Portland's Congress Square in flux as lawsuit against city goes to court

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PORTLAND — Courtroom arguments are scheduled Wednesday in a lawsuit seeking to force the city to expand protection of its open spaces.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, the city was scheduled to begin reviewing bids from prospective consultants to create a master design for Congress Square, home to the open space that sparked the lawsuit.

The Friends of Congress Square Park sued the city after the group was blocked in an attempt to launch a citizens’ initiative that would preserve 35 spaces under the city’s Land Bank ordinance. The spaces include the concrete plaza at Congress and High streets, where owners of the soon-to-be-opened Westin Portland Harborview Hotel hope to build an adjoining event facility.

Both sides have submitted preliminary motions to Superior Court, which gave the suit an expedited original hearing date of Oct. 24, one month after the suit was filed. But the case was delayed until this week because of a scheduling conflict.

Robert Levin, a lawyer representing the Friends, said on Oct. 25 that the group still hopes the court will order the city clerk to provide petition forms for the initiative in time for volunteers to begin collecting  signatures on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 5. The Friends are already recruiting and training the volunteers, he said.

The city rejected the initiative attempt on the grounds it would conflict with state and city laws that gives the City Council exclusive decision-making power in fiscal and administrative functions.

The Friends would have to collect 1,500 signatures from registered voters within 80 days to put the changes to a referendum, which could occur as soon as next June.

“Voters should have a say, and they’re free to reject (the expanded protections),” Levin said. “Park land is one of the most important ways in which Portlanders interact with city government. This is not just about Congress Square Park, it’s about having a conversation. Unfortunately, the city doesn’t want to have that conversation.”

City staff attorney Jennifer Thompson disagreed.

“Conversation is important, but the question is the context,” Thompson said. “Conversation happened during the public meetings. These issues are now left to the people’s municipal representatives. The city respects the right of the people to initiate an ordinance like this. The problem here is that the subject matter infringes on the role granted to the City Council.”

The city has also been having conversations about overhauling the entire Congress Square area.

On Aug. 1, the city’s Planning Division launched a “visioning process” to collect ideas for improving the design and use of the square, which includes the plaza, the intersection, traffic islands and public spaces in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the iconic Hay Building.

The results are intended to “inform” the development of a master design for the square, according to Jeff Levine, the city’s director of planning and urban Development.

But the process was criticized by some as being “too little, too late,” since at the time it began the city was already negotiating the sale of about two-thirds of the 14,000-square-foot plaza to the Westin’s owner, RockBridge Capital. In fact, a deal was struck two weeks later, and approved by the council on Sept. 16.

The visioning included an online survey, a website, a Twitter feed and public signs where ideas for the square could be submitted. Two public meetings were also held in late September.

Earlier this month, the Planning Division compiled the input in 29 pages of documentation posted on the city website. Ideas receiving the most support included using the square for public events, such as performances, music and art shows. People also suggested improving the square with green space, seating, restrooms, art and water installations.

Levine called the input “outstanding,” and said he was pleased that the use of social media allowed many people to voice their opinions – with some ideas endorsed by more than 100 people.

“It was important to get ideas from everyone,” he said, not just those attending City Hall meetings.

The input helped city planners on Oct. 4 issue a request-for-proposals that will be used to select a consultant. The input will also be formalized in a public report expected next week, according to Levine.

He wouldn’t share details about the bids on the $100,000 design project before the proposals were unsealed Tuesday afternoon. But he said there are a “decent number, including some from well-respected national firms.”

A consultant will “hopefully” be selected by December, although he said it’s too early to tell when the city might get a first look at a design for the square.

According to the RFP, the design must accommodate a planned public art installation, funded with $150,000 from the city’s capital budget.

The square’s new design – especially for its first phase, focusing on the portion of the plaza not being sold – must also be integrated with the Westin’s event facility plans, which are being drawn up.

It’s unclear when the facility plans will be ready, but in order for the plaza sale to be completed, they’ll have to be consistent with a rough design approved by a City Council committee in May. The plans will also have to receive approvals of the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board.

The design for the square will ultimately need Preservation Board approval, too, although probably not the OK of the Planning Board, according to Levine.

The result is a maze of uncertainty: two sets of blueprints in the works, multiple approvals required of each, a pending lawsuit and a potential referendum that could stop the first major addition to Congress Square in 30 years.

“Both parties can proceed at their peril,” Levin said.

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