Portland panel: Redesign Congress Square without hotel event center

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PORTLAND — The committee studying ways to reconfigure Congress Square will not recommend selling part of the plaza to the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel when it reports back to the City Council next week.

By a 10-5 vote, co-chairman Councilor David Marshall said Monday, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group chose an option presented by Boston consultants KMDG to create a widened gathering space with new plantings; a pergola above the space between the hotel and Congress Street; raising the surface on Congress Street, and eliminating the entrance lane to Free Street from eastbound Congress and northbound High streets.

The preliminary cost estimate is $1.2 million. Marshall said it is closer to the intent of the redesign considered before hotel owners offered to buy almost two-thirds of the area outside the hotel in 2011.

The redesign would also level out the sunken area off sidewalks on Congress and High streets, and a stage area set against the wall of the hotel.

The group also considered a KMDG design featuring a multi-level open space above a hotel event center, with an estimated cost of $1.7 million.

Committee proponents of the more expensive design included the Westin general manager, Bruce Wennerstrom, and Lynn Tillotson, president and chief executive of the Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Wennerstrom was unavailable for comment this week, but Tillotson said in an email Tuesday the plan that included the event center would have provided the best economic boost for the city.

“I thought that both options were really well done, but the rooftop option seems to be a win-win for everyone,” Tillotson said. “A meeting room with 5,000 square feet could accommodate approximately 500 people. Just one group of 500 is a large economic driver for our community.”

Marshall said access to the rooftop park by a 481-foot ramp was a drawback, as was the cost of supporting the building to hold the weight of a gathering space above. Estimates to reinforce the building were about $50 per square foot, he said, or $450,000.

The group was asked to evaluate and recommend the options, first introduced in July by city Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine, and report back to the City Council by Nov. 17.

Marshall said the recommendation also considers potential changes to area traffic patterns, including the return of two-way traffic to High Street, which is now under a separate study. The raised surface and added bollards at the intersection of Congress, High and Free streets did not trouble him in terms of traffic flow, he said.

“I’m sure we will hear concerns,” he said. “If it has an impact, it will be a very small impact as far as vehicles are concerned.”

Any sale of space adjacent to the hotel would likely require public approval, because Portland voters in June placed the space into the city land bank with the provision at least eight councilors would have to approve a land bank sale in order to avert a referendum vote.

In September 2013, councilors voted 6-3 to sell the 9,000-square-foot space to the hotel, with Marshall and working group co-chairman Councilor Kevin Donoghue among those opposed.

The sale was never completed because of the June 10 vote, which Marshall said also indicated the rooftop park and hotel event center would not be popular.

Tillotson disagreed.

“People find rooftop space alluring and unique,” she said. “Congress Square is a very busy intersection with vehicles using it as a through-way from one side of the city to the other and don’t care about slowing down. The rooftop plan offers a more relaxing space with beautiful views of the city.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. 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.