Portland plaza turns into flash point

September 17, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The debate over Congress Square's underused park seems to go beyond the fight on open space to issues of rich vs. poor and corporate intrusion.

PORTLAND - When the City Council meets Monday to decide whether to sell a section of Congress Square Plaza to an out-of-state developer, many observers will see more at stake than the plaza's fate.

The space at Congress and High streets, which started out holding a wooden row house, has undergone many changes over the years. Walgreen’s replaced the row house, and Dunkin’ Donuts moved in later. In the 1980s, the space was converted into a plaza.

Evening Express and Press Herald file photos


Those with opposing views see the deal for the nearly half-acre concrete plaza at Congress and High streets as either a symbol of all that's wrong in the world or an opportunity to bolster Portland's economy.

The debate is about gentrification -- sweeping homeless people (or people who appear homeless) out of view to make way for a shiny building and affluent people.

It's about preserving a public space for civic discourse and maintaining Portland's history of creating and valuing open spaces.

It's about economic development, turning a liability into a tax-producing asset that provides jobs.

For the more radical factions, like the handful of remaining Occupy Maine members, it's about corporate welfare and corporate domination of working men and women. It's about backroom deals, perceived corrupt politicians and even the subversion of democracy.

All of that has led to shouting matches, public demonstrations and an attempt to start a petition drive.

But it all begs the question: What is really going on?

"I just can't seem to get my arms around it," said Cheryl Leeman, one of two city councilors who say they are undecided on the deal. "Something has gone amok."

The other undecided councilor, Jill Duson, who is up for re-election in November, did not return a call for comment.


The council is expected to vote Monday on whether to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital. The developer wants to build a single-story event center there as an addition to the former Eastland Park Hotel, which it is renovating. The deal would leave 4,800 square feet for a new public plaza.

The dispute appears to be centered on process -- too much process for supporters of the sale, not enough for opponents, and not the right kind of process for independent observers.

For years, the city has been studying ways to fix what most agree is a failed, underused public space.

Rockbridge Capital ran into opposition last year when it presented a plan to develop the entire plaza. It returned this spring with a scaled-down proposal.

Bruce Wennerstrom, who has been representing the developer in its negotiations with the city, says he has held meetings with about 30 residents, neighborhood groups and professional associations.

"In my opinion, it has been a very thorough and complete process, giving everyone a chance to weigh in," said Wennerstrom, who will manage the renovated hotel when it reopens in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. "Now it's time to vote and move on."

Opponents, however, criticize a series of closed-door meetings between the developer and the council's Housing and Community Development Committee to negotiate the sale. When an agreement was reached, the committee quickly recommended passage to the council. The agreement sets an aggressive timeline for the project to move forward.

Frank Turek, president of the Friends of Congress Square Park, a nonprofit group that opposes the sale, says a community-led process that concluded the downtown space should be redesigned entirely was usurped.

The city was prepared to spend $50,000 to redesign the plaza, but withheld the call for proposals when Rockbridge Capital bought the adjacent hotel. City officials have acknowledged that they approached the company to ask whether it was interested in developing the space.

"With Congress Square Park, there has never been any indication that the city had a desire to be rid of the property," Turek said. "It was never anyone's intention to sell the park until Rockbridge came on the scene."

Turek says the sale will set a precedent for selling other public spaces in favor of development.


Jack Kartez, a professor of community planning and development at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service, said it's important to have the right type of process -- one that genuinely engages all stakeholders, whether they're developers, residents or business owners.

"There's a very complex constituency downtown," Kartez said.

In addition to merchants and students downtown, there are many people who rely on public assistance and spend their time on the street.

Many elderly and disabled people who live in the Congress Square Plaza apartment complex have testified that the plaza is one of the few places they can congregate.

According to the 2010 census and the 2011 American Communities Survey, nearly 8,400 residents live in neighborhoods -- Parkside, West Bayside, the downtown and the West End -- around Congress Square.

An average of about 4,000 vehicles a day passed through the intersection of Congress and High streets in 2010, according to data from the Maine Department of Transportation.

Mayor Michael Brennan has said the intersection is a gateway to the city that can shape people's opinions of Portland as a whole.

Ethan Kent, a representative with the national Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit that helps communities create dynamic public spaces, visited Portland in June at the request of the Friends of Congress Square Park.

Kent, a graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said in an interview that the proposal to sell and develop the plaza has become a flash point because the process began with a specific development proposal, rather than a broad community vision for that corner.

"The current discussion is unfortunately rather divisive -- you're either for it or against it. You can only react to it," Kent said in June.

