This crosswalk at Congress and High streets is now closed. Preparation began this week for construction of a redesigned Congress Square and the nearby intersection. The first phase of the project, which includes replacing the sidewalks at the intersection, new traffic signals, and lighting and landscaping, is expected to be completed by next July. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Two years from now, if all goes according to plan, Congress Square, one of Portland’s most central public spaces, will have a whole new look. There will be wider sidewalks, clearer crosswalks, new art in Congress Square Park and an inviting plaza in front of the Portland Museum of Art across the street.

The $7.2 million redesign of the park and neighboring intersection in the heart of the city has been a decade in the making. Construction on the first phase of the project started this week, marking a major milestone – though it will disrupt foot and vehicle traffic for the immediate future.

“This is a really exciting project for the city,” said Kevin Kraft, deputy director of planning and urban development for the city of Portland. “It’s been an outstanding example of the city working with the public and Friends of Congress Square Park to take a really valuable space and make it more accessible to a larger group of people.”

The redesign of the square dates to 2012, when the Portland Public Art Committee voted to set aside funding for a public art display in Congress Square Park. Sarah Sze, a New York City-based artist, was commissioned in 2016 to create the new installation.

At a public forum in November, Sze described her vision for a 20-foot sculpture of 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.

A rendering of the planned redesign of Congress Square, which aims to improve sidewalks, landscaping and safety for pedestrians and motorists and will feature new public art. Rendering courtesy of WRT Planning + Design

The art installation and changes to the park itself will come later. The first phase of the project, focused on improving safety, accessibility and traffic flow, includes a reconfiguration of the intersection and sidewalks at Congress and High streets, new traffic signals, lighting and landscaping. It’s expected to be completed by June 30, 2023.


Work on the second phase is expected to start this fall or early next spring, with the aim of completing the whole project by 2024. The space in front of the Portland Museum of Art also will get a face-lift, with an expanded and improved pedestrian plaza.


Traffic after the redesign will flow similarly to how it does now, with some key exceptions, according to information on the city’s website. Most notably, the slip lane from High Street into Free Street will be closed. All traffic will access Free Street from Congress Street, including traffic coming from High Street. Free Street will remain one way heading away from the square.

The High Street lane assignments will be changed to reflect the removal of the slip lane. On Congress Street westbound, the left lane will become a left-only lane for Free Street traffic, and the right lane will be used for thru traffic and right turns onto High Street.

Construction on the first phase of the project will occur in consecutive sub-phases and during each sub-phase there will be disruptions to either sidewalks or traffic. Only one corner of the square will be undergoing work at any given time, according to Mike Murray, the city’s deputy director in the Department of Public Works.

The most significant impact will be in the initial phase, during which access to Free Street from Congress and High Streets will be closed and traffic will be redirected to Free Street via Oak Street. “Weather permitting, this first section of construction will be finished by mid-June,” Murray said in an email.


The uppermost portion of Free Street has been closed to traffic as construction begins this week for the redesign of Congress Square in Portland.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A spokesperson for the Portland Police Department said Thursday that there have been no complaints about the construction project’s impact on traffic so far.


Congress Square is located in one of Portland’s most densely populated and diverse neighborhoods. Within the next two years, the city expects to see about 870 new housing units within a half mile of the square, including affordable workforce and low-income housing, senior housing and market-rate units.

Upcoming developments include 263 middle-market-rate apartments at 200 Federal St. and 170 units at 144 State St., where Northern Light Mercy Hospital announced two years ago that it had chosen developers to convert its 78-year-old hospital building in Portland’s West End into a range of housing for all income levels. Another 171 apartments are planned for 52 Hanover St. in the Bayside neighborhood.

“That’s a substantial amount of units coming online, which is terrific for downtown and the city as a whole to meet our housing needs,” Kraft said.

That’s why the overhaul of Congress Square will be key, he said, adding, “I think it shows how important a public space like this is as we see more individuals and families move to the downtown area.

The $7.2 million estimated cost of the project includes money from city capital improvement plan funds and the Portland Public Art Committee, $1 million from the Maine Department of Transportation and private contributions raised by the Congress Square Redesign Committee. The project also received a National Endowment for the Arts Place Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant.

“It’s going to be great,” said C.J. Opperthauser, executive director of Friends of Congress Square Park, a nonprofit that provides stewardship of and programming in the park. Opperthauser said the changes will improve access, increase the number of trees and enhance events such as markets, concerts, films and classes.

“Certainly the park part is what we’re most excited about, but the intersection work is also exciting,” Opperthauser said. “I know it will kind of screw up people’s commutes for a little while, and we’re going to have to negotiate around it, too, but it will be worth it because the intersection will be really so much safer for everybody. … This is going to be a much better place and a more cohesive place.”

Comments are no longer available on this story