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Potential redesign of Portland 's Congress Square at a tipping point

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Potential redesign of Portland 's Congress Square at a tipping point

PORTLAND — A study group assigned to look at options to reinvigorate Congress Square has not reached a consensus on a plan to sell some of the plaza to the Eastland Hotel, and hopes to find one at a meeting Wednesday evening.

The comes just a week before the Congress Square Redesign Study Group is scheduled to send its findings to the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee.

The study group has been working since 2008 to develop a plan to spruce up the public space at the corner of Congress and High streets, in the heart of the city's Arts District. The plaza, with its sunken design and closed-off walls on two sides, has long been a spot mostly utilized by the homeless and people who sometimes engage in barely hidden illicit behavior. 

Since the owners of the Eastland Hotel, Ohio-based RockBridge Capital, proposed a deal with the city last October that would allow them to purchase the property from the city to build a new ballroom as part of a major renovation project, much of the brainstorming has occured within a smaller, ad hoc exploratory group composed of city staff, community groups including Creative Portland and members of the study group.

The ad hoc group formed in May, after RockBridge brought its plan to the Housing and Community Development Committee. Supporters of public space responded that the park should be retained and redesigned, rather than sold off to developers.

The group will present its findings to the study group Wednesday – but those findings are far from comprehensive, members said.

"A clear recommendation of a preference on our parts didn't rise to the surface," said Peter Bass, co-founder of Peloton Labs and a member of both the official and ad hoc groups.

The discussion in the ad hoc group, and with RockBridge representatives at a May 24 meeting at Peloton Labs, focused on finding a workable solution that would benefit both the city and the developer, Bass said.

"There's a very strong will - and I understand it completely- to not give up public space," he said, but "it may be a good solution to some of the inherent problems of that plaza."

The ad hoc group's stance, supported by city staff, is that the hotel's ballroom must leave enough space for a functional public plaza, with at least 40 feet of depth from the road (a specification based on a New York City guideline), according to a memo from Planning Division Director Alex Jaegerman.

"If we don't have 40 feet, it probably wouldn't be viable," Jaegerman said.

While RockBridge has shown it is willing to work with the city and its needs by scaling down the proposed size of the ballroom from 7,200 square feet to 6,500, it also has said the ballroom cannot shrink anymore.

At the May 24 meeting, the group and RockBridge discussed a plan that would give the plaza slightly more breathing room, by pushing out the curb along Congress Street, eliminating two to three parking spaces, and potentially revamping the opposite side of Congress Street, to remove the right-turn slip lane to Free Street. That would create more public space in front of the Portland Museum of Art.

The city is "at a crossroads," Jaegerman said. "We need to make some choices and we need to get some input from our policy makers."

The question now is less about the design itself and more about whether to try to go further with the negotiations, he said, – "Go or no go."

Wednesday's meeting, at 6 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall, will be co-chaired by City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who also sits on the Housing and Community Development Committee, and Councilor David Marshall, who said they plan to take public comment.

Donoghue said he did not support the proposal RockBridge presented at the committee's May 9 meeting, and that this week's meeting could result in the decision not to pursue the plan further.

He had not seen the ad hoc group's newer work, he said, but was "looking forward to seeing how much progress they've made in incorporating public comment."

"I'm willing to be impressed," Donoghue said, "but it will take a lot to impress me."

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullenphoto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.