Charles Colgan, chairman of the Community Planning and Development Department at the Muskie School of Public Service, said open space takes on a greater significance on Portland's peninsula, which is heavily developed.

Also, many Mainers have a "longstanding suspicion" of out-of-state companies -- let alone a multinational corporation like Rockbridge Capital -- coming in and proposing major changes, Colgan said.

"When you combine the normal issues of contested public space with suspicions of out-of-state developers, you get a pretty volatile mixture," he said.


The first building to occupy what is now the plaza was a wooden row house constructed in the mid-19th century, said State Historian Earl Shettleworth. In the 1940s, the wooden row houses were torn down and a Walgreen's was built. In 1971, Dunkin' Donuts took over a portion of the space. It quickly became popular with prostitutes and vagrants.

Several years later, the City Council expressed a desire to clean up the area. The council eventually seized the former Dunkin' Donuts building through eminent domain and razed it. In the early 1980s, the city secured a $7.3 million federal grant to convert the former building site into a plaza.

The city worked with community partners to hold events in the park and provided annual funding, but the events never became self-funding, and by 2002 no funds were allocated to a group that coordinated the events.

In 2008, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group was created. It recommended redesigning the park and keeping it as an open space, before the Rockbridge proposal surfaced.


Portland, which has a strong Buy Local program, has a penchant for shunning corporations downtown.

When a Hooters restaurant and bar was proposed on Congress Street in 2008, the city nearly passed a hotly debated ordinance that would have banned chain businesses from the downtown.

"You've got some people who just want to stick it to 'the man,'" said Chris O'Neil, who represents the Portland Community Chamber, which supports the sale and redevelopment of Congress Square Plaza. "It's taken on the trappings of a panic, a mob or a frenzy."

David Wagner, a professor of social work at USM who opposes the sale, said the issue has become a battle between rich and poor members of society.

He said Congress Square is symbolic of what he sees as the city's effort to sweep people "who are not aesthetically pleasing" out of the commercial center.

Then there is the "ludicrousness" of the proposed sale price -- nearly $524,000 -- to a corporation that can afford to pay much more, he said.

"For a number of groups, it has hit a nerve," said Wagner.

If the council agrees to the sale, the debate is expected to rage on.

The Friends of Congress Square Park hoped to collect signatures for a referendum that would ask voters to make it harder to sell and develop 35 public open spaces, including Congress Square.

On Friday, the city attorney rejected that effort, saying citizens cannot initiate a referendum over fiscal matters, including the sale of real estate.

The Friends of Congress Square Park are considering challenging that decision in court.

To view additional media materials via original article: http://www.pressherald.com/news/plaza-turns-into-flash-point_2013-09-16.html?pagenum=3

Disputed Portland plaza sale approved by council

September 17, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

Foes threaten to sue after the 6-3 vote to allow an event center and a smaller public space on the downtown site.

PORTLAND – Despite loud protests and an arrest, the City Council voted 6-3 on Monday night to sell Congress Square Plaza to Rockbridge Capital, the Ohio-based investment firm that hopes to build a single-story event center on the site at an estimated cost of $3.5 million.

Portland City Councilor John Anton raises his hands in exasperation while discussing the proposed sale of Congress Square Plaza to an Ohio investment firm during the city council meeting Monday, Sept. 16, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

Silent protestors kneel in front of the Portland City Council as they vote to approve the sale of Congress Square Plaza to an Ohio investment firm on Monday, September 16, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

However, the nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park said after the meeting that it will take the city to court in an effort to save the half-acre concrete plaza at High and Congress streets.

Councilor Jill Duson, who was one of two undecided councilors going into the meeting, said she supported the sale because it is a unique situation that would benefit businesses in the area.

Under the purchase-and-sale agreement approved by the council, Rockbridge Capital will pay $524,000 for two-thirds of the plaza, leaving 4,800 square feet for a new, smaller public space.

The 5,000-square-foot event center, expected to draw 300 to 500 people per event, will be built in a 9,500-square-foot addition to the former Eastland Park Hotel. Rockbridge Capital is expected to reopen the hotel in December, after a nearly $50 million renovation, as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

According to a memo to the council, the event center is projected to generate $67,950 a year in additional property taxes and create 25 new jobs -- banquet staff, valets, front desk staff, bell staff and engineers.

"I am a 'yes' on this item. I think it will result in a usable and inviting space for the people who live in the neighborhood," said Duson, who acknowledged faults in the sale terms. "I think it's a little stingy. ... I wish it was more money."

