Congress Square Plaza proposal faces another test in Portland

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PORTLAND — Capping a month of public debate, informational meetings and sometimes frayed tempers, the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee is scheduled Wednesday to again consider a plan to build an event center in Congress Square Plaza.

RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts, owners of the neighboring Eastland Park Hotel, are hoping to acquire about two-thirds of the plaza from the city in order to construct the 9,400-square-foot building. It would provide space for conferences and meetings, and would adjoin the hotel, now under renovation and scheduled to reopen in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Since April 24, when the HCD Committee reviewed a new plan for the center – the third presented to date – Westin General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom has been discussing the proposal with neighborhood, business and civic groups.

Opinion on the proposal has been sharply divided, as evidenced by a May 22 meeting of the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, the task force appointed by the committee in 2010 to develop solutions for improving the plaza. In a vote to recommend that the committee support the plan at its May 29 meeting, the study group deadlocked, 6-6.

The vote came despite concessions to opponents of the plan. Wennerstrom and project architect Patrick Costin began the meeting by presenting a slightly scaled-back design, which shrinks the footprint of the building by about 500 square feet from the design shown last month. In addition, Wennerstrom pledged that the Westin will donate $50,000 to spruce up the remaining 4,800 square feet of open plaza space.

But that wasn’t enough to appease some critics.

“We need to improve (the plaza), not privatize it,” said May Street resident Tom MacMillan, who said the new design was not “substantially different” from previous ones.

“The vast majority of Portlanders will not want to see this park go away,” said study group member Frank Turek, who leads a neighborhood coalition, the Friends of Congress Square Park. He noted that the Friends have collected 1,200 signature in a petition opposing the event center.

Deering Street resident Steven Smith said, “The plan to give up public space for a building is just wrong … When (a public space) is tarnished, you don’t throw it away, you fix it.”

Other speakers were just as vocal in their support of the plan.

“Repurposing the plaza as a true plaza … does indeed net us less open space, but it unequivocally nets us better open space,” said Chris O’Neil, lobbyist for the Portland Community Chamber. “In this case, less is more.”

Jack Lufkin, a study group member and board president of the Portland Development Corp., said the event center would “enhance what is happening to Congress Square” and called the proposal “a fantastic opportunity that will not happen again anytime soon.”

Michelle Corry, co-owner of the restaurant 555 on Congress Street, also supported the plan, and said opposing it in favor of improving the existing plaza is the result of a “misconception,” because there are no plans to do so.

“We need to understand that (without the event center) nothing is going to happen,” Corry said.

Still, Councilor Kevin Donoghue, co-chairman of the study group, said he was “unconvinced.”

“I need it demonstrated to me that the potential of a smaller parcel is greater than that of the larger parcel,” he said, explaining his vote to oppose a recommendation by the study group. ” … It’s not clear what the direct public benefit is.”

The HCD Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall to consider possible recommendation of the proposal to the City Council.

If endorsed by the council, formal plans for the event center would still require approvals of the Historic Preservation Board and Planning Board.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.