Portland committee OKs sale of downtown plaza

August 22, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The City Council will vote on the $524,000 agreement for Congress Square Plaza on Sept. 9.

PORTLAND – Over the objection of more than a dozen residents, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 Wednesday to sell most of a downtown plaza to a developer that wants to build an event center.

The Congress Square Plaza is seen in this aerial image on Saturday, August 17, 2013. - Gabe Souza

The council will vote on the purchase-and-sale agreement Sept. 9, said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the committee.

Under the agreement, Rockbridge Capital would pay about $524,000 for 9,500 square feet of the nearly half-acre plaza at the corner of High and Congress streets.

The developer would pay an additional $45,000 to improve adjacent sidewalks and $50,000 toward a comprehensive planning effort for the entire intersection, known as Congress Square.

The deal would leave 4,800 square feet, not including sidewalks, for a new public plaza. The design of that space is being included in a visioning process for Congress Square that is just getting under way.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue was the only committee member to oppose the sale Wednesday night. He cited the lack of design details for the new plaza and any provision in case the new plaza doesn't work out as hoped.

"It is for that reason I can't ignore the overwhelming public comment from the residents of this city," Donoghue said. "I really don't feel I have a mandate to vote yes, or feel I have enough information to vote yes on behalf of the residents."

Rockbridge Capital is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Park Hotel, which is expected to open in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Rockbridge proposes a 5,000-square-foot event space in a 9,500-square-foot addition. The wall facing the plaza would be glass and the lobby area would double as an art gallery.

According to the sale agreement, the event center would have to be the primary use for at least 10 years, with at least six public art shows held there each year.

Any conversion to a non-hotel use after that period would require City Council approval.

Councilor Edward Suslovic said the event center would bring 300-400 people per event, which would boost business downtown. The additional revenue -- from the sale of the land and the property taxes -- could be used to pay for a comprehensive redesign of Congress Square, he said.

"We could have done that without (the event center), but we hadn't, and quite frankly I don't think we had the financial resources to do that without the revenue coming in," Suslovic said.

During more than an hour of public comment, 16 residents spoke against the sale -- describing both the purchase price and the amount of space for a new plaza as "a slap in the face."

Many opposed city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell's assertion that the existing plaza is a blighted area that would be cleaned up by the development.

Opponents have long claimed -- and City Councilor John Coyne has conceded -- that the city has neglected the plaza.

John Branson, an attorney who provided free services to the Occupy Maine group when it took over Lincoln Park a year and a half ago, said the city's real concern seems to be with the people who use the park -- mostly low- to no-income people.

"People are not blight," said Branson, who said he was asked recently to help opponents of the sale, "perhaps legally."

Frank Turek of the Friends of Congress Square Park said the sale seems to go against multiple city plans, none of which calls for the sale of Congress Square Plaza, and instead call for protecting and enhancing public open space.

Six people, most affiliated with business groups, spoke in support of the sale, saying it would bring in much-needed business to the arts district.

Chis O'Neil, from the Portland Community Chamber, gave the plan a "thumbs up."

Steve Hewins, interim director of Portland's Downtown District, said more convention space is needed to bring people downtown in the winter. Convention business spills over to other hotels, and four new hotels are being built downtown, he said.

"If we have a vision of creating a year-round destination for Portland, which I think we do, we need to fill rooms outside the months of July, August, September and October," Hewins said.

Parkside resident Jill Barkley also supported the sale, saying it would be an economic benefit and generate money for the city to make a better -- if not smaller -- public park.

Opponents, however, said that if the council is intent on selling the land for development, it should solicit other proposals to find the highest and best use, rather than working exclusively with Rockbridge Capital.

Tim Shannon, a Portland lawyer, said Congress Street is a "marquee property" and the city has been given a false choice of choosing the development plan or maintaining the status quo.

"An underutilized park in a prime location need not be turned into a bland single-story concrete bunker," Shannon said. "This could be much more than it is right now."

John Eder said the council is at odds with its constituents and is poised to take an action that mars its legacy.

"You're choosing an outside developer over residents," Eder said. "You are setting up a very contentious process with your citizens."




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