Councilors John Anton, Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall voted against the sale.

Anton and Donoghue argued that the city should demand a better development proposal for one of Portland's most prominent intersections.

"I wish we'd aim higher," Anton said.

The vote followed an impassioned debate that divided the community and played out last week as councilors heard more than three hours of testimony, mostly opposing the sale.

No public comment was taken Monday night, but both sides showed up in numbers.

More than a dozen protesters, carrying signs and banners and beating drums, rallied in Congress Square Plaza and then marched down Congress Street to City Hall, blocking one lane of traffic.

Supporters of the sale, wearing "Yes on Congress Square" stickers, arrived at City Hall early to get their seats and sat quietly as the noisy protest continued on the steps of the building.

Once the meeting got under way, Erika Elkins, 63, began shouting from the crowd and did not heed Mayor Michael Brennan's request to be seated and quiet. After about 10 minutes, she was arrested by two plainclothes officers on a charge of criminal trespass, said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.

Other protesters were quiet but made their presence known. Two put tape over their mouths during deliberations, then turned their backs to the council and kneeled on the floor. They were joined by someone dressed like a ninja, wearing a dark mask, sunglasses and gloves.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who went into the meeting undecided, was moved to support the sale after several changes were made to the agreement, including making Rockbridge Capital pay for the relocation of the Union Station Clock from the plaza.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the council's Housing and Community Development Committee, which negotiated the agreement, argued against the amendment because there was no cost estimate or plan to relocate the clock.

"Yet you agreed to have the city pay those costs and approved it in the purchase-and-sale agreement," Leeman shot back. "I felt it was important to put the onus on Rockbridge because it's their building that's displacing the clock."

The event center, which needs approval from the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Board, would include a pre-event area with glass walls facing Congress Street that would also be used as an art gallery.

Under the purchase-and-sale agreement, the hotel must operate an event center in the hotel's addition for at least 10 years, and hold at least six public art shows a year in the space. The hotel, however, retains final decision-making authority and could cancel those events.

Hotel Manager Bruce Wennerstrom, who has represented Rockbridge Capital during the negotiations with the city, said the developer would like to get the foundation built by this winter.

The purchase-and-sale agreement would allow Rockbridge Capital to back out of the sale if approvals are not received before Feb. 15.

The agreement would allow the city to withdraw the sale if approvals are not granted by June 1.

The nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park, which sought to prevent the plaza sale through a referendum, was thwarted last week by the city attorney, who said citizens cannot petition the council on fiscal matters, such as selling city property.

On Monday night, the group put out a news release saying it will challenge the city's ruling in court.

"Tonight's vote is an offensive move on the (city of) Portland's park system," Frank Turek, the group's president, said in a written statement. "The city is forcing our hand. If we continue our work to protect Portland's parks, our only choice is to take this to court."

After the council's vote, some protesters voiced their displeasure, using the proponents' argument that the event center is needed to fix a failed public space.

"City Hall is a failed public space," said one protester as he walked out of the council chamber. "We should sell that too."

Department store fills void at Maine Mall

September 9, 2013 in Articles

Author: Jessica Hall
Publication: Portland Press Herald

Amid challenging times for regional malls comes a rare achievement in South Portland – no vacancies.

SOUTH PORTLAND — Retailers hope the arrival this week of Bon-Ton Stores Inc. as an anchor tenant at the Maine Mall will increase foot traffic and sales at the shopping center, but sluggish retail sales nationally and competition from online shopping sites are likely to keep diverting customer spending from traditional department stores.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Bon-Ton is set to open Thursday at the Maine Mall, filling the site of the former Filene’s. The store sells a mix of high- and moderate-priced products and will employ about 170 people.

Those stores are banking on cosmetic changes in the stores and features such as customer service and high-end brands to bring in shoppers, especially in time for the peak holiday shopping season.

The arrival of the York, Pa.-based chain puts the Maine Mall, which has more than 1 million square feet of retail space, at 100 percent capacity, which is unusual for regional malls. Nationally, the vacancy rate at malls hovered at 8.6 percent in the fourth quarter last year, according to real estate research firm Reis Inc. That compares with an 11-year high of 9.4 percent in the third quarter of 2011 and a low of 4.9 percent in the second quarter of 2001.

Nationally, the outlook for retail sales has been lackluster. Retail sales in August were weak for the usually lucrative back-to-school season, the second-biggest shopping period of the year behind the winter holidays.

For the nine U.S. retail chains that reported August sales for stores open more than a year, sales rose 2.9 percent, falling short of Wall Street expectations.

