Advocates for Portland's Congress Square get $100K grant

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PORTLAND — Having “friends” in high places could be a big benefit to Congress Square this summer and in the future.

The Friends of Congress Square Park, a nonprofit established to preserve the open space bordered by High and Congress streets and the Westin Portland Haborview Hotel, has received $100,000 in financial and in-kind services from Southwest Airlines and the nonprofit Project for Public Places.

“We worked really hard to sell them on Portland,” Friends member Bree LaCasse said April 24.

The Friends are one of six nationwide recipients of the Heart of the Community grants, made eligible because Portland is a Southwest Airlines destination city. Other grants were made for projects in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Florida cities of Jacksonville and Fort Myers.

The grant is an equal split of cash from Southwest and services from the Project for Public Spaces. The money will buy amenities for the space, said David LaCasse, Bree’s father, including tables, chairs and umbrellas, and a new projection system for the Sunday-night movie series.

The amenities must be used for at least three years, and 20 percent of the grant can be used to pay for events and performances in the square.

The in-kind services are still being discussed, but will center on “placemaking,” which Ethan Kent, PPS senior vice president, defined April 24.

“It is the process where we all work together to improve public space,” he said.

David LaCasse said the simplicity is a key.

“Placemaking is trying things, seeing how they work and building on that,” he said, adding the ideas and efforts will all be evaluated as part of the grant.

PPS has 40 years and global experience in placemaking, but Kent said he will not be involved with the in-kind services. He has already played a role in helping the Friends define and improve Congress Square.

The group formed about three years ago in opposition to a potential sale of about two-thirds of the 14,000-square-foot plaza to the owners of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, then known as the Eastland Hotel.

Kent said he was invited to the city to talk to the group and city and business leaders about the principles of placemaking, and eventually developed a study on how the park could be reinvigorated with community input.

“The story of a community coming together to turn around a central gathering place, one that had been somewhat given up on, is inspirational and relevant in any corner of the world,” he said.

The proposed sale for $524,000 would have led to construction of a new hotel event center, and was approved by the City Council in September 2013. The sale was never completed, and a referendum vote last June placed Congress Square in the city land bank.

The referendum also amended the land bank ordinance to require any potential land bank parcel sale approved by fewer than eight councilors to face a referendum vote.

David LaCasse said the contentious questions of park use have passed, and he hopes a full design plan for the park’s future can be ready in about a year. Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian has allocated $75,000 from the City Manager’s Contingency Fund that could pay for more studies on Congress Square design.

LaCasse said the Friends will add $25,000 of its money to Hill-Christian’s allocation.

In November 2014, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group recommended the open space be preserved without adding the event center. LaCasse said the final design could consider three stages beginning in the park and then expanding out to the intersections of Congress, High and Free streets.

More recently, Bree and David LaCasse attended two days of meetings and discussions in Dallas with other grant recipients, and are already working on an expanded schedule of about 70 plaza events through early October.

One event will be a launch party, Bree LaCasse said, and there is a larger goal in mind.

“We want to figure out how to make this a destination year-round,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Friends of Congress Square members Denis Nye, left, Bree LaCasse and David LaCasse in the plaza on April 24. Their organization has received a $100,000 grant for park amenities and studies on how it could be serve the community.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.