Portland council OKs plaza sale, opponents threaten to sue

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PORTLAND — Opponents of the proposed sale of Congress Square Plaza marched on City Hall Monday, beat drums and even were arrested.

But ultimately it wasn’t enough to sway the City Council, which voted 6-3 to approve the sale of two-thirds of the plaza to the developer of the former Eastland Park Hotel.

Councilors John Anton, Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall voted in the minority.

The vote capped more than a year of public debate about plans by the developer, RockBridge Capital, to use the space for an event facility that would adjoin the historic hotel, which is in the midst of a $50 million renovation.

The issue has been divisive, pitting business people and others who regard the plaza as a failed public space against residents who want the city to retain and improve the plaza.

Within minutes of the vote, a group of the opponents threatened to sue for new protections for the plaza and other open spaces in the city.

“Tonight’s vote is an offensive move on Portland’s park system,” Frank Turek, a Grant Street resident who heads Friends of Congress Square Park, said in a statement.

On Aug. 16, city staff and RockBridge reached a tentative agreement that called for the developer to pay about $524,000 for 9,500 square feet of the hardscaped space at Congress and High streets. The remaining 4,800 square feet of the plaza would continue to be owned by the city.

The sale required approval of the council, which last week heard more than three hours of contentious public comment on the matter. No comment was taken Monday; instead, it was the councilors’ turn for debate.

“You have to look at the facts,” said Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who was considered one of two swing votes, along with Councilor Jill Duson. “If you look at the zoning … it becomes very clear that what we’re talking about is an urban plaza. It’s not a park.”

Leeman then introduced several amendments to the sale agreement. After wrestling with the wording, councilors voted to approve the changes, which require that plans for the event facility receive city approval before the property is conveyed; that RockBridge pay for crating the Union Station clock, now displayed in the plaza,  and that the city begin work on an overall design for Congress Square by Oct. 4.

Duson expressed reservations about the deal, calling it “a little stingy.” But like Leeman, she voted in the affirmative.

“It is unusual to think about selling public space … but this is a unique circumstance,” she said. “I think (the sale) will result in a usable and inviting space for the people who live in the neighborhood.”

Marshall said he was frustrated because the city was resorting to the sale after years of neglecting the plaza, which some today see as a barren, little-used space that attracts illicit activity.

“(The plaza) is a failed public space because we let it fail,” he said. “The space could have had a much different future. … We’ve had this on our plate for years.”

Anton echoed Marshall, saying the council had failed as stewards of the city’s assets. Donoghue questioned how the city could sell most of the plaza before developing a design for the remaining public portion, a concern he had discussed in previous meetings.

“If you’re going to privatize two-thirds of (the plaza), is this the best use? It doesn’t follow to me that this justifies losing two-thirds of the park,” he said. “And one-third still doesn’t have a design.”

While councilors had the final say on Monday, members of the public managed to express their opinions.

After marching from Congress Square down Congress Street, opponents stood outside City Hall, holding signs, shouting and beating drums as the council began deliberations.

The meeting then briefly went into recess after a woman in the audience, Erika Elkins, stood and loudly told councilors she would outbid RockBridge to buy the plaza. After refusing to sit down, Elkins was removed from council chambers and arrested by police.

During parts of the meeting, a half-dozen members of the audience stood in opposition, their mouths taped shut and their backs turned to the council. Once the vote was taken, some of the crowd stormed out of the chambers, yelling “sell City Hall” as they left.

Despite the vote, opponents may get another chance to voice their displeasure with the sale if the Friends’ lawsuit proceeds.

On Sept. 6, the group began a citizens’ initiative to place the plaza and 34 other publicly owned properties in the city’s Land Bank, which protects designated open spaces that have environmental or recreational values. The initiative would also expand the types of property protected by the Land Bank to include “urban open public spaces.”

But on Friday, the city rejected the Friends’ petition, saying that such a citizens’ initiative would conflict with state and city law, which gives the council exclusive rights to decide on fiscal and administrative functions.

Turek’s statement on Monday night said the Friends will sue for the right to file the citizens’ initiative, and that the city’s rejection of the petition violates the group’s First Amendment rights.

“We do not take this action lightly,” Turek said. “The city should be working with us to protect our parks, not against us. The attempt to block our right to petition is in lock-step with the vote tonight to sell a vital downtown public open space.”

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

Sidebar Elements

Portland resident Sam Swenson holds a sign outside City Hall as the City Council prepared to vote Monday on the planned sale of Congress Square Plaza.

Council: Polystyrene ban needs more work

PORTLAND — A proposal to ban polystyrene foam food packaging will return to a City Council committee to be reworked, councilors decided Monday night.

The ubiquitous plastic, some of which is marketed under the brand name Styrofoam, is environmentally hazardous and can’t be readily recycled, critics claim.

Since March, a task force chaired by Councilor Ed Suslovic has been developing an ordinance to outlaw the stuff of coffee cups and take-out dinner containers. In July, the council’s Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee recommended the draft ordinance to the full council.

On Monday, nearly two dozen members of the public rose to address the council on the proposed ban. Many were business people or representatives of industry groups, who said the ban would burden them with excessive costs and is not clearly written.

Councilor David Marshall moved to bring the ordinance back to the committee, which he chairs, for further review and revision. The council agreed by an 8-1 vote, with Councilor Kevin Donoghue dissenting.

— William Hall