Short Relief: Congress Square Plaza plan deserves Portland's support

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The intersection of Congress and High streets in Portland has been many things over the years.

In the 1800s, it was home to four churches. The corner has been occupied by a wooden row house, the Gold Medal Flour Co., Greely’s Laundry, the Congress Square Hotel, a Walgreen’s drug store, and a Dunkin’ Donuts shop, among other things.

By 1979, the intersection had become a problem. The focus of the city had shifted toward the waterfront. Owners were neglecting their buildings, and their buildings were deteriorating. Transients, prostitutes, drug dealers and adult entertainment establishments were upsetting nearby elderly residents and others.

The city applied for a $43 million dollar urban development grant to improve the area. It involved eight transactions, including public improvements and upgrading the Eastland Hotel. The hotel transaction included money to demolish the blighted buildings on the northeast corner and build a plaza.

It remains largely unchanged to this day: a roughly 15,000-square-foot, brick-and-concrete plaza with a few planting beds and a sunken center. It never worked. There are a variety of theories why, including that it is too big, deep, dark, hard and charmless.

Over the past 30 years, the city has done little to alter the original design. In the 1990s, the council added a stage and tried a variety of programming to improve the plaza’s appeal, including art shows and concerts. It didn’t help.

In September of 2008, the City Council appointed an advisory committee to study the problem. According to the city’s website, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group meets as needed, first met in April of 2010, and has met a total of five times as of its May 22 meeting.

In October of 2011, the new owners of the Eastland Hotel, RockBridge Capital, proposed keeping about a third of the plaza and using the other two-thirds to build a ballroom. The Study Group wasn’t convinced that proposal was in the best interests of the city. In May of 2012, the Group concluded that the residual open space in the RockBridge plan was insufficient.

In April of 2013, RockBridge came back with a modified proposal for a scaled-down event space and plaza as part of its $50 million renovation of the hotel. Their sketches depict an inviting space with good outdoor seating options that is nicely proportioned and coordinates with the other anchors of the intersection: the Hay Building, Portland Museum of Art and State Theater building.

In response, one of the members of the Study Group started The Friends of Congress Square Park and circulated petitions that he said had the signatures of 924 Portland residents who wanted to keep Congress Square a public park. An Occupy Maine activist argued that the square should remain public space in the interest of freedom, beauty, and community. Mayor Michael Brennan was quoted as saying that RockBridge’s proposal was “substantive and credible,” “a great starting point for discussion,” but not necessarily the “end point.”

In November of 2010, Portland voted to change its charter to incorporate a full-time, paid, elected mayor. My recollection is that Portlanders wanted a mayor because they had seen too many important decisions made by indecision and too many opportunities lost while the council and its advisory committees processed things to death. Like the opportunity to have someone take responsibility for the Maine State Pier.

Portland should be an economic engine. It takes more than a slogan and a promotion plan. Tourism is an important part of our city’s economy. Tourists will pay to enjoy the beauty of Casco Bay, our vibrant food and arts scene. They will use Portland as a gateway to explore the rest of Maine. They need places to stay. RockBridge is investing to upgrade the Eastland to a first class hotel.

We should support their effort, including the plan for Congress Square Plaza.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.