Months of strife. Unexpected delays. The eventual abandonment of a construction contract “for convenience.”

In 2021, the process of redesigning Congress Square was described by Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire as “long and tedious.”

How would we go about describing what’s come of it since?

With what the city calls “finishing touches” still required on the intersection and the pedestrian plaza in front of the museum – again, we might describe the loose bricks and various crimes against masonry differently – not even the first phase of the project, in the works since 2012, has been completed.

As we reported Thursday, the City of Portland cut ties with the contractor on the project, Gordon Contracting, last October. A representative of Gordon told this newspaper that the city, which did not work with an intermediary, seemed ill-equipped to manage the project.

“The city was pretty much representing themselves, and I’m not sure they had experience with construction contract language,” said Drew Straehle, Gordon’s project manager, adding that it was the first time since the company’s foundation in 1946 that it did not complete a project.


Responding, the city’s Director of Public Works Mike Murray, said: “We very much take a hands-on approach. It’s our project so we’re going to be involved.”

The pandemic was disruptive to the $7.2 million redesign project. Even then, the passage of time has been staggering. And all the while, Congress Square and the surrounding blocks have suffered.

It’s a pity we can’t survey the proprietors of the retail units at 584 Congress Street (formerly Harmon’s Floral), 594 Congress Street (formerly Starbucks), 600 and 600A Congress Street (the large unit on the opposite corner), 604 Congress Street (beside Downtown Lounge), 613A Congress Street (formerly Haberdashery Resale), 614 Congress Street (between the phone repair store and Lazzari), 620 Congress Street (formerly Coffee By Design), 642 Congress Street (formerly Ada’s), 144 High Street and 146 High Street (both opposite the Westin Hotel).

Every one of these units is vacant today. To walk the square’s neighboring blocks is to confront empty storefront after empty storefront.

Thursday’s news report said the city was “hopeful” that work on the redesign of the square can restart this summer after a new bid for a new contractor. Gordon Contracting first told the city it wished to call off the contract last June. The sustained lack of urgency is disappointing.

To many people, Congress Square is the heart of the city. For too long, and more so now in the stark absence of so many businesses, it has felt like little more than a busy intersection.

The first phase, which is reportedly stagnating at “punch list” stage, was to involve reconfiguration of the junction, new signage and traffic signals, enhanced attention to pedestrian and motorist safety (in a car or on foot, it does not often feel that this has been achieved) and an expansion of the plaza in front of the museum. The second phase is to involve the addition of public art and improvements to the park itself.

The city now has a goal of 2025 completion of the project in its sights. If that comes together, well and good. If the efforts to rehabilitate the park continue to drag out and fall at every hurdle, this important part of Portland will find it very hard to meaningfully redefine itself.

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