November referendum rematch over Congress Square unlikely after Portland council workshop

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan speaks at a City Council workshop focused on the fate of Congress Square Monday evening flanked by Councilor Jill Duson.
Seth Koenig | BDN
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan speaks at a City Council workshop focused on the fate of Congress Square Monday evening flanked by Councilor Jill Duson. Buy Photo
Posted July 21, 2014, at 8:46 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A second citywide vote on whether Portland should sell two-thirds of its Congress Square to private hotel developers is unlikely to take place in November.

Facing the prospect of keeping up with an aggressive timeline in order to put the controversial sale before city voters, members of the Portland City Council on Monday night suggested they would rather slow down and let a city task force continue its previous work redesigning the embattled public space.

In order to put the Congress Square sale on the Election Day ballot, under new rules put in place by a June 10 referendum, the council would need to refer the deal to the city’s land bank commission at its Aug. 4 meeting, with hopes that the commission would endorse the transaction in time for the council to vote on it again in early September.

In a workshop setting Monday night, the council could not vote nor make any official decisions about the square’s fate. But after nearly 90 minutes of informal discussion about what the council should do next, Mayor Michael Brennan said, “I didn’t hear anybody tonight say they wanted to start that process in August.”

“Which means we don’t go to a referendum in November,” pointed out Councilor David Marshall, an opponent of the property sale.

“That’s correct,” responded Brennan.

But while the council all but shut the door on a sequel to the divisive spring campaign over Congress Square leading into the June 10 referendum, the panel did not stop all talk of the public space’s future.

Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director, described a number of options for how Portland can redesign Congress Square moving forward.

Those options included one several councilors called an “intriguing” hybrid of the council’s previous hope to sell the space with opponents’ hope to preserve the public park there.

Levine said the city could allow the construction of an event center on Congress Square, as prospective buyer RockBridge Capital LLC wants to do, but build a public park on the one-story structure’s roof.

He said the end result could be similar to New York City’s Lincoln Center rooftop lawn, and early estimates are that construction of such a project would cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million — a price tag approximately within the range of what it would cost to renovate the full 14,300-square-foot park space there without the event center.

Nathan Smith, an attorney representing the developers, told the council Monday night his clients would be open to such a hybrid project, as long as the city paid its fair share of the costs.

But while several councilors found the idea of a rooftop park interesting, many also expressed skepticism over whether the price estimates were realistic or a deal with RockBridge over shared costs and responsibilities could be reached.

“If you don’t end up completing the business deal, then you’ve spent that much more design money and you still don’t have a park,” said Councilor Kevin Donoghue.

The City Council’s Monday night workshop represented the first significant activity by councilors on the subject of Congress Square since a June 10 referendum that effectively put a sale of the public space on ice.

By a narrow margin of less than 300 votes — out of nearly 9,500 counted — Portland residents passed an overhaul of the city’s land bank commission ordinance that would force a second citywide vote to ratify the sale of Congress Square, assuming the city and its buyers still want to try and consummate the deal at some point.

The ordinance change, put on the June ballot by opponents of the sale through the citizens’ initiative petitioning process, also requires any such sale to get land bank commission approval.

Combined with ordinance changes made by the council itself last spring, the newly revised land bank ordinance additionally demands that at least seven councilors approve any deal before it could go out to a citywide vote.

The City Council voted only 6-3 last September to sell about 9,500 square feet of the 14,300-square-foot Congress Square for nearly $524,000 to RockBridge Capital, the private firm behind the nearly $50 million renovation of the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel.

RockBridge officials had hoped to use the Congress Square space for an expanded event center for the renamed Westin Portland Harborview.

Members of the citizens’ group Protect Portland Parks have called for the city to revive a Congress Square redesign committee with a goal toward developing it as a more attractive public space, and avoid a second divisive vote over whether the property should be sold.

Based on the councilors’ comments at Monday night’s workshop, the group appeared to get its wish.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman scolded Brennan — and by extension, Levine — for drawing up Congress Square redesign options for the council without first allowing the redesign committee to review them.

“I’m feeling a little uncomfortable that staff has prepared these options, really, with no feedback from the group that we authorized to do this work,” she said. “The cost figures and all these options should go through the study group. Maybe they don’t agree with any of these. … I just don’t want whoever is responsible to pre-empt the process. I think it’s stepping out way ahead of where we are in the process.”

Councilor Jill Duson said she wants the Congress Square redesign task force to go back to work on the issue and for a timeline to be set for a new plan for the public space.

“I don’t want it to take another year or 18 months,” she said.

 

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