Karen Pelletier of Portland said she knew Bon-Ton was opening soon because she had seen advertisements on city buses around town, but said she didn’t plan to make a point of stopping by to check out the new store.

“I try shopping online mostly. I don’t window-shop,” Pelletier said. “Sometimes you want to touch and feel something, so it’s good to come in person. But I often use technology to find a cheaper price.”

The growth in retail sales in South Portland, where the Maine Mall is located, has outpaced sales growth for the state as a whole, said James McConnon, a professor of economics at the University of Maine.

In 2012, South Portland consumer sales rose 4.5 percent from 2011, while general merchandise sales rose 4 percent. That surpassed statewide growth of 3.3 percent in consumer sales and 2 percent in general merchandise sales, McConnon said.

In the first six months of 2013, both consumer and general merchandise sales in South Portland rose 4.8 percent versus the same period a year earlier. That compared with the state growth of 2.7 percent in consumer sales and 1.5 percent in general merchandise sales in the same period, McConnon said.

“South Portland has been performing very well as a retail community. That Bon-Ton wants to be part of this indicates that they think they can generate sales,” McConnon said.

Bon-Ton is set to open Thursday, filling the site vacated by Filene’s in 2006. It will join Macy’s, Sears and J.C. Penney as the mall’s anchor tenants.

“We’re always looking for opportunities, and the Maine Mall itself was a draw. To have a mall with 100 percent occupancy is pretty rare these days,” said Alton Walker, vice president and regional store director for Bon-Ton.

Walker admits the store has yet to carve out an identity in the state. The Maine Mall location is its first in Maine and the name and brand are still unknown here.

“People don’t know what a Bon-Ton is. I’ve heard everything from candy store to Chinese restaurant,” Walker said.

Marybeth Ford of Brunswick had a typical reaction to the news that Bon-Ton was opening. She said she’s not a frequent mall shopper.

“I don’t come often. I didn’t even know Filene’s was gone,” Ford said. “I’m not a big consumer.”

The store has high expectations to meet. The Maine store’s opening follows a lower-than-expected earnings report and trimmed financial guidance by the parent company on Aug. 22. That prompted Zacks Investment Research to downgrade Bon-Ton’s stock to “strong sell.”

Other new arrivals at the Maine Mall include The Paper Store, as well as food establishments such as Qdoba and Charlie’s Grilled Subs. A Clarks shoes and accessories store also recently opened. Home goods store Pier 1 Imports is scheduled to open in mid-October. Pier 1, which had previously been in Portland until 2005, already has a location in Augusta.

The area around the mall has also seen recent growth in retailers. Nordstrom Rack, the outlet division of upscale retailer Nordstrom Inc., opened its first location in Maine this spring. Seattle-based Nordstrom opened the 30,000-square-foot store at Maine Crossing Shopping Center, near other name-brand tenants such as Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Men’s Wearhouse.

Having more stores opening in the area benefits everyone, Walker said.

“Anything that makes the shopping experience better is good for all of us,” he said. “It’s an issue of convenience. You want to get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of money and time – you want to have a destination that makes it worth your time to go shopping. It’s very good for South Portland not to have this location vacant anymore.”

The new Bon-Ton boasts wide aisles, bright lighting, extra-large dressing rooms and seating areas, part of a trend toward making the shopping experience customer-friendly.

“It’s not the way stores were built 20 years ago. There used to be a trend toward narrow aisles and filling as much retail space as possible with merchandise. Now, we try to listen to what people want and balance our needs and expenses,” Walker said.

Bon-Ton – French for “good tone,” meaning proper fashion or style – will sell a mix of higher-end designer lines such as Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, as well as moderate-priced brands such as Dockers, and a mix of its own brands.

Bon-Ton plans to tweak its products as needed, after feedback from customers.

“We know we’ll start out with a bang because we’re new, followed by the holiday shopping season.

Then we may need to tailor the assortment from what we initially offer after we hear from customers,” Walker said.

The 120,800-square-foot store will carry clothing, cosmetics and home goods. The chain also operates stores elsewhere in New England, including Concord, N.H., South Burlington, Vt., and Westfield, Mass.

McConnon said the arrival of a new shopping experience is likely to generate some interest and foot traffic in the short term.

“It has a diverse product offering and a wide customer base, so it fills many different demographics,” said McConnon. “It’s going to get a lot of interest. People will come just to see it and hopefully that will spill over into increased traffic and spending throughout the mall.”

