Preliminary redesign sees Portland's Congress Square as gathering place

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PORTLAND — It could be greener, larger, and maybe wetter.

The potential future of Congress Square was revealed Dec. 15 to a crowd of about 100 people at the Portland Westin Harborview Hotel in a presentation detailing the layout and ideas for public art.

“When you look at this site, there is something missing: the steps,” Keiko Tsuruta Cramer, a principal at Wallace, Roberts & Todd, said as she introduced a preliminary concept of sloping park paths between the Westin and Congress Street.

WRT, an urban planning, design, landscape architecture, and architecture firm based in Philadelphia, was selected in May from four finalists in a competition that drew 12 applicants. 

The firm’s concept would also place a stage in a rear corner of the plaza, and the entire effect of a public gathering space would extend to the area in front of the Portland Museum of Art.

With widened sidewalks and the elimination of two turning lanes to Free Street, the Congress Square redesign would encompass the area from the hotel to museum and include the intersections of Congress, High and Free streets.

Cramer said the present open space is “undefined.”

Misa Hsinyi Chen, a WRT senior associate, and independent horticulturalist Patrick Cullina joined Cramer in detailing the overall design of curved walking paths, an outdoor cafe and potentially a center space with water jets, mist sprayers or a very shallow wading area called a “scrim pool.” 

The landscaping now in place would be removed in favor of trees and plantings that would also extend along Congress, Free and High streets. The areas are called “green islands” in the WRT presentation.

“We want to incorporate a dynamic landscape, (to) create a sense of an emergent living component pushing up through these spaces,” Cullina said.

Artist Sarah Sze of New York, selected to work with WRT to create public art for the redesigned plaza, was unable to attend the forum. Her assistant, David Ramirez, detailed the concept of placing three sculptures in the plaza.

Sze has not yet decided on final designs, but Ramirez said she is interested in three sculptures inside the plaza, placed in the planters Cullina hopes to install.

The art would be a “trail of moments … forming a chain of experience,” Ramirez said.

Designers drew from a series of public workshops in October and will continue to accept public comment through Jan. 15 at http://bit.ly/2hmN591.

Workshop responses stressed equal accessibility and a desire for gathering and performance spaces. The clock from the former Union Station, which was torn down more than 50 years ago, would also be removed, but there would remain room for food trucks.

Details on materials to be used for sidewalks or planters have not been decided, Cramer said. The brick sidewalks would because they are in a city historical zone.

The designers have experience in urban landscapes. WRT has redesigned areas outside a former steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Dutch Kills Green in Queens, New York.

Sze’s work has been exhibited in Venice and on the High Line, a park converted from an elevated railroad line in Manhattan’s Lower West Side.

Sze was one of 97 artists competing to work with the winning design team and was chosen in August from a field of four finalists.

Commissions to WRT and Sze have been paid with $225,000 the city Public Art Commission has set aside. No cost estimates have been made on the redesign or art.

Chen said another public forum will be held sometime in February before a final design is made and fundraising begins.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The proposed redesign of Congress Square in Portland would remove steps and add trees and other plantings along new paths.

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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.