” said nearby resident Darren Welch, who said he has been coming to the park almost daily for the past 17 years. His companion on this particular day, Deborah Lowell, said there are fewer drunks sleeping on benches and fewer people panhandling for money – all welcome improvements, she said.

Bonnie Durham and Michael Gatlin of the Parkside neighborhood said they never came to Congress Square Plaza before the food truck’s arrival because of the park’s seedier reputation. But on Thursday, the couple were enjoying the space and the sunshine with their 2-year-old son, Ovid.

Both plan to vote against the referendum.

“More stores, more business and more things to do in Portland,” Durham said when asked why she supports the planned sale and revitalization of the remaining park space.

“It was not inviting or welcoming to families (before), so if there is a way to make that happen and make it better for the community, that’s great,” Gatlin said.

Among those campaigning to defeat the referendum is Lauren Wayne, general manager of the State Theatre and Port City Music Hall. A member of Forward Portland’s steering committee, Wayne described the plaza as underused because of its design – unsafe and “ugly.”

Wayne praised Friends of Congress Square Park and the SPACE Gallery for their recent successes in improving the park, but said the space needs longer-term fixes. Theater employees avoid walking through the park at night, and a visiting stage act’s production manager was recently hospitalized after being attacked in the plaza.

“I feel it is only going to improve this section of Portland and the city overall,” Wayne said of the planned event center and renovations to the plaza. She added: “We are not interested in taking away a park. We are interested in revitalizing one.”

Supporters of Protect Portland Parks insist that much more will be at stake June 10.

Tom MacMillan said there are numerous small local parks in his West End neighborhood that would be attractive sites for development and deserve stronger public oversight. MacMillan, who is a member of the board of Friends of Congress Square Park and chairman of Portland’s Green Party political committee, worries that without the oversight provided by a potential referendum, city officials could decide to sell “if the right person came along with enough money.”

“Ultimately, Portland voters should have the right to say whether the public parks that belong to us should be sold,” he said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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