Ohio-based company seeks Congress Square Plaza go-ahead

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PORTLAND — For the third time, the owner of the Eastland Park Hotel will attempt to win city approval for a proposed overhaul of neighboring Congress Square Plaza.

On Aug. 8, the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee granted a request by the hotel owner, Ohio-based RockBridge Capital, to submit a new proposal for redeveloping the plaza. RockBridge will present the proposal at the committee’s meeting next month.

A week earlier, a RockBridge proposal for the plaza had been rejected by the Congress Square Redesign Study Group, the task force appointed by the City Council, to brainstorm ideas for improving the public area around the intersection of Congress and High streets.

The study group voted 7-2, with three members abstaining, that the Housing and Community Development Committee not consider the proposal and that the city redesign the entire plaza.

RockBridge is hoping to acquire some of the plaza space from the city in order to build a ballroom and event facility. The construction is part of a $30-million renovation of the historic, 85-year-old hotel. But acquisition of the space hinges on approval of a design that includes the rest of the plaza.

The reprieve for RockBridge comes three months after it presented its original proposal to the committee.

In response to public comment about the need to preserve open space, RockBridge agreed to scale that one down. Over the summer, RockBridge developed a more modest plan, working with an ad hoc, exploratory team of study group members, city staff, and representatives of community organizations.

In the scaled-down plan, the size of the planned ballroom shrank from 7,200 square feet to 6,500, although RockBridge and the ad hoc team disagreed about the width of the public space between the ballroom and Congress Street.

There also was disagreement about the overall design of the plaza. Ultimately, in advance of the scaled-down plan, the ad hoc team submitted two alternative recommendations to the study group. One recommendation called for redeveloping the entire plaza as open space, and the other called for a design that includes both the ballroom and a smaller public area.

“A clear recommendation or a preference on our parts didn’t rise to the surface,” said Peter Bass, a member of both the ad hoc team and the study group.

Now, with the rejection of the most recent proposal and the Housing and Community Development Committee’s decision to consider a new one, the fate of the plaza continues to be unclear.

Congress Square Plaza has long been the target of criticism and controversy. With its sunken design and deep-set, uninviting walls on two sides, the plaza is a “failed public space,” according to a report of the ad hoc team. The space is frequented by homeless individuals and people who sometimes engage in barely hidden illicit behavior.

But supporters of public space, including neighborhood residents, argue that the park should be retained and redesigned, rather than sold off to developers.

At the recent study group meeting, for example, 24 of the 32 public comments on the RockBridge proposal were opposed to the development, according to a memo from Planning Division Director Alex Jaegerman.

The city is “at a crossroads,” Jaegerman said before the vote. “We need to make some choices and we need to get some input from our policymakers.”

The question now is less about the design itself and more about whether to try to extend the negotiations – a “go or no go,” he said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.