Effort moves ahead to block sale of Portland's Congress Square Plaza

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PORTLAND — An effort to place Congress Square Plaza and other publicly owned properties under new protections against being sold inched forward Monday night.

In a widely expected and largely procedural move, the City Council voted unanimously to hold a Feb. 24 public hearing on an ordinance sought by petitioners seeking to block the sale of most of Congress Square Plaza to private hotel developers.

The hearing is the next step before the council votes on whether to adopt the ordinance change outright, or put the measure to a citywide vote. The council is expected to put the fate of the ordinance in the hands of the voters on Election Day, June 10.

Petition gatherers from the citizens groups Friends of Congress Square Park and Protect Portland Parks turned in more than 4,250 signatures to the city clerk’s office asking for the ordinance change, a number nearly three times the 1,500 names necessary to force the proposal’s outright adoption or a citywide vote.

The petition drive, however, remains under the cloud of a legal challenge.

The city only turned over petition papers after being ordered to do so by a Cumberland County Superior Court judge, and is now appealing that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

In its appeal, which was filed last month, the city reiterated its arguments that the citizens petition process is reserved for legislative changes, but that affecting the disposition of city property improperly crosses the line into being an administrative or fiscal action.

Deciding on city appropriations – a term city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta argued could be used to apply to property as well as money – is “exclusively within the province of the City Council,” she said in the appeal.

In this case, the council voted 6-3 in last September to sell nearly 9,500 square feet of the plaza for nearly $524,000 to Ohio-based private developers RockBridge Capital LLC. RockBridge helped finance the nearly $50 million renovation of the neighboring former Eastland Park Hotel, and hopes to use the additional Congress Square space for a hotel event center.

If the Feb. 24 hearing is anything like the September council meeting where the sale was approved, it will be a lively occasion. Protesters gathered outside City Hall and played makeshift drums during the September meeting, while other demonstrators held signs inside the council chambers.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck forcefully removed one woman from the meeting after she refused to sit down and stop interrupting the council deliberations.

The petition calls for a referendum that, if passed, would change the Land Bank Commission ordinance to include Congress Square and 34 other city properties not currently protected. It would also require a citywide vote to approve the sale of any of the land bank properties, unless a supermajority of the City Council – eight of the nine members – votes to sell.

If the ordinance change is ultimately approved at the polls, it would trigger a second citywide vote to retroactively vet the council’s September decision to sell most of Congress Square Plaza. If a public poll taken two weeks before the council’s vote was any indication, the sale would be in jeopardy of being overturned in that scenario.

A September survey of more than 500 Portlanders by the national firm Public Policy Polling – commissioned on behalf of an anonymous source concerned about the sale – found that 49 percent of respondents opposed the transaction, while 34 percent approved of it.

Proponents of the sale, including the Portland Community Chamber, have argued that Congress Square is dangerously close to being a vacant space, and that with the sale, it will go from an underutilized section of pavement to a more vibrant commercial spot.

Supporters of the sale have also dismissed the square as a hangout for drunks and drug addicts, and point to a recent case in which singer Elvis Costello’s production manager was stabbed there by a panhandler as an example of how the space has deteriorated in recent years.

But opponents have said it’s the city’s responsibility to fix the park, not just give up ownership.