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Planning official: Congress Square 'an opportunity that needs to be seized'

Events centers, like the one proposed at Congress Square Park, offer limited benefits to cities, said a speaker on public spaces who came to Portland on behalf of opponents of the controversial events center plan.6-18-congress-square-main
Ethan Kent, vice president of Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization based in New York City, endorsed a more broad-based approach to restoring the square located at the intersection of Congress and High streets.
"Event spaces, they have a predictable set of outcomes but a limited one, and building your city around places for people that build and strengthen the identity of that city is really what is shaping the future of cities," said Kent, during an interview in the square Monday.
Project for Public Spaces was brought to Portland by Friends of Congress Square for a meeting at the Portland Museum of Art and a public presentation at the Meg Perry Center.
The city plans to negotiate with the owners of the former Eastland Park Hotel as a prelude to the possible sale of two-thirds of Congress Square Park to the hotel developer for the hotel to add an events center.
The City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 in late May to authorize city staff to begin negotiations with RockBridge Capital — the owners of the former Eastland — about the possible sale of a portion of the park.
RockBridge Capital — the firm that bought the Eastland Park and is converting it into the Westin Portland Harbor View — has presented the city with plans for a proposed 9,400-square-foot building which leaves a 4,836-square-foot public plaza. Previously, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group met to make a recommendation on RockBridge's proposal but wound up deadlocked on the future of the park.
If agreement is reached between the city and the developer, the proposed sale will go back before the HCDC and City Council for approval.
The events center plan has spurred a furious response from opponents, who say the city should consider other options for restoration of Congress Square Park.
Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group that is active across the country and world, advocates placemaking, "a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces."
The meeting at the Portland Museum of Art about Congress Square Park generated a lively discussion.
Ultimately, how the issue is framed makes a difference in the tenor of discussion, Kent said. An either/or proposition tends to divide people, while open-ended conversation tends to cultivate agreement among stakeholders, he said.
"If you frame the question about how do you create a great place here, (stakeholders) all have very important things to offer and they all see things in a complementary way. If you frame it around, do you want this plan or that, you get a really divisive answer, you get a race to the bottom," Kent said.
In Portland, officials have "been asking the wrong question," he said.
"The question has to be how do we create a great public destination, how does everyone help make that work?" he said.
"A space like this has the potential to be an anchor to the economic success of Portland. It's an opportunity that needs to be seized," Kent said.
Critics of the current uses of Congress Square Park point to a perception that it's overrun with homeless people and panhandlers, which they say drive away other members of the public.
Kent said management, not just design, of the square can determine its success as a public space.
Fundamental design issues hinder the square, he said, but "just coming up with a new design for this space, big or small, isn't really going to change the patterns of use or experience here. It has to be a very different process, and one of the outcomes has to be a different type of management entity for this space."
Creation of great public squares "drives economic development and vitality," Kent said.
"The key is how does it move from just challenging something to a process of how do we articulate what we want and then start to make some small-scale (steps) toward that," he said.
"If any one use or user group dominates a space, it's a form of privatization. So it is a problem, this is not a very highly performing public space just because of the perception of how people use it, and the perception that some groups dominate the space. But we've found in countless examples, the best way to deal with that problem is to make the space attractive to everyone else," Kent said.
Developers can add value to the space but also benefit from it, Kent said.
"I wouldn't rule out some kind of development in the space as a commercial activity in the space. I think the hotel could make more money and benefit more from a different type of use," he added.
Former state legislator Herb Adams, who lives in the neighborhood and supports the Friends group, said a redesign of the square based on a public request for proposals should resume.
"You have one of the busiest intersections in all of Southern Maine, and it's going up, at the moment, for a private no-bid sale in behind closed-door deals with one out-of-state firm. The whole process has worked in the wrong direction. Our attempts have been to see the bigger picture and put it back to a broader appeal and a broader direction," Adams said.
Adams said a sale of a portion of the square points to a failure of city leadership.
"If you've given up on your future, than you sell your assets," he said.
A solicitation of design proposals was moving forward "until all of the sudden the RockBridge investment associates claim that someone from the city of Portland offered to sell them this public park," Adams said. "All of the discussion took a detour after that. Who that person was and if they were authorized to make such an offer and if that's exactly what took place is all still a mystery."
Kent said the city could benefit from the placemaking model, which "is a different approach to leading" where "elected leaders are facilitators rather than decision makers with all the answers."
"The politicians could leverage this opportunity to create momentum around creating a great place," he said.
"A space like this has the potential to be an anchor to the economic success of Portland. It's an opportunity that needs to be seized," Kent said.
Project for Public Spaces, according to its website (www.pps.org), is "dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities."
The group helped Brunswick develop a Downtown Vision in 2010; and other success stories cited include Bryant Park in New York City, where a management plan helped revitalize the space; and Harvard Square, where the city of Cambridge, in cooperation with Harvard University and the Harvard Square Business Association, worked on recommendations for the public open space in the center of Harvard Square.
"We've worked in every corner of New England," Kent said.
Congress Square Park could become another success story, but Kent said the public space, a hub of activity in Portland, is unique.
Kent said, "If they miss it here, there isn't another place to do it."

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