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Editorial: Portland's open spaces are not in jeopardy

Opinion

Editorial: Portland's open spaces are not in jeopardy

Like the desolate downtown plaza they seek to preserve, proponents of Question 1 in Portland – the June 10 referendum that purports to strengthen protection of open space – are missing both the forest and the trees.

If approved, this citizen's initiative would add 35 city-owned properties to 25 parcels already under the stewardship of the Land Bank Commission. This quasi-municipal authority, which is not elected by voters, advises the City Council on which open spaces should be kept immune from development.

The ballot question also would place new restrictions on how the city manages its public lands.

Any sale, lease or non-recreational use of Land Bank properties over the next five years would require the approval of the commission and endorsement by a super-majority of the council (at least eight of nine votes). With less council backing (six or even seven affirmative votes), a sale would require referendum approval by city voters.

The referendum's broad language can be misleading, so let's be clear. As singular as its name, Question 1 is really about one space: Congress Square Park, the blighted, quarter-acre plaza at Congress and High streets.

On Sept. 16, 2013, the council voted 6-3 to sell about two-thirds of the park to developers of the neighboring Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The Westin plans to build a multi-use event center on its share of the space, while helping the city improve the remaining public portion.

The referendum, if passed, will be retroactive to Sept. 6, effectively voiding the deal.

But despite the sky-is-falling rhetoric of some opponents to the sale, Portland's open spaces are not being jeopardized by the change of ownership.

Most of the city's iconic places, including Deering Oaks, Payson Park, the Eastern Promenade and the Western Promenade, are already well-protected by zoning, statutory, or deed restrictions. In addition, the city recently adopted an ordinance that protects 40 parks and public grounds from development without the approval of seven council members.

And it's not as if Portland is holding a yard sale.

Over the past 25 years, the city has acquired or permanently protected more than 200 acres of open space, including the Eastern Promenade Trails, Bayside Trail and most recently, Canco Preserve. In that time, a small, little-used sliver of concrete is the only parcel to be sold.

To be sure, the city should be held accountable for years of neglecting Congress Square Park, and allowing space in the heart of downtown to fall into disrepair. But to call for a change in the City Code is a disingenuous attempt to block a thoroughly vetted decision by the people's representatives.

In the short term, a "yes" vote on Question 1 will eliminate the only significant attempt in decades to revitalize Congress Square. The Westin's plans don't please everyone, and we should remain vigilant to see that the remaining 4,800-square-foot space is thoughtfully improved to benefit the public.

Nevertheless, to deny Portland this opportunity to bring new business, new visitors and new life to Congress Square is wrong-headed.

In the long term, passage of Question 1 is bad policy and sets a bad precedent. According to a city memo, the broad language of the referendum could require that even minor improvements to open space (e.g., a new playground) receive a super-majority council approval or a public vote – at a cost of $20,000 per election. That's burdensome and counter-productive to the goal of making the most of our public places.

More importantly, a yes vote turns back the clock on years of community discourse over the park.

The future of Congress Square has been the subject of public debate, brainstorming and, yes, protest since at least 2008. The decision to sell a portion of the park has been discussed publicly since 2011 by the council, its Housing and Community Development Committee, and a community task force.

If Portland voters are unhappy with such decisions, there's already a mechanism to do something: change representatives in November's council election.

But until then, we should honor the process that has brought Portland to where we are, and vote no on Question 1. To do otherwise is simply short-sighted.