'Events center' latest proposal for Portland's Congress Square Plaza

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PORTLAND — After several attempts to determine the space’s fate – and as renovations continue on the neighboring Eastland Park Hotel – a City Council committee is scheduled again Wednesday to take up the future of Congress Square Plaza.

The plaza was to be the sole item on the agenda for the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, according to a previous committee memo.

The hotel’s owners, RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts, had been hoping to acquire some of the plaza space from the city for a ballroom and event facility. The construction is part of a $40 million renovation of the historic, 86-year-old hotel at 157 High St., which is scheduled to be complete in December and then become part of the Westin hotel chain.

Acquisition of the space has hinged on approval of a design that includes the rest of the plaza. But since last summer, there hasn’t been a plan.

RockBridge and New Castle, which together purchased the Eastland in 2011, had originally hoped to build a 500-person ballroom in the open space at Congress and High streets. But that plan was met by opposition from neighbors and advocates for the homeless, who wanted the city to improve the space, but retain it as a park.

With the help of a task force appointed by the City Council, the owners went back to the drawing board and presented a second, more modest plan. But last August, that proposal, too, was rejected.

Now a third option is ready to be unveiled, which calls for making the plaza an “events center.” It’s not clear what that means, and both the city and the developers have refused to say more.

Amid the uncertainty over the plaza’s design, work is progressing rapidly on the makeover of the Eastland Park.

While the 12-story building looks basically the same on the outside, the interior has been completely gutted. Construction crews have already carried off nearly 800 dumpster loads of debris from the work site, according to Bruce Wennerstrom of New Castle. Nothing has been spared, except some historic windows, the ballroom’s elegant staircase and the massive boilers in the basement.

“It’s like we’re building a brand-new hotel in the framework of this historic hotel,” Wennerstrom said.

When complete, the rechristened Westin Portland Harborview Hotel will have 289 rooms – 85 more than its predecessor – and will be the largest hotel in the state.

Whit Richardson of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report. William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Sidebar Elements

Bruce Wennerstrom, general manager of the new Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, stands in what will be the hotel’s new and expanded rooftop bar, which will still be known as the Top of the East. The Eastland Park Hotel in Portland is being gutted and will reopen in December as a Westin property.