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Proposed sale doesn't end debate over Portland plaza

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Proposed sale doesn't end debate over Portland plaza

PORTLAND — The sale of most of Congress Square Plaza to the owner of the former Eastland Park Hotel could be approved by the City Council as soon as Sept. 9.

On Aug. 21, the council's Housing and Community Development Committee voted to refer a proposed sale agreement to the council. Under the agreement, the city would sell about 9,500 square feet of the public space at the corner of Congress and High streets to RockBridge Capital LLC for nearly $524,000.

In addition, RockBridge would pay $50,000 to help fund redesign of the entire square, and another $45,000 for nearby sidewalk improvements.

RockBridge and co-developer New Castle Hotels & Resorts are finishing a $50 million renovation of the 86-year-old hotel, and plan to reopen it in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel. The developers have hoped to acquire a portion of the plaza to build an adjoining center for meetings and events.

A preliminary design of the center was unveiled in May, and the committee then voted to begin negotiating the sale. That decision was by a margin identical to last week's: 3-1, with Councilor Kevin Donoghue dissenting in both votes.

At the Aug. 21 meeting, more than two dozen people voiced sharply divisive opinions about the sale. Most were opposed to it.

"Cities, basically, do not sell public parks," said Frank Turek, president of the Friends of Congress Square Park, the neighborhood group that has been leading a campaign to stop the sale.

He noted that while the city has sold vacant property such as unused school buildings to private developers, it has never sold a park. "Congress Square Park is not a school or a (vacant) lot," he said.

Selling the space would unfairly penalize residents who frequent it because they lack money or transportation to use other parks and open spaces, according to Clinton Street resident Seth Berner.

"We're valuing people who have been using Congress Square Park less highly," he said.

But a High Street resident, Jill Barkley, said she supports the sale because of another value: the visitors, business and tax revenue the event center may bring the city.

"And I'm excited that there will still be a park," she said. If the sale is completed, about 4,800 square feet of the plaza would remain as public space.

Holly Seeliger, a Brackett Street resident and School Board member, said Portland should not be selling the space at a time when cities are expanding their development of parks – and when large meetings and conventions are becoming less popular.

"With the certain death of conventions, Portland developers must stop looking to the past and start looking to our greener future," she said.

But Steve Hewins, the newly hired executive director of Portland's Downtown District, said there is demand for the type of meeting space that RockBridge wants to build.

"We have a lack of convention facilities in Portland," he said, noting that the city's hotels look to business meetings as a way to fill rooms outside the tourism season.

Inside the event center, about 5,000 square feet of space would be available for meetings. The addition is nearly the size of the Eastland's existing main ballroom, and would increase the hotel's meeting space by nearly a third, to more than 21,000 square feet.

The city's largest convention site, the Holiday Inn by the Bay, has 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 12,000-square-foot hall, according to the hotel's website.

On Monday, Westin Portland general manager Bruce Wennerstrom said he had no doubt his hotel's event space would do a brisk business.

While there has been a decline in the number of large meetings at major convention  halls, according to Wennerstrom, there is growing, unmet demand by smaller gatherings for space in the city. They tend to be regional groups trying to book venues for 250-300 people.

"Portland is a hot commodity," he said. "A lot of groups want to come here, but a lot are turned away."

Before the proposed event center does any business, the sale must receive council approval. And the city's Planning Board and Historic Preservation Board would have to approve plans for the center that are "in substantial conformance" with the design presented in May.

Meanwhile, city planners would be working to improve the remaining portion of the plaza, in coordination with the hotel developers. The city is conducting a so-called "visioning" project that is gathering ideas for the smaller space, as well as the entire area of Congress Square. The project is collecting public input through an online survey, a web page and public meetings that are planned for September.

But that wasn't enough to sway Donoghue, who said he was voting against the sale because plans for the smaller plaza weren't in place.

"I cannot clearly see the public benefit in the smaller space," the councilor said. "It is for that reason I can't ignore the overwhelming public comment from the residents of this city."

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