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Preserving open space, promoting development central issues in ballroom proposal

There are two conflicting issues to consider with the idea of letting the Eastland Park Hotel build a ballroom on Congress Square: The need to support economic development and the need to preserve open space in Portland.
Both perspectives were voiced last night when the City Council's Housing and Community Development Subcommittee held a meeting with RockBridge Capital, the Eastland's developers, and members of the public to weigh in on the ballroom idea. RockBridge Capital wants to build a ballroom that would extend off the hotel and into the property that's now occupied by Congress Square Park along High Street.5-10-view-from-eastland
Adam Valente, a senior vice president with RockBridge Capital, said as the plans for the renovation of the hotel are being finalized, the idea of creating a ballroom and function space came up.
"We've spent a lot of time, resources playing with this idea," he said.
A ballroom and function space is something that's missing in the downtown, said Valente, and it presents an opportunity to draw more people in and leverage local businesses.
Valente said the company wants to work with the city and residents to see if a ballroom addition to the hotel is an amenable idea.
"It's important to us it's a partnership," he said.
Alex Jaegerman, director of the city's planning division, said the square was built in 1981 as a part of the redevelopment in that area.
"We've struggled with Congress Square plaza ever since," he said. "It's in a tired state of affairs."
The city established a task force that would look at the possibilities for the park, according to Jaegerman, and when new owners took over the Eastland, they were brought into that conversation. It was during that process, he said, that the idea of a ballroom extension was first floated, and the task force felt that it could be possible as long as concessions are made to accommodate the public in that area.
"This is vital public space," said Jamie Parker, chairman of the city's parks commission. He said he's heard feedback both in favor of and against the project but one main theme is that whatever is done should be in the best interest of the public.
Jim Devine said while the plan is impressive, the loss of public space is his biggest concern. He said he doesn't like the idea of the space being converted into an exclusive space for high-income people and pushing the people Portland represents out of the way.
"I think the value of having public space where people can go and not have to pay to get it is very important," he said.
Pandora Lacasse said she's seen her neighborhood change drastically with new residential developments on Congress, High and Danforth streets and what's lacking is public space. She said a vibrant city has neighborhood open spaces where people can sit, talk and eat.
"Congress Square really can be that spot," she said.
Lacasse said she doesn't necessarily oppose the idea that the hotel has proposed but thinks it would simply cost the city too much public space.
Jan Beitzer, executive director of the Portland Downtown District who was speaking as a resident, said the key thing for the project is that public space is preserved in some fashion.
"It doesn't have to be there but it has to be accounted for," she said.
Congress Square has long been neglected and it's been a barrier to drawing functions and groups into the downtown, said Barbara Whitten, president and CEO of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said the GPCVB is embracing the ballroom development because it presents an opportunity that will generate business, increase revenue for the city and increase tourism.
"This is an amazing opportunity for us," she said.
Doug Fuss, president of the Portland Downtown District's board of directors, said that kind of an addition at the hotel would complement the increasing activity in the Arts District.
"The hotel needs this," he said. "We have to do as much as we possibly can to make them successful."
"The city needs this," he added. "It needs this because for over 20 years trying to do something with Congress Square and we've failed to do anything."
Lin Lisberger said economic development isn't just about commerce but also about having open space so people have a place they can use.
"If we have to come up with a compromise it can't be one that compromises the use of public space in Congress Square," she said.

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