Debate over Portland plaza moves to neighborhoods

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PORTLAND — While a City Council committee mulls a new plan for using public space in Congress Square, the plan’s backers and opponents will square off in two neighborhood meetings this week.

Representatives of RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts, owners of the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel, presented the design – the third proposed to date – at an April 24 workshop with the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee.

RockBridge and New Castle are completing a massive, $40 million renovation of the hotel, which is scheduled to reopen in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The owners also hope to acquire a portion of neighboring Congress Square Plaza, the hardscaped space at the corner of Congress and High streets.

The city-owned plaza, widely regarded as a failed public space, would be the site of the hotel’s 5,000-square-foot event center, hosting conferences and large meetings.

Opinion about the proposal has been sharply divided. But at the April 24 presentation, New Castle vice president and the Westin Portland general manager, Bruce Wennerstrom, invited the public to contact him with feedback on the plan.

Wennerstrom and project architect Patrick Costin met the next day with representatives of Greater Portland Landmarks. About 35 neighborhood, business and civic groups have been contacted to set up meetings, Wennerstrom said Friday.

“It’s not been adversarial at all. It’s been a very healthy dialogue. We’re very pleased with the way the meetings have gone,” he said. “There’s a great deal of interest in the developing the square in a way we can all be proud of.”

But one group apparently left off the invitation list is the project’s outspoken opponent, a group of about 20 neighborhood residents, the Friends of Congress Square Park.

Nor has the group contacted Wennerstrom.

“We didn’t anticipate anything but antagonism would happen,” said Grant Street resident Frank Turek, spokesman for the Friends. He said they have gathered 1,000 signatures in a petition opposing the project.

“We’re steady in our belief that (the space) should remain a park in its entirety, and we were quite surprised that (the hotel owners) didn’t scale it back much,” Turek said. “I think they’re using this as a PR campaign. They’re not really interested in changing the design they have.”

He said the Friends have not been contacted by Wennerstrom, and Wennerstrom was not aware whether an invitation had been extended to the group.

“But if Frank would like to talk, we’d be happy to meet,” Wennerstrom said Tuesday.

He noted that Turek and he will both be presenting at a meeting of the Parkside Neighborhood Association on Thursday evening. Emma Holder, president of the association, confirmed that both Wennerstrom and Turek are on the agenda.

Wennerstrom will also be making his case for the new plan to the West End Neighborhood Association on Wednesday night. He’ll be joined at the group’s meeting by a Friends representative, probably former state Rep. Herb Adams, WENA President Rosanne Graef said.

The presentations will be “not a debate, but a chance for our membership to see the proposals and hear some pros and cons,” Graef said in an email.

Meetings will continue through May 28, according to the city. While Wennerstrom is serving as the point person for much of the public feedback, the city will hear more input at the end of the month.

On May 22, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, a council-appointed task force that has been exploring improvements to the area for several years, will meet to weigh in on the proposal.

And on May 29, the Housing and Community Development Committee reconvenes to receive additional public comment. The committee may then vote on a recommendation to the council.

“For a topic that’s been in the works for four-plus years, it’s suddenly on a very compressed time-line,” Graef said.

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