Evolving redesign of Portland's Congress Square adds event space

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PORTLAND — As schematics go, Congress Square is taking on a vibrant new shape.

The third and final public meeting on the Congress Square redesign, held March 16 at the Portland Westin Harborview Hotel, allowed consultants from Philadelphia-based Wallace, Roberts & Todd to refine a vision for the area along Congress, High and Free streets from the hotel to the Portland Museum of Art.

As described by city Urban Designer Caitlin Cameron, the “schematic design” phase has not fully determined the final design for the area, and some public comment can be made before the full design is revealed later this spring.

WRT principal Keiko Tsuruta Cramer, senior associate Misa Hsinyi Chen, and independent horticulturist Patrick Cullina walked about 60 people through the design elements that build on Congress Square’s place as an urban gathering spot. The area could be an even bigger draw by providing more space for events while providing some respite from city life.

Cramer noted the presentation came two days after a winter storm, which accentuated the desire for a year-round gathering spot.

“In winter, (we are) creating a safe space, a flexible space,” she said. “We want to create somewhere people can come out and play a little bit.”

As envisioned now, Congress Square could be anchored by an elevated stage area in the corner by the hotel, suitable for concerts and movie screenings, yet adaptable to everyday use.

Radiating toward High and Congress streets would be connecting paths and new landscaping to provide a canopy of oak, gum and birch trees set amid hardy plants native to Maine.

There would be two outdoor dining areas, one set by the hotel, the other next to what is now Vinland restaurant at 593 Congress St. Across Congress and Free streets, the plaza area in front of the Portland Museum of Art would be expanded by removing the right turn lane from High to Free streets and expanded curb areas.

Cullina said the landscaping aims to include hardy trees, shrubs and grasses that highlight the progression of the seasons.

“This is really more of an announcement to grow and stay with the neighborhood,” Cullina said.

As now planned, the former Union Station clock in Congress Square would be moved again.

“We don’t know for sure where it will end up,” Cameron said, but the development at Thompson’s Point or Union Station Plaza could be the clock’s new home.

The proposed schematic for westbound Congress Street means traffic would stop well short of the High Street intersection to promote pedestrian access, but Cameron said worries about traffic backups extending beyond Forest Avenue may make that plan impractical.

The Congress Square redesign will also include public art by sculptor Sarah Sze, but that will be discussed by the city’s Public Art Committee.

Created after buildings were razed about 35 years ago, Congress Square from the hotel to Congress Street contains about 14,000 square feet. In September 2013, city councilors approved selling 9,500 square feet to the hotel owners, who planned to build an events center.

The planned sale was contested by advocates of keeping the park, and the area was eventually added to the city’s land bank after a June 2014 referendum.

Since then, Friends of Congress Square Park received a $100,000 grant to buy new park amenities and plan events, and city councilors on Monday approved a six-month permit for the annual In the Square Festival that encompasses performances and events in Congress Square from April 22 to 0ct. 31.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Planners on March 16 presented a conceptual sketch of how a redesigned Congress Square in Portland would feature a network of paths and new vegetation suited for a variety of activities and events.

Congress Square Park and the Portland Museum of Art as seen from the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel on March 16. Conceptual redesign plans of Congress Square call for curved sloping paths, public art and new vegetation.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.