Portland council scrutinizes controversial Congress Square sale proposal

Posted Sept. 03, 2013, at 7:25 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 05, 2013, at 1:39 p.m.
Greg Mitchell, Portland director of economic development, is joined by city planner Alex Jaegerman and urban designer Caitlin Cameron during a Tuesday night City Council workshop on the proposed sale of 9,500 square feet of Congress Square to private developers.
Greg Mitchell, Portland director of economic development, is joined by city planner Alex Jaegerman and urban designer Caitlin Cameron during a Tuesday night City Council workshop on the proposed sale of 9,500 square feet of Congress Square to private developers. Buy Photo
This rendering depicts what RockBridge Capital LLC and its partners hope to develop at what is now the publicly owned Congress Square Plaza.
Courtesy of RockBridge Capital
This rendering depicts what RockBridge Capital LLC and its partners hope to develop at what is now the publicly owned Congress Square Plaza.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city councilors peppered planning and economic development officials about the details of a controversial proposed sale of nearly two-thirds of the publicly owned Congress Square on Tuesday night, setting the stage for what will be a high-profile vote on the transaction in less than a week.

The council discussed with Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell, Planning Director Alex Jaegerman, Urban Designer Caitlin Cameron and City Planner Jeffrey Levine the details of the sale in a workshop setting, during which no public comment was taken.

At the council’s next meeting Monday, during which it will vote on whether to approve the deal, public testimony will be included.

RockBridge Capital LLC, which along with New Castle Hotels and Resorts is nearing completion of a $40 million-plus renovation of the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel, has agreed to pay nearly $524,000 for the 9,500-square-foot section of the square.

With that additional space, the developers plan to add a venue for meetings and other events at the historic hotel, which they plan to reopen in December as the Westin Portland Harborview hotel.

“The conference center is estimated to bring in 300 to 400 people per event, and that’s going to generate more business within our arts district,” Mitchell told the council during its Tuesday evening workshop.

Councilors in that setting wanted to know how that estimate was generated — Jaegerman said it was based on the capacity of the proposed building — and how the sale price was settled on, among other details.

Mitchell told the council the city’s market value for the whole square was more than $810,000, and divided by the square footage, left a price per square foot of $55.12, which was then multiplied by about 9,500 to reach the sale price.

Councilor John Anton took the most aggressive tack, pushing Jaegerman to explain how the event center would “activate that space” as proponents have argued.

When the planner said the frontage facing High Street and Congress Square would be largely windows looking in on art gallery space, which would at least six times per year be open to the public, Anton countered that many building owners put art in storefronts only “when they can’t find tenants to rent.”

With regard to the developers’ offer to open the space up to public traffic no less than six times annually, Anton said, “I guess I’m interested in knowing about how it will activate the space the other 359 days of the year.”

He also wanted to know why, if there is a market for conference space in Portland, other hotel developers haven’t proposed including such space in their plans. At least three other new hotels are under development in the city currently.

Mitchell responded that most of the other projects are tied to national hotel chains, which have certain design and development standards “and they just do not include those kinds of conference spaces.”

If the City Council approves the sale, approximately 4,800 square feet of what is now Congress Square would remain as a publicly accessible plaza — a space the developers have been quick to point out is still more than twice the proposed size listed in the New York City Public Plaza Standards and larger than the 3,000-square-foot Longfellow Plaza a few blocks away in Portland.

The sale of the public space has been a divisive issue in Portland, where those in favor — including the Portland Community Chamber — have argued that developers’ plans to build on the square provide new life to a long-neglected space that has become a hangout for the homeless and drug users. Opponents of the sale counter that the sale sets a dangerous precedent of turning public space over to private interests, and say Congress Square has only fallen into its current state because city leaders haven’t invested enough resources into maintaining it.

Friends of Congress Square Park, a citizens’ group that has formed in opposition to the sale of the square, announced plans last week to seek changes to the city’s Land Bank Commission ordinance in hopes of restricting future sales of public spaces if not the one on the table, according to a report in The Forecaster on Tuesday.

The opinions of city committees has ranged. The Portland Public Art Committee and Parks Commission voted in opposition of the sale, while the Tax Acquired Property Committee, Portland Development Corp. and nonprofit Creative Portland each voted in favor of it.

The Congress Square Redesign Study Group, tasked by the council in 2008 with developing a plan to revitalize the property in question, deadlocked on the issue with a 6-6 vote in May.

The terms of the sale deal on the table also force RockBridge to continue using the additional structure for meetings and events for at least 10 years before being allowed to change it over into hotel space. The developers are also required to pay $45,000 to the city for infrastructure improvements at the plaza, including a new 100-foot-by-15-foot sidewalk along that section of Congress Street, and an additional $50,000 to help pay for a redesign of the remaining 4,800 square feet of public plaza space.

The city would retain the right to rescind the sale if the RockBridge event center design doesn’t receive planning board and historic preservation board approvals by June 1, 2014, among other provisions.

Last month, the city launched what it described as a visioning process to gather public input through its website, an online survey, social media and in-person forums, among other places. That process was billed in a city announcement as a way to “create a shared vision for Congress Square as an urban open space,” but focused on a much larger area than the space being sought by RockBridge.

That process expanded the scope of area under discussion to include the “intersection of High and Congress streets, Congress Square Plaza, the public spaces in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the H.H. Hay building, and surrounding sidewalks and traffic islands.”

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