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Congress Square 'visioning' looks beyond plaza

Up until now, a controversial proposal for the city to sell part of Congress Square Plaza to developers of the former Eastland Park Hotel for construction of an events center has provoked sharply divided opinions from the public.
Now, the city is promoting a parallel and broader discussion about all of Congress Square, spurring a diverse batch of comments regarding this larger piece of Portland.
Congress Square "includes the intersection of High and Congress streets, Congress Square Plaza, the public spaces in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the H. H. Hay building, and surrounding sidewalks and traffic islands," a city press release explained. "The goal of this process is to create a shared vision for Congress Square as an urban open space."
So far, a city-dedicated website, www.neighborland.com/congresssq, has compiled a variety of comments. Sixteen neighbors "want space for performances in Congress Square," according to the website, as of Monday. Thirteen want a "green space with a performance area for music/art." Seven want benches and tables. Four want to "let the Eastland build a ballroom in Congress Square."
According to the city, the Portland Planning Division will be collecting community input in a variety of ways throughout the month, asking the public to propose or vote for an idea on www.neighborland.com/congresssq; participate in one of a series of public "visioning meetings" to be held in August and September (information, the press release stated, will be provided on the City Planning webpage at http://www.ci.portland.me.us); complete an online survey found at www.portlandmaine.gov/planning; write an idea on one of the public signs around the square or in City Hall; or use Twitter to tweet ideas using the hashtag, "I want ... #CongressSquare".
This broader planning effort will take a sweeping view and not just focus on Congress Square Plaza, Portland Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said.
"We're going to gather as much useful data as we can from this process, and our focus is on the square as a whole and not necessarily on whether the sale should go forward," he said.
Two high-profile speakers who came to Portland in June to speak on the subject of Congress Square helped spur the city into launching its "visioning process," Levine said.
Ethan Kent, vice president of Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization based in New York City, 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.
Henry N. Cobb, architect of the Charles Shipman Payson Building at the Portland Museum of Art, discussed Portland's streets and squares in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Payson Building, as the 2013 Bernard A. Osher Lecturer.
"Between the two of them we kind of coalesced around the idea that we should look at the whole intersection," Levine said Monday.
"Cobb pointed out that you can't think about the plaza by itself, so that spurred our thinking that we need to get moving in looking at the whole intersection," he added.
Planning the redevelopment of Congress Square will involve several interrelated issues, such as whether to make High and State streets two-way streets, Levine said. Likewise, redevelopment will gain more clarity once the city determines the fate of the plaza — the city's term for the space near the hotel also called a "park" largely by opponents of the events center.
"It will be hard to go too far forward with conceptual redesigns without knowing what will happen at Congress Square Plaza," Levine acknowledged.
Levine said review of the potential sale and the "visioning" are "separate processes."
"We're looking at doing this initial visioning process again over the next couple of months, and it would move into a followup phase," he said.
Meanwhile, the city of Portland remains in negotiations with the owners of the former Eastland Park Hotel that could lead to the sale of two-thirds of Congress Square Park.
This spring, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 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 plaza for the hotel to add an events center. 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, leaving a 4,836-square-foot public plaza.
The Housing and Community Development Committee has met in legally closed "executive session" regarding the possible sale, city councilors confirmed.
The committee's July 24 meeting, although it was cancelled, included time for executive session deliberation to "discuss negotiations regarding the possible sale of a portion of Congress Square Park and provide guidance to staff." Next scheduled meeting of the committee is Wednesday, Aug. 14, at 5:30 p.m. at Portland City Hall.
A Congress Square Re-Design Initiative Task Force split 6-6 vote on the subject of whether to endorse the sale proposal.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue, District 1, who cast the sole vote against the proposal on the Housing and Community Development Committee, said "there probably will be" a recommendation to sell the plaza parcel, based on his knowledge of the issue. "I think it's likely, under what terms remains to be determined," he said.
"The planning process in the public realm would go forward even in the event of a sale," Donoghue added, noting that the "visioning process" for Congress Square may help spur "a more open discussion."
Donoghue said, "It certainly can't live independently of the controversy over the plaza itself."
David Marshall, District 2 councilor and fellow co-chair with Donoghue of the task force, said a broader look at the entire intersection is a good idea.
"This is really trying to expand the dialogue beyond just the park so that way, regardless of the decision regarding the park, there is a growing consensus that we need to do something with the intersection," Marshall said.
"I've always felt that the entire intersection needs to be revisited," he said.
"My expectation is that the dialogue should go beyond just the park. That's really where my interest is. We've already had the task force to vote on the park itself; the committee voted on the park itself; and the council will vote on the park itself in the next few months," Marshall said.
Donoghue said he expected a "public vote with public comment" at the Housing and Community Development Committee "once tentative terms are reached between the committee and Rockbridge."

 

A sampling of opinions about Congress Square

Three neighbors want a small park at street level and a new event center that brings more business to my neighborhood in Congress Square in Portland; three neighbors want a place where people can drink and sleep outdoors without being harassed by cops in Congress Square in Portland; four neighbors want to let the Eastland build a ballroom in Congress Square in Portland; four neighbors want some kind of beautiful green space with trees and flowers in Congress Square in Portland; four neighbors want public botanical gardens in Congress Square in Portland; five neighbors want a food forest with berry bushes and nut trees; free concerts; public assemblies; in Congress Square in Portland; seven neighbors want more benches and tables in Congress Square in Portland; 13 neighbors want a green space with a performance area for music/art in Congress Square in Portland; 16 neighbors want space for performances in Congress Square in Portland.
(SOURCE: https://neighborland.com/congresssq)

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