Projects would transform 'key gateway' to Portland's Arts District

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PORTLAND — On a recent Friday afternoon, only pigeons and a few weathered men occupied Congress Square, a stone-paved public park adjacent to the Eastland Park Hotel.

Another man leaned behind an electrical box to urinate. Pedestrians walked briskly around the area, rather than cutting through the park, which would require them to go down some stairs and back up to the sidewalk.

For Melissa Rivera, who owns Lalo, an eclectic boutique of Maine-made art, accessories and clothing on High Street, it was just another day at the park.

“It definitely needs improvement,” the 34-year-old Rivera said as she looked across the street at the square. “There is so much homelessness, mental illness and indecency.”

If the Eastland Hotel has its way, most of the square would be developed into a ballroom. It’s one of two projects at the Congress and High street intersection that could potentially remake “a key gateway” of the arts district.

Across the intersection, the Schwartz Building at 600-604 Congress St. has been in disrepair for more than a year. Despite several delays, the development team that owns the building says it’s getting closer to resuming work on the property. A city committee will take up the plan in January.

The ballroom proposal by Rockbridge Capital, which owns the Eastland, caused a task force that studied ways to improve the square to reconsider its recommendation that the city seek bids to improve the park as a public open space.

The ballroom would be part of an estimated $35 million renovation of the 241-room hotel.

The park keeps the Police Department busy. This year, police have been called about 100 times, most often for complaints about drinking in public and pedestrian checks.

The task force encouraged the city to consider the Eastland’s proposal, which would take up most of the park. That proposal still needs to be reviewed by the City Council’s Community Development Committee, which next meets in January.

Last week, however, the Creative Portland Corp. met with City Hall staff in an effort to have a strong voice in any redevelopment project.

The non-profit group founded in 2008 to find ways to improve the creative economy and the Arts District said the project would have a ripple effect on the creative economy.

“It’s very much a prime spot in the arts district,” said Andrew Graham, president of Creative Portland’s board of directors.

The group asked whether the Eastland proposal would be the highest and best use of the land. Several members said without a formal request for development proposals, the city would never know what other development ideas are out there.

“We don’t know what else could be,” Graham said.

City Planner Alex Jeagerman said the city would be a “forceful negotiator” regarding the design of any development, if the City Council approves of the use.

Jaegerman said the Eastland’s owners have been receptive to the city’s suggestions. They originally wanted to build a single-story building, he said, but city officials pressed for a three-story structure with associated art uses.

Jaegerman said the developers are even considering building a green roof that would be open to the public.

Other creative ideas floated by committee members include building the ballroom underground, with windows allowing daylight to filter in, as well as having Eastland employees operate a centralized ticket concierge service for local events.

Board member Arthur Fink said the group should have a “strong voice” in any plans for the square, and Graham said the arts community should receive benefits beyond additional gallery space.

Graham said Creative Portland gets its funding through tax increment financing in the arts district, giving the group a real stake in the outcome.

City Councilor David Marshall, who serves on both the task force and the Creative Portland board, said the task force did not take lightly its recommendation to pursue the Eastland’s proposal.

Marshall said he expectsd the plan to go through a robust public process, and Creative Portland has a key role to play.

Board member David Wade also questioned the fate of a mural on the outside of the Eastland. Even if the mural is privately owned by the Eastland, it has value as public art, he said.

“The mural that is there is in somewhat disrepair, but it has a history,” Wade said. “That is a piece of public art in terms of what the public appreciates. If it’s going to be eliminated it should be in a sense replaced as a continuum of art in the public sphere.”

It’s not the only piece of history in the square, which is also home to the iconic clock that once stood high above Union Station, before the train station was torn down 50 years ago.

Schwartz Building

Across the Congress-and-High intersection from Congress Square Park, developers are still moving forward on renovations to the 1920s Schwartz Building at 600-604 Congress St.

Activity has largely been on hold since the ground floor exterior was demolished in October 2010.

The project is expected to convert about 20 studio apartments, which did not meet minimum standards set by the city, into 12 more up-to-date, spacious apartments. It may also include a first-floor restaurant.

The project will not trigger the city’s housing replacement ordinance, since it would preserve the total residential square footage.

Attorney Paul Bulger, who represents the building’s owner, Geoffrey Rice, said the delays have been caused by Rice’s interest in getting state and federal historic tax credits for the renovations.

That means the renovations must comply with strict historical standards, Bulger said.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager, said the Maine Historic Preservation Commission has signed off on the repairs. She expects the National Parks Service to soon give its OK, too.

That should clear the way for proposed facade improvements to go before the city’s Historic Preservation Board on Jan. 4. If approved, work could begin as soon as Rice is ready.

“It’s a key corner – a ket gateway – into the city,” Andrews said.

Bulger said another cause for the delay is upgrading power to the site. It would have cost nearly $400,000 to connect to the Congress Street network, which he said was too expensive.

Instead, power will be brought into the building from Park Street, Bulger said. But since it took time to work out easements with property owners, that work will not begin until the spring.

Bulger said Rice is excited about the redevelopment, but he is being patient and deliberate with his actions. The project continues to move forward, he said.

“We’ll get there,” Bulger said. “We’re excited about it.”

For shop-owner Rivera, the transformation of the Congress Square intersection cannot come soon enough. She said both projects will change the “look and feel” of the area.

“The more storefronts you have, the less (problems) you would have,” she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements

Congress Square, and the high-traffic intersection of Congress and High streets in Portland, are poised for a major transformation.