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Hotel's Portland plaza proposal remains divisive

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Hotel's Portland plaza proposal remains divisive

PORTLAND — Eight months after a previous design was rejected, a City Council committee got a look last week at a new proposal for developing public space in Congress Square Plaza.

But regardless of the revised design, interviews this week showed that the proposal continues to polarize the neighborhood.

Representatives of RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts, the owners of the adjacent Eastland Hotel, presented the design April 24 at a workshop with the council's Housing and Community Development Committee.

RockBridge and New Castle are spending $40 million to modernize and expand the historic, 86-year-old hotel, which has been shuttered for over a year but is scheduled to reopen in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. As part of the project, the owners hope to acquire some of the plaza in order to create an event center that would host conferences and large meetings.

Acquisition of the public space hinges on the city approving the design. But two previous plans were rejected after drawing sharp criticism from members of the public, who wanted to see the city keep the plaza and improve it.

With an uninviting appearance and a reputation for attracting illicit behavior, the plaza is now widely regarded as a failed public space. Nevertheless, opposition has been strong.

"Portland has never sold a public park to a private developer. ... It would be shameful to sell any one of them," a group of residents, the Friends of Congress Square Park, wrote in a brochure.

The scaled-down design presented last week pictured a contemporary, 5,000-square-foot event center with a glass-fronted side facing Congress Street. The center would occupy most of the plaza, leaving about 4,000 square feet of it, and would require the removal of three parking spaces.

Artwork could be displayed inside the glass wall, and a rendering showed benches and small trees dotting the remaining public space.

The goal of the design is to "reinvent" the plaza so that it relates to Congress Square and creates an "urban room," project architect Patrick Costin said. "This will be the front hall of our city."

No public comment was taken at the workshop, but Bruce Wennerstrom, the Westin general manager, invited people to provide feedback by contacting him at 850-2156 or bwennerstrom@newcastlehotels.com.

The city's public comment period expires May 28, and the Housing and Community Development Committee is scheduled to meet again May 29, when a recommendation to the full council is possible.

In the meantime, public opinion remains divided.

"It's a no-brainer ... Portland could turn it into a better use," said Brendan Evans, who runs a retail shop, Strange Maine, at 578 Congress St. "This part of Portland is generating a lot of revenue for the city, and I think some of that could be reciprocated by those tax dollars going into the park and not just giving a major corporation what it wants."

But a couple doors away, the general manager of Harmon's & Barton's florist said the plaza can't be used as a park and attracts people who are bad for business.

"It's not a big spot. To put a real park in there is just not going to work. People are just going to use it to let their dogs go to the bathroom," Rhonda Davis said. Her business has been suffering while the Eastland has been closed, she added.

Davis also claimed people who use the plaza sometimes harass her. "They'll come in to use our restroom, they loiter, they litter," she said. "I've felt threatened, and our (customers) have felt threatened."

Across the street at 605 Congress St., O2 Salon owner Jennifer Leigh had mixed feelings about the project.

"It can be a fun park for people-watching at times, but I feel like it's under-utilized," she said. "It's also lower than the street, and it's too deep. So if a police cruiser comes by here, they can't see what's going on.

"I've seen guests from the hotel come out, sit on a bench (in the plaza), and all of  sudden they seem to realize it's not the best place to hang out, and leave."

Leigh said she is also not happy about the possible loss of the parking spaces, and feels the new, more modest design is still too large.

"I wish it was like three-quarters of the size it is. The way it is now, it just leaves a tiny bit of the sidewalk," she said. "I don't think this design looked all that different from the earlier ones."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.