With parks referendum looming, Portland City Council rezones urban squares

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PORTLAND — In a 50-minute meeting Monday that set an ambitious agenda for June 16, City Councilors approved rezoning 10 urban squares and parks to prevent additional development or sale.

By a unanimous vote, Bramhall, Boothby, Congress, Longfellow and Monument squares, along with Lobsterman Plaza and Bell Buoy, Lincoln, Post Office and Tommy’s parks were designated as recreation and open space areas.

The rezoned area of Congress Square does not include the approximate 9,500 square feet City Councilors agreed to sell to RockBridge Capital last September so the company could build an event center connected to the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

The rezoning effort that removes the properties largely from downtown business zones (Bell Buoy Park is now zoned as waterfront central and Bramhall Square is in a community business zone) was initiated by Councilor Kevin Donoghue in March as councilors considered alternatives to next week’s citizen initiative that would add 35 properties to the city land bank.

Voters will consider the referendum question Tuesday, June 10. Donoghue, who opposed the sale of Congress Square Park, said when introducing the rezoning measure that it is important to protect other urban squares and parks, no matter what voters decide about expanding the land bank and requiring eight councilors to approve a sale of a land bank parcel.

A companion order removes a two-acre minimum on lands zoned as recreation and open space.

Dining in open space became a topic of discussion as councilors approved permits allowing outdoor seating at Benkay Japanese Restaurant at 2 India St., and Empire at 575 Congress St.

High Street resident Steven Scharf said outdoor dining spaces are beginning to encroach on public sidewalks beyond what is allowed. He also expressed doubt the sidewalk in front of Benkay is as wide as described in council documents.

Donoghue and Councilors Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones said they have also heard complaints about the loss of sidewalk space, and encouraged anyone with complaints about a lack of accessibility to contact the city.

A third restaurant permit was postponed to June 16 when city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said city staff and the owners of the Porthole Restaurant, 20 Custom House Wharf, are trying to resolve questions about work done without city permits.

City staff had recommended councilors deny renewal of the restaurant’s license, although Portland Police Sgt. Gary Hutcheson said the department had no objection to the renewal.

City Deputy Director of Inspection Jonathan Rioux said restaurant owner Ken MacGowen was issued a stop work order last November and again in May after inspectors discovered renovations to the kitchen, bar and other areas were taking place without a building permit.

Councilors also moved closer to instituting a 5-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at point-of-sale supermarkets and convenience stores, and a ban on polystyrene drink and food containers.

The first readings of both measures were held without public comment. Members of the public will be heard June 16, before the council’s final vote.

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

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.