Published Date Written by Curtis RobinsonLet's begin with a quick demographic test. Answer quickly and truthfully
When you hear the term "the street" you think:
A. Slang term for populist protest, i. e. "the Arab street."
B. Common term for American financial industry. "Stocks were down, and the street responded quickly today. ..."
C. Rent is 10 days late!
It's a good test this week as some Portlanders recover from those mysterious whirling sounds tormenting much of he city. Originally thought to be a subtle sound-ordinance protest, it turned out to be the collective in-their-graves spinning of the entire Olmstead family.
How in the world could a city so rooted in the way-back-then designs of the famous Olmsteads, those of designing Central Park and creating the first landscape architecture company, end up like this?
Of course, the topic is Congress Square, that failed bit of hose-friendly cement park design that proves we sometimes live less in harmony than homonym.
A committee of the city council last week pretty much pushed "reset" on plans to convert much of the space to a ballroom for the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel. But the discussion continues like one of the street preachers who frequent the park.
You can't really fault the city, if only because the Parkside Neighborhood Association was so strongly opposed. If you can't spin the neighbors, good luck with the city.
But when the Association demands that the city flatly deny the sale of public open space to private parties, it takes some of the more interesting options off the table. Because you have to believe the developer, Rockbridge Capital, when it denies having expansion designs when it bought the 85-year-old hotel last year for $6.9 million and launched a $30 million renovation.
You can just see that at the pitch meeting: "Yeah, J.B,, we'll just pump 30 million into the old hotel then we'll just, you know, bounce the homeless out of the cement park with a ballroom, yeah, a ballroom!"
The voice of reason here turns out to be Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who took the time to serve on a neighborhood planning committee, when she says that the entire project comes down to design — and she reportedly balks at some blanket statement that the city will never, ever consider selling public spaces.
Of course, why trust "the city" to have the great idea here?
Let me cite fellow PDS columnist Bob Higgins, who wrote of the debate that "... in the end, the issue of this park comes down to neglect. Failure to use it, failure to monitor it, and failure to maintain it ... hence the image of the chipped paint mural ... somebody else somewhere else paid for it [via federal grant], and in the 30 years since, it has been valued less and less as a park. In the last ten years, the city has become unhappy with a space that was gifted, and now seeks to jingle the collection basket under the nose of the newest folks to come to town."
And, just to continue echoing my fellow commentators, let's review Christian MilNeil's take on "a healthy debate" but also the contention that "... all the debate over Congress Square leads me to lament the lack of attention paid to a much bigger public space in Portland — indeed, the city's largest public open space ... our public streets and sidewalks literally lie at the front door of our homes and businesses ... so why do activists get outraged about a hotel's proposal to take over less than an acre of a failed park in Congress Square, while high-speed traffic from the suburbs is allowed to take over hundreds of acres of our public streets citywide?"
See, now that's the kind of debate worthy of the Olmstead family dinner table.
It's worth noting that the best thing the city has done for Congress Square has not been specific to the park, but has been the creation and support for the so-called "street teams" that offer a non-police solution to some of the more harsh street-people challenges. The teams can counsel people about laws and assistance, but can also transport intoxicated individuals to detox facilities.
The teams have diverted literally hundreds of folks from the old police-and-ER route into a much, much cheaper and more humane process.
That said, Congress Square still looms as the latest dance between public use and municipal concerns. Saying that public space should not EVER be converted to private use ignores everything from waterfront development to unloading zones to your favorite cafe expanding its dining space into the sidewalk. (Not to mention "Occupy" issues.)
Another concern is obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Olmsted theory. Their concept is that our public spaces are background to our public life, and whisper volumes about how we interact among classes, ideals and opinions.
When a city's most significant public spaces are failing, and Congress Square is that by most (but not all) standards, it should give us pause to consider the whirling ghosts of our proud civic tradition.
(Curtis Robinson is the founding editor of The Portland Daily Sun.)