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Portland invites 'broader discussion' on Congress Square

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Portland invites 'broader discussion' on Congress Square

PORTLAND — While a neighborhood group continues to oppose plans for selling a portion of Congress Square Plaza, the city is urging the public to look beyond the hardscaped open space.

The city's Planning Division on Thursday launched a "visioning process" to collect ideas for improving the design and use of Congress Square, which includes the plaza, the intersection of Congress and High streets, and public spaces in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the Hay Building.

People can submit input until Sept. 6 via an online survey, a website or a Twitter feed. They can also jot their ideas on public signs around the square or at City Hall. In addition, public meetings will gather feedback later this month and in September.

The city will use the responses to help draft a public report and a request-for-proposals to redesign the square, according to City Hall press release.

"We want to step back and have a broader discussion about Congress Square," Director of Economic Development Greg Mitchell said Monday. "Whatever we do (with the plaza) has to factor in the square."

That's a familiar message to developers of the former Eastland Park Hotel.

RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts are modernizing the hotel, which will reopen in December as the Westin Portland Harborview. As part of the project, the developers hope to acquire about two-thirds of the city-owned plaza in order to build an adjoining hall for meetings and events.

In May, the city entered negotiations with the developers, and Mitchell said a sale could be completed before the end of the year.

The developers have claimed that by concentrating pedestrian traffic and other plaza activity near the street, the hall would connect the plaza visually with the rest of the square.

But The Friends of Congress Square Park, the group organized earlier this year in opposition to the sale, wants people to take another look at uses for the plaza. And the group is doing some "visioning" of its own.

On recent Fridays, members of the Friends have been surveying passersby to collect ideas for improving the space. So far, the group has received more than 50 responses, according to spokesman and Grant Street resident Frank Turek.

They've included suggestions for installing public seating to holding children's activities in the plaza, he said.

"It's really encouraging to see all the different ideas people have had. And they don't have to be big ideas; even small changes can have an effect," he said.

Another effect of the survey is to maintain public awareness about the potential sale of the plaza.

"We want to let people know (the sale) is not a done deal. There is continued interest, and in fact new people are coming on board who didn't even know the park was an issue," Turek said.

Turek said the group has hired a lawyer, who can help it respond to a potential sale agreement or "whatever comes down the pike."

It's not clear what the legal objections to a sale would be. In some cases, the sale of public parks and open space has been blocked by federal or state law.

For example, some public parks that have received National Park Service funding can't be sold or converted to a non-park use without offsetting their loss with new public space. That requirement led Falmouth last year to purchase open space so it could sell 21 acres of public land to the OceanView retirement community.

And in New York State, municipalities that wish to convey parks or open space to a non-public party, or convert them to non-public use, must obtain prior authorization from the state Legislature.

But neither example applies to Congress Square Plaza, and Mitchell said he isn't aware of any Maine law that would require the city to replace the lost open space.

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

This story was edited Aug. 6, 2011, to clarify remarks by Frank Turek.