November referendum unlikely in Portland on sale of Congress Square Park

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PORTLAND — A nearly 90-minute City Council workshop Monday evening showed there are many directions the future of Congress Square Park could follow.

The least likely is the Nov. 4 referendum ballot.

“I didn’t hear anybody tonight say they wanted to start that process in August,” Mayor Michael Brennan said.

Later, in a one-hour meeting following the workshop, councilors approved almost $16 million in bonds for the city capital improvement plan.

During the workshop, attended by about 60 people, including members of the city Land Bank and Parks commissions, councilors were led through possible steps and potential plans for Congress Square Park by city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta and Planning Director Jeff Levine.

After councilors enacted amendments to the city parks ordinance in late April, and voters approved amendments to the land bank ordinance on June 10, charting the course to a November referendum to sell part of the park would have required council action by Aug. 4.

Both ordinance amendments require input from the commissions, with five Land Bank members needing to vote in favor of selling any Land Bank parcel, which now includes all of Congress Square Park.

While the citizen’s initiative established a six-vote council majority as the threshold for sending a property sale to referendum vote, the council changes to align the parks and land bank ordinances now require a majority of seven to advance a sale agreement.

Last September, councilors voted 6-3 to approve the sale of about 9,500 square feet of Congress Square Park to hotel owners RockBridge Capital. John Anton, one of the councilors who opposed the sale, has since left office.

Hotel owners would like to use the space to build an events center. There would be about 4,500 square feet left as open space, and West-Chuhta said the council would have to vote again for the sale.

With an expedited time frame and a variety of options for redesigning the area, including the intersections of Congress, Free and High streets, councilors including Cheryl Leeman showed more interest in a wider discussion as opposed to moving forward with the land sale.

Leeman said the process should return to the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, which began work about six years ago, three years before the former Eastland Hotel was sold and interest in the event center developed during renovations for what is now the Westin Portland Harborview.

In a nine-page memo to councilors, Levine noted the city has already engaged Boston-based Klopfer Martin Design Group for preliminary design work in Congress Square, and he presented three potential options and cost estimates, ranging from $2 million to $2.5 million.

The first two presented scenarios based on the park or plaza area with or without the events center. The third option moved development up, to the roof of an events center.

Hotel General Manager Bruce Wennerstrom was amenable to the third option, provided any park or plaza development came at city expense. But Levine also noted municipal funding is uncertain because the area is not eligible for Community Development Block Grant funding.

The prospect of an elevated park or plaza intrigued councilors, but Councilor Kevin Donoghue, an opponent of the land sale, said his interest was tempered because it would still be contingent on a private land sale.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.