The argument over the fate of Congress Square Plaza has brought a fusillade of insults aimed at that small, but important piece of public property and the people who use it.
Developers want to take almost three quarters of the public space at the corner of High and Congress streets to build an event space at the historic Eastland Hotel, now undergoing renovation and soon to be rechristened a Westin.
An early story in The Portland Press Herald called the park “home to loiterers and a magnet for litter.” An architect and blogger, Michael Belleau, quoted in the same newspaper, called it “a sunken, empty, tar-covered space often filled with vagrants.” And last week’s Press Herald editorial picks up the theme, calling it an “unlovely parcel … infamous for attracting litter and loiterers.”
Those are strong words.
The object of these attacks is a well-located piece of public property with a sunny southwestern exposure, currently underutilized because it has been neglected by the city. All this criticism will pave the way for the developers to eliminate the park and its inhabitants, and reduce valuable open space to a double-wide sidewalk in front of the hotel and its newly-expanded ballroom space.
The city has allowed the park, built initially using federal grant money, to badly deteriorate, and has removed all but two benches. It is a significant piece of downtown real estate, just under half an acre (including the sidewalk). It can easily be improved and made more attractive. Even without expensive refurbishment, if benches were added and the park was maintained and policed, it would be better used.
The park does not serve just the suspected “loiterers and vagrants,” but the many residents who live in the nearby apartment buildings. Many of the residents in the adjacent Congress Square Plaza building are elderly and disabled, and for them the park has been the one easily accessible place to get out and enjoy some fresh air. They are not “loiterers” and “vagrants.” And with the southwest orientation that provides many hours of sunshine, even during the cold months, it is often now used on lunch break by people working in the surrounding businesses.
Because there are only two benches, those people now using it for quick visits are forced to sit on the steps leading down into the space.
The developers’ plan to take over almost three quarters of the present park for their ballroom and event facility was presented to a City Council committee last week. The plan is set for public hearings and council action in late May.
It is true that the city needs strong economic development, and the Westin Hotel project is poised to provide a needed uplift to that area. But it should not come at the expense of giving up a key parcel of open space, with its important location. And if almost three quarters of this space is sold to the developer, a park will be lost forever. And there should be no doubt that the Westin will control access and use if it owns the property.
If the park is sold to the developers, a piece of sun-filled open space that can cheer those in downtown Portland who walk through it or choose to linger for even a minute, will be gone forever. While city leaders have talked about substituting other spaces, such as the parking lot at Spring and High streets, to replace Congress Square Park, they would be less attractive and probably expensive to develop.
It should be possible to facilitate the development the hotel is seeking, while still ensuring public access to significant open space. The city should not be content with the present plan, which reduces the property to a glorified sidewalk. Councilors should drive a hard bargain, and preserve the public’s right to a large portion of the sunny, open space that is Congress Square Plaza.
Longtime Portland resident Marian McCue is a freelance journalist, and former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.