PORTLAND, Maine — The expanded, and maybe even reinvigorated, Congress Square Redesign Study Group is back at work on a project that has vexed the city for at least six years.
“I feel confident we are on a good track,” Parkside Neighborhood Association President Frank Turek said Aug. 20, after the group reconvened for a City Hall meeting.
Bree LaCasse of the Friends of Congress Square Park and City Councilor Jon Hinck joined the panel after the City Council expanded the group Aug. 4.
Councilors also approved a more specific charge for the group, seeking its input by Nov. 17 on potential uses of the 14,000-square-foot park, including developing it or creating a new park on top of an event center the owners of the neighboring Westin Portland Harborview hotel would like to build.
The rooftop concept was suggested by Jeff Levine, head of the city Planning & Urban Development Department, during a July 21 workshop, although Councilors Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall said Aug. 20 there is no hurry to get into any plan specifics.
Donoghue said the group’s initial focus will be to reconsider ideas from a park redesign visioning session from about a year ago.
Turek, an initial critic of the Aug. 4 council order, now said the “narrow charge is good for the focus.” He said he hopes the group can build on what he said was a successful summer of park activities, including concerts and public viewings of televised World Cup soccer games.
The study group brings together 17 members, including heads of the West End, Parkside and Bayside neighborhood associations; Westin General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom; Jack Lufkin of the Portland Development Corp., and Kristen Levesque or Mark Bessire of the Portland Museum of Art.
The study group was first convened in 2008. Marshall recalled its work had progressed almost enough to forward recommendations to the City Council on how to improve the area. He said the sale of the former Eastland hotel in 2011 and ensuing hotel renovations stalled the redesign process.
City officials were then approached by the hotel owners, RockBridge Capital, about selling about two-thirds of Congress Square so the hotel could add an events center. In September 2013, the council voted 6-3 to sell the parcel for $524,000.
Donoghue, Marshall and former Councilor John Anton opposed the sale. A protracted court fight waged by opponents was not resolved until May, when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled the city had to hold a referendum on Land Bank ordinance amendments designed to block the sale.
Bolstered by strong support on the peninsula, the referendum was approved June 10, by a vote of 4,892 to 4,605.
Wennerstrom has said the hotel is amenable to a park being built on top of the events center, as long as it is built at city expense.
On July 21, Levine said preliminary estimates for any type of park redesign ranged from $2 million to $2.5 million.
The study group will also be looking beyond the park to consider alterations to the intersection of High, Congress and Free streets to enhance accessibility and pedestrian safety.
The group will next meet from 4-6 p.m. Sept. 17 in City Hall Room 24.