Members of the public on Saturday got to glimpse the latest update to a nearly decadelong project that will overhaul one of Portland’s most high-profile public spaces.

Approximately 70 people attended a forum at the Westin Portland Harborview hotel centered on plans to overhaul Congress Square Park, which will include additional seating, more accessibility, dynamic trees and shrubs, a water play area, and a roughly 20-foot-high public sculpture from renowned New York visual artist Sarah Sze.

Christine Grimando, the city’s director of planning and urban development, said the purpose of Saturday’s forum – the first public meeting on the project in three and a half years – was to continue involving members of the public in the ongoing effort and to address any concerns.

“During every phase, the public has weighed in and the project is better for it,” she said.

The project got a boost after a hotly contested citywide referendum in 2014 blocked the sale of much of the park to the nearby Westin hotel, which wanted to build an event center. Photo by Eric Russell/Staff Writer

The city has worked closely with Friends of Congress Square Park, which manages events and amenities at the park, and with the local neighborhood association.

Many in attendance praised the project and its attention to detail. Some raised questions about safety and ensuring the seat walls will not include what’s known as defensive architecture to deter unhoused people from sleeping there. Some asked why public bathrooms were not included; Grimando replied that the city has been considering that concern in many areas throughout Portland, not just Congress Square.

Keiko Tsuruta Cramer, a principal and landscape architect with WRT, LLC, the Philadelphia-based firm the city hired to redesign the square, said the goal was to take something that was already revered by locals and “enhance the reasons why it’s so beloved.”

The park sits at the intersection of Congress and High streets, an area that’s home to the Portland Museum of Art and the State Theatre and one that sees high volumes of vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

The redesign was first conceived back in 2012, when the Portland Public Art Committee voted to set aside funding for a public art display. Sze, a Boston native who now lives in New York, was chosen in 2016. Her work is currently featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York and at LaGuardia Airport.

The project got a boost after a hotly contested citywide referendum in 2014 blocked the sale of much of the park to the nearby Westin hotel, which wanted to build an event center.

Since then, things have moved slowly, although some of that was because of the pandemic.

The roughly $4.5 million project’s first phase includes reconfiguring the actual intersection to improve traffic flow, upgrade signal equipment and enhance safety for motorists and pedestrians, the city said. Part of that will include expanding the pedestrian plaza in front of the Portland Museum of Art.

The second phase of the project, which was highlighted in detail at Saturday’s forum, will include improvements to the park itself. That’s likely to begin next year with a goal of completion by 2024.

In addition to creating seat walls throughout the park, it will feature a number of newly planted trees and shrubs. Patrick Cullina, a landscape designer who’s worked with WRT, said the goal is to use trees native to the area, such as white oak, grey birch and black gum, or tupelo, tree, that will capture fall colors.

The landscape also will shield park-goers from the noise and hubbub of the busy nearby intersection.

C.J. Opperthauser, executive director of the friends group, said the pandemic only heightened the importance of outdoor gathering space.

“However, despite our programming and amenities, the physical design of our park is in dire need of transformation,” he said in a statement. “The park in its current state is physically inaccessible to too many people. It is challenging, and dangerous, for our friends and neighbors with mobility issues. Fortunately, with the redesign, accessibility to the park – and throughout the Square will be dramatically improved.”

The centerpiece of the Congress Square Park redesign will be artist Sarah Sze’s installation. It features stainless steel pieces, polished and arranged in a specific spherical pattern and held up by scaffolding, to reflect both the sky and the surrounding action. Rendering courtesy of WRT, LLC

But the centerpiece of the park will be Sze’s installation, which will sit at the corner of Congress and High streets to draw people in. Although the piece isn’t finished, the artist explained her vision for using stainless steel pieces, polished and arranged in a specific spherical pattern and held up by scaffolding, to reflect both the sky and the surrounding action.

“The piece entirely changes as you move around it,” Sze said. “So, it’s always in a state of becoming or eroding.”

Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum of Art, said he’s ecstatic about the redesign and the inclusion of Sze’s sculpture. He said that neighborhood has been “neglected so long.”

“The process had been long and tedious, but I hope it can spread out to other parts of the city,” he said.


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