Published Date Written by Craig LyonsPortland residents continued to express their desire to keep Congress Square from being sold to the Eastland Park Hotel during a meeting Wednesday and urged a city committee to endorse redeveloping the park.
The city's Congress Square Redesign Study Committee met Wednesday night to continue its discussion about a proposal from RockBridge Capital — which owns the Eastland Park Hotel — to buy the land and create an events facility. Residents told the committee that they ought to pursue an option that retains the open space and redesigns the park to improve its condition rather than signing it over to RockBridge.
RockBridge Capital is interested in building a ballroom or events facility that would extend off the hotel and into the property that's now occupied by Congress Square Park along High Street. The developers have presented a tentative plan that would use a portion of the park for the ballroom and leave a "pocket park" along Congress Street for public use.
The company's intentions for the ballroom are entirely separate from the rest of the hotel renovation plans.
The square was built in 1981 as a part of the redevelopment in that area of Congress Street.
Members of the public voiced both support and opposition regarding the plans to convert the square into a ballroom.
Supporters argued that the city ought to support economic development in the downtown while opponents expressed the need to preserve open space within the city.
Maine Rep. Ben Chipman said the big question the city should consider is whether the proposal is in the public interest. He said he's spoken with a lot of people in the neighborhood and while they feel the park needs some improvements, they don't think that it should be sold off to a private developer.
Chipman said based on the level of opposition to the project he's heard, it doesn't seem to be in the public interest.
Dave Wagner said the park is important to artists who have a hard time finding space to showcase their work because of the city's high rents. He said the square is a place for people to go and sit down for a few minutes that's right in that section of town instead of being forced to go to Monument Square, Longfellow Square or Deering Oaks.
Wagner said the park is also a place for the city's indigent population and he thinks selling the space to a developer "is an example of corporate welfare." He said the hotel has evicted the low-income tenants and the city is now rewarding the company by selling them the park.
Sydney Bourke, said as a nanny, she often brings kids to Congress Square since there aren't many other places for kids to play outside. She said the square is very valuable to all types of people in the city.
Bourke said she realizes that the park needs some improvements to make it a better space for residents.
"I think the design is terrible, but I don't want to lose it," she said.
Not all the comments made Wednesday night were in favor of preserving the park.
Gift shop owner Dan Hatt said he's in favor of the city selling a portion of the park to the hotel and turning it into an events facility. He said he's heard people talk about the value of the park, yet he's never seen it used for events or gatherings.
"It's a disgrace to the city, it's a disgrace to the people trying to do business [in the area]," he said.
Hatt said if the facility brings 600 people into the downtown, those visitors are going to check out the shops and go to the restaurants.
Bull Feeney's owner Doug Fuss said a re-envisioned park and events facility could be a great gateway for the Arts District but what's now in Congress Square isn't inviting.
"Right now it's an eyesore," he said.
Whenever a large conference comes to Portland, business do feel the impact, Fuss said, but the city needs more and better facilities to accommodate those large events.
The City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee will revisit RockBridge's events facility proposal at its next meeting.