November 18, 2018
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Portland council orders group to study possibility of rooftop park over Congress Square event center

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday revived a study group charged with plotting the future of the embattled Congress Square and ordered the panel to consider the possibility of a rooftop park over an event center there.

That project was discussed by councilors during a workshop last month as a “hybrid” concession between private developers’ plans to build a one-story event center at the site and opponents’ plans to preserve the 14,300-square-foot space as a public park.

The reboot of the Congress Square Redesign Study Group comes as an alternative to pushing for an immediate sale of the public property.

The council could have pursued a citywide vote in November on whether to consummate a nearly $524,000 sale of most of the square to hotel investors RockBridge Capital LLC, the group that spent $50 million renovating the nearby former Eastland Park Hotel and wanted to extend its private hotel event space into Congress Square.

But during a workshop two weeks ago, councilors suggested they did not want to follow the aggressive timeline necessary to place the sale question on the November ballot. That timeline would have forced the council to refer the issue first to the city’s land bank commission no later than Monday night, which came and went without such a referral.

A citywide vote to ratify the council’s nearly 11-month-old decision to sell the public space is needed because of the June 10 passage of a referendum overhauling the city’s land bank commission ordinance to make it more difficult to sell such spaces.

The ordinance changes, which narrowly were approved by 51 percent of the Portlanders who voted, initially were proposed by opponents of the Congress Square sale.

As part of its actions Monday night, the council added two new members to the Congress Square Redesign Study Group and, in addition to the event center with a rooftop park, ordered it to evaluate the possibility of upgrading and maintaining the square as public space without any event center.

The order also asks the study group to consider possible changes to the busy intersection of Congress and High streets, which abuts the square, expanding the scope of the group’s work to include the nearby roadways.

In addition to the study group’s 15-member roster, which includes representatives from the West End, Parkside and Bayside neighborhood associations, the neighboring Portland Museum of Art and Greater Portland Landmarks, among other organizations, the panel now will also include city councilor Jon Hinck and a member of the citizens’ group Friends of Congress Square Park.

But the Friends group, which, along with Protect Portland Parks, spearheaded the land bank ordinance overhaul effort, announced Monday it was concerned about the council order’s Nov. 17 deadline to return to the City Council with recommendations about the future of the square.

Protect Portland Parks added it was not happy about the charge to consider the rooftop park idea, which city officials previously estimated would cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, or about the same amount as renovating the public space without an event center there.

Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director, told city councilors last month the rooftop park could be something similar to New York City’s high-profile Lincoln Center rooftop lawn, but that plan still would necessitate a sale or lease deal with RockBridge — a step opponents remain adamantly against.

“[I]t’s disrespectful to the voters that [Mayor Michael Brennan] is instructing the redesign committee to continue to consider a so-called events center for the Westin, only now with an elevated green roof disguised as a park,” David LaCasse, a Protect Portland Parks board member, said in a statement. “The members of [the study group] are highly capable and don’t need designs being forced on them yet again. That’s what prompted a divisive referendum in the first place.”

Friends of Congress Square Park member Frank Turek called the council’s insistence on a rooftop park review “unnecessary” and “an attempt to micromanage” the study group’s work.

“Some may say it’s too prescriptive, but I don’t think it is,” City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones countered. “I hope the committee will be able to come back to us with pros and cons and estimated budget numbers so the council will be able to consider the options.”

City Councilor Jill Duson, one of the order’s cosponsors, said she didn’t intend to apply limits to the work of the study group by listing the two possibilities to be reviewed.

“It’s a minimum, not a maximum,” she said. “My goal was to secure advice on at least these two options and as many others as the committee wants to take on.”

The study group, which will be co-chaired by city councilors Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall, will next convene Aug. 20. The council issued its updated order for the study group by a 7-0 vote, with councilors Donoghue and Cheryl Leeman absent.

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