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Portland's Congress Square: Upgrade or unload?

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Portland's Congress Square: Upgrade or unload?

PORTLAND — The city is exploring options for the Congress Square park at Congress and High streets, including redesign or sale of the property.

The Congress Square Redesign Study Group, made up of local business and neighborhood representatives and city officials, is planning a public forum next month to gather input on what the community would like to see happen with the park.

Officials and business leaders have decided the space needs a rebirth.

"Not for lack of trying, it is a failed space," said city Historic Preservation Manager Deb Andrews, who is staffing the group.

Portland Downtown District Director Jan Beitzer said the district has been eyeing redesign of the sunken, bricked park for several years. The study group will use a $50,000 grant from the city to conduct initial planning and then hire an outside consultant.

"It's a gateway to downtown," Beitzer said. "Twenty-two thousand vehicles go through the corner (a day). It does not serve as the iconic gateway to the Arts District that we'd like to see."

The group met last week at the Eastland Park Hotel to hear about the history of the property from Andrews. The next step is to gather public comment.

"There are a number of things that can be done with that area," said Penny Littell, the city's director of Planning and Urban Development. "We can redesign it with a building or a park."

While Littell cautioned that a decision about the park is far from being made, one option is to sell part or all of the property, which totals about a third of an acre.

Congress Square underwent a dramatic transformation in the late 1970s, Andrews said, using an urban design grant.

Until the 1940s, residential buildings with storefronts filled the space. Those buildings were cleared and replaced with a commercial block that for a time was occupied by a Walgreens pharmacy and later a Dunkin' Donuts shop.

In 1979, the Dunkin' Donuts building was demolished the city took ownership of the parcel, and turned it into the park that exists today.

As part of that same urban design grant program, Andrews said, the historic Hay Building across Congress Street was restored and the Payson Wing was built at the Portland Museum of Art. The Eastland Park Hotel on High Street was also rehabilitated.

The park was meant to serve as a connection between the Eastland and the museum, said Andrews. It is home to the clock from the old Union Station that was on St. John Street and has some seating and a stage. Andrews said efforts to create programming at the park have failed.

"It's underutilized," Beitzer said. "It needs to be refreshed."

It could be redesigned to support a sculpture, she said, or to be a space for temporary art.

Besides the downtown district, representatives from the Eastland, the museum, the Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods, Greater Portland Landmarks and a couple of local architects are members of the study group. City Councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue are co-chairmen.

The public forum is scheduled for May 12 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Eastland Park Hotel, 157 High St.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net