PORTLAND — At a much-anticipated meeting May 29, the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 to open negotiations for selling much of Congress Square Plaza to owners of the neighboring Eastland Park Hotel.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue cast the dissenting vote.
The hotel owners, RockBridge Capital LLC and New Castle Hotels & Resorts, are hoping to acquire 9,400 square feet of the plaza – about two-thirds of the space – from the city to build an event center for conferences and meetings. The center would adjoin the hotel, now in the middle of a $50 million renovation and scheduled to reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in December.
But the decision to open negotiations was contingent on the committee first being satisfied with a preliminary design for the space. Over the course of nearly two years, the hotel owners presented three designs; the third was unveiled April 24, and then scaled back slightly in response to public feedback.
The issue of whether to accept the design and sell the public space has been divisive. Critics have called for the hardscaped plaza at Congress and High streets to remain public and for the city to improve it. Backers of the proposal have said the current plaza has failed as a public space, and that the event center would bring new life to the area.
At the committee meeting, members of the public spoke for nearly two hours in support of and in opposition to the plan.
“This will contribute absolutely nothing to the city,” said Frank Turek, who leads the Friends of Congress Square Park, a neighborhood group opposing a sale. He called the reductions in the design’s size a “false compromise” that only means “someone is planning to take less away from you.”
But Doug Fuss, president of Portland’s Downtown District, said the issue is one of the quality of the open space, not the quantity. He said the event center would attract visitors, and praised the hotel owners for pledging $50,000 to fund improvements in the remaining 4,800-square-foot public portion of the plaza.
“The city really hasn’t had skin in the game. This developer does … We believe this can be a showcase and a gateway to the arts district,” Fuss said.
With the vote of the committee, city staff will now begin negotiating a potential sale of the space to the hotel owners. As in other sales of city property, those discussions will be held behind closed doors. Any sale would require approval by the City Council, and the formal plans for the event center would require approvals from the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Board.