Macy’s Inc., which operates about 840 department stores nationally and is a direct competitor, isn’t worried about the arrival of Bon-Ton, said Macy’s district vice president Phil Wilson.

Macy’s recently rearranged some departments to streamline customer traffic through the store, but that was routine, Wilson said.

“We’re not going to make any changes because of a new guy in town. The changes have nothing to do with Bon-Ton,” he said.

“We are the premier retailer at the mall. We’ve built our reputation on what the Maine customer wants,” he said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to make small changes, small investments, new vendor shops, new brands. You’ll continue to see routine upgrades.”

Bon-Ton will have about 170 employees at the new store, and plans to increase that to 200 workers for the peak holiday shopping season.

Walker said the Maine Mall location isn’t under extra pressure to perform well – all the stores face pressure.

“Everyone is trying to find the right balance between expenses and controlling costs and making sales,” he said. “Everyone talks about Filene’s and they have such passion in their voice. It’s inevitable that they will compare us. We’re hoping everyone gives us a shot and tells us what we can do to make things better. We don’t want to assume we know the answer or what everyone wants.”

Commercial Real Estate Market in Portland on fire

September 5, 2013 in Articles

Author: David Harrigan
Publication: Portland Press Herald
One of the most well known commercial buildings of Portland's skyline, the People's United Building, sold earlier this month for $5,550,000.  The 10-story office building is located in Monument Square at 465 Congress St. and provides 84,000+/- square feet of office and retail banking space. Previously known by many as the Maine Bank & Trust Building, the former bank was acquired by People's United in 2009.  People's United remains a major tenant in the building, occupying five floors in this landmark property.  465 Congress Street sold to 5 Monument Square, LLC, a commercial real estate investor and developer with major holdings in the Old Port and other areas throughout greater Portland.  Karen Rich, Partner & Vice President of Cardente Real Estate, represented the seller, L. E. Springer Inc. in the sale and the Purchaser was represented by Steven Baumann of Compass Commercial Brokers.

$38 million Portland project 'starting to gel'

August 28, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

Planning Board members give favorable reviews to the ambitious Bayside plan for apartments and retail space.

PORTLAND – Preliminary designs for the first phase of a high-rise apartment and retail complex in the Bayside neighborhood received favorable reviews from the Planning Board on Tuesday.

click image to enlarge

An artist rendering of the 'midtown' project, Phase I.

Image by CBT Architects, Boston, Mass.

The ambitious project -- called "midtown" -- calls for three phases that could take as long as 10 years to complete. It envisions 675 market-rate apartments in four towers of about 15 stories each, 1,100 parking spaces in two garages and 93,000 square feet of retail space.

The first phase would consist of a 165-foot-tall residential tower and six-story parking garage.

David Hancock, principal at the Boston-based design firm CBT Architects, and Greg Shinberg, owner of the Portland-based Shinberg Consulting, presented the preliminary design for Phase 1 for the first time on Tuesday.

"It's really starting to gel," said Planning Board Chairwoman Carol Morrissette.

The design includes pre-cast concrete, glass and metal skins with red accents.

"It's modern industrial," Shinberg said of the design after the meeting.

CBT replaced another architectural firm, Perkins Eastman, due to differing artistic visions with Federated Cos., the Miami-based developer, Shinberg said.

The scale of the project has caused concern among some residents.

While planners were encouraged by the preliminary design, Alex Landry, a member of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said it reminded him of a beach-front condo in Miami rather than a building that would fit into Portland's historic landscape.

"I was really looking forward to seeing some brick, but I didn't get it," said Landry, who was otherwise optimistic about the project because it promises to bring an influx of residences to the neighborhood.

Shinberg said the tower will be stepped back between the third and fifth floors so it is less imposing to pedestrians. He acknowledged that challenges remain -- such as addressing the tower's effect on wind and shadowing.

"I find this very encouraging," board member Bill Hall said. "You're headed down the right road."

Federated Cos. has 3.25 acres of city-owned land on Somerset Street under contract to buy for $2.3 million.

City and neighborhood officials have made a priority of redeveloping Bayside, a former industrial neighborhood next to Interstate 295 that has been home to rail yards, scrap yards and warehouses.

The first phase is projected to cost about $38 million. It would consist of 180 to 190 market-rate apartments, a six-level parking garage for 705 vehicles and more than 40,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space at the corner of Somerset and Pearl streets.

Shinberg said he expects to have another workshop with the Planning Board on Sept. 10. His goal is to receive board approvals by the end of October and begin construction shortly thereafter. "We'll try to shoot right ahead," he said.




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