Burlesque performers, occupiers protest possible sale of Portland park

Posted Sept. 07, 2013, at 9:10 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 07, 2013, at 10:31 a.m.

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PORTLAND, Maine — Tension over whether a large section of Portland’s Congress Square Park should be sold to private developers escalated late Friday night, as burlesque performers and members of the occupy movement demonstrated at the site, attracting police warnings.

The occupiers intended to stay in tents at the park until the city council takes up the matter on Monday night. But a personal visit from Portland police Chief Michael Sauschuck convinced them to leave around 11 p.m. All parks in Portland close at 10 p.m.

“I came out here to help support the occupation of Congress Square,” said city council write-in candidate Matthew Coffey, to cheers from the crowd Friday night. “Do not take our public spaces. They are for the public, that’s why they’re called public spaces.”

The burlesque demonstration, organized by burlesque dancer and Portland Board of Education member Holly Seeliger, coincided with the city’s popular First Friday Art Walk. It came just three days before the City Council’s Monday night vote on whether or not to approve the controversial Congress Square sale.

Seeliger said she wanted to draw attention to the large stage in the park, which used to host music and dance performances as well as free movies. Seeliger performed two dance routines, one dressed as Hamlet.

“I wanted to talk about what it meant to be, or not to be, Congress Square Park,” she said, holding a fake skull.

The provocative protest also took place just hours after a citizens’ group, Friends of Congress Square Park, announced they had submitted a petition to City Hall aiming to change Portland’s Land Bank Commission ordinance to add urban plazas like Congress Square to the wooded parks and trails previously protected from development.

“Our public parks and open spaces belong to the people of the city, and it is the people of the city who should get to decide their fate,” said Friends of Congress Square Park President Frank Turek in a statement. “Our [petition] will provide an ordinance amendment that would require a citywide vote before parks could be sold.”

In the case of Congress Square, RockBridge Capital LLC has agreed to pay nearly $524,000 for a 9,500-square-foot section of the square. RockBridge is partnering with New Castle Hotels on a $40 million-plus renovation of the adjacent former Eastland Park Hotel.

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

Proponents of the deal, which include the Portland Community Chamber and the city-formed nonprofit Creative Portland, have argued the new development activity will revitalize a long-neglected site that has become a hangout for drug users.

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.

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 more 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.