So, what’s this really about?

It’s one of the most intense arguments, and potentially the most confusing one, about Portland’s June 10 referendum.

The “Yes” camp says the proposed city ordinance would protect dozens of city public spaces from being sold without strong City Council or public support. The “No” camp says it’s simply an attempt to prevent the city’s $523,640 sale of most of Congress Square Plaza.

Both sides are partly correct.

There is no doubt that without the controversy over the proposed sale of Congress Square Plaza, the referendum would not be on the ballot. Friends of Congress Square Park collected 4,000 petition signatures to trigger the referendum based on outrage over the sale.

The Portland parks referendum, if passed by voters, would add 35 more public spaces to the list of 25 city-owned parcels overseen by the Portland Land Bank Commission, a board established in 1999 to protect city-owned parks and natural areas from development. The list of additional spaces ranges from the Munjoy South Playground to the eastern and western promenade parks, the latter of which are already protected through legislation.

The list of properties also includes Congress Square Plaza, thereby retroactively blocking the sale – at least temporarily. Congress Square is not singled out in the ballot question, however.

How would the new ordinance work?

Under the proposed changes, the Portland Land Bank would have to approve of any sale of Land Bank properties and the City Council would need support from at least eight of the nine councilors to move forward with a sale. It took just a 6-3 vote for the council to approve the sale of two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to the developer that renovated the adjacent hotel, formerly called the Eastland Park Hotel and now known as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

If six or seven councilors agree on a future sale, under the proposed ordinance, city voters would make the final decision – at an estimated cost of $15,000 per referendum.

Does it mean Congress Square Plaza would remain whole if the referendum passes?

Not necessarily. A “Yes” victory on June 10 would mean the plaza sale could still happen, but only if voters approve in a subsequent referendum just on this issue.

What did the City Council do in response to the petition?

The city unsuccessfully attempted to block the referendum in court by arguing the sale was a business decision not subject to voter referendum. The council also passed its own ordinance restricting future sales of parks. That ordinance expands the list of Land Bank parcels and requires at least seven councilors to approve any sale – one fewer than the referendum proposal. However, the City Council ordinance omits Congress Square Plaza from the list of parks with additional sale restrictions. It also does not include any provision for a public vote on such sales.

What do councilors think now?

Councilor David Marshall, who voted against the sale of Congress Square Plaza, has been an outspoken critic of the way the city administration and his fellow councilors have handled the entire affair, beginning with the vote to sell the park.

“I told them what was going to happen. I said, ‘You’re going to be tapping into the vein of the activist community here and they are not going to put up with this,’ ” Marshall said. “They had no clue what they were walking into.”

But Mayor Michael Brennan said the planned “revitalization” of the plaza that would accompany the sale, and proposed improvements to traffic flow will bring additional foot traffic to an important part of downtown. And he maintains that the referendum is unnecessary given the recent City Council ordinance and because most of the best-known parks – such as Deering Oaks and the two promenades – were already protected.

“I think the referendum is simply about whether people support the Congress Square sale or they don’t,” Brennan said. “I think all of those other parts of the referendum aren’t necessary and are proving to be problematic.”

Three other sitting City Council members – Nick Mavodones, Jon Hinck and Ed Suslovic – are also members of the Forward Portland organization opposed to the referendum.

Aren’t city parks already protected from development?

Yes and no, and not equally for those that are shielded from development.

Deering Oaks, for instance, is protected by deed covenants that would transfer the land back to the Deering family if the city ever decided to stop using it as a park. Likewise, the Eastern Promenade and Western Promenade are protected through city and state legislation.

So which is it, anyway: Congress Square Plaza or Congress Square Park?

Those trying to prevent the sale refer to it as a “park” while those supporting the renovations are often more likely to call it a “plaza.” But as Mayor Michael Brennan explained, even the city has used the words interchangeably.

“I think it is referred to officially as both, but I try to refer to it simply as ‘Congress Square,’ ” Brennan said.

– Kevin Miller and John Richardson, staff writers