On its face, the argument in favor of selling Congress Square Park to the redevelopers of the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel is a strong one. The sunken concrete square in downtown Portland is a “failed” public space where the homeless and nearly homeless drink, smoke, pee, fight and otherwise scare away more civilized citizens. The event facility the developers are proposing will bring more visitors to town, stimulate the local economy and create jobs. The city can use the money it gets from selling the park to create or improve another public space in the area, and the portion of the square that remains will be a welcoming little plaza with benches and trees that people of every socioeconomic level will enjoy.
I’ll admit that during the past year or so this proposal has been debated, I’ve been inclined to support it. Then I recently took the time to really think about it, and the more I considered this idea, the worse it seemed.
Let’s start with the first premise: The park is a “failed” space. To the extent this is true, the blame lies squarely with many of the same city officials now entertaining the idea of selling it. The city’s failure to properly maintain and police this public park is not a valid reason to privatize it. Rather, it’s a wake-up call for municipal officials and cops to do the job we’ve entrusted and paid them to do: Make our public parks pleasant and safe.
To City Hall’s credit, a task force was formed three years ago to study the square and come up with ideas to improve it. The group recommended using a $50,000 grant to hire a landscape architect, but that effort was put on the back burner when the hotel’s redevelopers — Ohio-based RockBridge Capital and Connecticut-based New Castle Hotels & Resorts — expressed interest in buying the park.
The developers’ first two proposals were rejected by a city committee last summer, but RockBridge and New Castle pledged to go back to the drawing board and submit an amended plan, effectively delaying the city’s redesign effort another nine months. The proposal they unveiled last month further reduces the size of the event center but still takes up most of the square, leaving little more than a widened stretch of sidewalk for public use.
The argument that the event center will bring new visitors, dollars and jobs to town is also weak. There are two excellent places to hold events and conventions of similar size downtown: the Holiday Inn By the Bay on Spring Street and the magnificent Masonic Temple on Congress Street. A third facility for the same types of gatherings will be part of the massive Forefront at Thompson’s Point project expected to break ground next month, and there are other comparable spaces elsewhere on the peninsula.
An event center at the newly renamed Westin Portland Harborview would compete with all those other facilities for the same dollars. Events and conventions booked at the Westin are not a net gain for the city if a similar space nearby is empty as a result. And besides, there will be eight meeting rooms and ballrooms inside the hotel itself, including a space larger than the event center being proposed for Congress Square.
In their latest proposal, the developers wrote that the center “would add likely 25 more permanent jobs” to Portland. If the center were fully booked every day of the year, I might believe it could support more than two dozen full-time jobs, in addition to the hotel’s other event staff. In reality, we could expect a handful of part-time, low-paid workers to keep the Sterno pots under the buffet trays lit and sweep the floor.
The alternative public spaces suggested to replace Congress Square are all inferior, impractical or both. One is a wider stretch of sidewalk on Spring Street expected to be created after the Civic Center is renovated (way too small). Another is the little parking lot at the corner of Spring and High streets (also too small; plus, it would screw the owners of two bars across the street whose patrons use those spaces). The third is the top level of the Spring Street parking garage (no comment).
Ironically, the development of the newly refurbished luxury hotel will do more than anything else to improve the adjacent square by increasing foot traffic and visibility. Beyond that, the solution is pretty simple: add more benches, plantings and some tables, police the place and program more arts events there. Selling this public park should not be an option.