Back to Square One: Portland council to reconsider controversial future of Congress Square

Portland resident Mark Audette has mixed feelings about the future of Congress Square. &quotI'm in favor of development, but I want to keep the park. It's a respite," he said July 10.
David Harry | The Forecaster
Portland resident Mark Audette has mixed feelings about the future of Congress Square. "I'm in favor of development, but I want to keep the park. It's a respite," he said July 10.
Posted July 16, 2014, at 11:40 a.m.

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West End Neighborhood Association President Roseanne Graef said Congress Square needs a redesign and more attractions like the Small Axe food truck, as opposed to redevelopment as an events center for the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel seen in the background on July 10.
David Harry | The Forecaster
West End Neighborhood Association President Roseanne Graef said Congress Square needs a redesign and more attractions like the Small Axe food truck, as opposed to redevelopment as an events center for the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel seen in the background on July 10.

PORTLAND, Maine — Congress Street resident Mark Audette expressed ambivalence about his surroundings July 10 while enjoying a coffee and reading a newspaper in Congress Square.

“I’m torn,” he said. “I’m in favor of development, but I want to keep the park. It’s a respite.”

Audette’s statement summarizes what awaits city councilors in a 5:30 p.m. workshop Monday, July 21, at City Hall.

The meeting is described as a look at the “next step” after the June 10 passage of a referendum placing Congress Square and 34 other city-owned parcels under control of the city’s land bank commission.

Question 1, a citizen initiative to amend the land bank ordinance, passed by a vote of 4,892 to 4,605, with about 18 percent voter turnout. It cannot be amended for five years and requires an 8-1 council vote to sell any land bank parcel without voter consent in a referendum.

Its most immediate impact is to at least temporarily block the sale of about 9,500 square feet of Congress Square Park to Rockbridge Capital, owners of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The $524,000 sale was approved by a 6-3 council vote last September; the six affirmative votes are enough to advance the sale to a referendum, if that is what councilors decide to do.

Question 1 support was strongly peninsula-based: It carried Districts 1 and 2 with 61 percent of the vote but was rejected in the city’s remaining three districts.

Election spending approached $100,000. Former Mayor Jim Cohen was leading opposition to Question 1 and Rockbridge Capital and donated $20,000 of the $53,000 raised by opposition group Forward Portland. Protect Portland Parks raised $40,000 to support the referendum.

The split of opinion on Congress Square is so basic that protagonists choose sides whether to call it a “plaza” or a “park.” District 3 City Councilor Ed Suslovic calls it a “plaza” and continues to support selling about two-thirds of it to Rockbridge.

“It has been a failed public space for years, decades,” Suslovic said Monday. “What do we need to do to place the question straight up or down on the ballot?”

Councilor David Marshall, who opposed the sale along with Councilor Kevin Donoghue and former Councilor John Anton, said Congress Square is a park that should have been renovated long before it caught the attention of the new hotel owners.

“I think now we should go back to Plan A and do a landscape design in the park,” Marshall said July 11. “If we had just stuck with Plan A, we could have had this park fixed years ago.”

Rockbridge hopes to use the space to build an events center — something Suslovic and Audette welcome. Audette supported Question 1 because he worried the event center and other plans would mean the loss of parking spaces, but he still sees a benefit to the sale he considers inevitable.

“The event center would add to the city for the arts,” he said.

Hotel General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom said July 11 the company remains interested in buying the space and is also anxious to see what will happen in the council workshop.

“It is safe to say, ‘Sure, we still have interest in that,’ but we are still interested in talking to people,” Wennerstrom said. “We all want a win-win for everybody.”

As she finished her lunch July 10, city resident Lydia Swann said she opposes selling any of the park.

“Even if they kept it as is, it is better than selling,” she said.

Swann works on Congress Street and said she supported Question 1. She envisions a park redesign similar to Tommy’s Park on Middle Street, with more trees and less concrete.

“Public land is just so valuable, once you sell it, you can’t go back,” she said.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the workshop likely will involve members of the city parks and land bank commissions, as well as consideration whether a new council vote is needed for the Rockbridge sale.

West End Neighborhood Association President Rosanne Graef joined Frank Turek of the Friends of Congress Square Park and Alex Landry of the Bayside Neighborhood Association last week in urging councilors to reconvene the Congress Square Redesign Study Group that began meeting six years ago.

Graef and Marshall said the group progressed so well in ideas on the park’s future it was ready to see if councilors wanted to put out requests for proposals on park work. Graef said Monday the committee needs to begin meeting again before a referendum vote.

“I don’t think people will know what they are voting for without it,” she said. “How can you vote when you have no options? How can you make an informed decision?”

The Friends of Congress Square Park sought and exhibited concepts from local and global architects, and the group received unanimous feedback that some change is needed, including a redesign of the confluence of Congress, High and Free streets, according to Graef.

“Rip out the concrete and make a park,” Audette said. “Get trees you can sit under, not ones in planters.”

With an estimated 10,000 people living within 10 minutes of Congress Square, Graef said the street redesign is critical to needed access.

“When you cross High Street, it can be daunting. There is so much to attend to there,” she said.

Graef, Suslovic, Audette and Swann said there are problems with inebriation and other bad behavior in the park that also must be addressed.

“The most frustrating part of this park is dealing with the drunks,” Audette said.

Swann and Graef said the park sale is not the solution, but they say more park activities and a more constant police presence would help.

“Just because there are people we label undesirable doesn’t mean we get rid of the space they occupy,” Swann said.

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