Big money vs. little people in Congress Square Park

The fight over the future of Congress Square Park is a struggle for Portland’s very soul. When voters go to the polls on June 10, the choice they make will determine whether the city’s residents value open public space or exclusive private development, amenities for locals or a function room for tourists, free arts and cultural events in the heart of the Arts District or expensive parties catering to monied out-of-towners.

I think you know by now where I stand on this issue. But I must reiterate a key point that park opponents are still trying to distort. The choice on June 10 is not between another private event space for the adjacent chain hotel and the park as it exists today. The choice is whether or not the people of Portland can maintain and improve this choice piece of public property for the benefit of all — hotel guests included.

A city task force was well on its way to improving Congress Square Park — on the verge of hiring an architect to draw up plans — when unelected city officials convinced enough of their elected counterparts to kill that effort and sell most of the park to developers from Ohio for a sum that even some supporters of the sale say is a bad deal: a little over half a million bucks for an urban park that cost three times as much to create over three decades ago, with no alternative open space in return for forfeiting this one.

Speaking of that initial public investment, I recently obtained (with help from the activist group Friends of Congress Square Park) correspondence between city and federal officials that calls the city’s right to sell the park into question. Because the city used federal Housing & Urban Development funds to create the park at the dawn of the ’80s, its ability to sell the property is restricted by numerous factors. The most relevant condition for the change of use the city is seeking is that the sale meet one of HUD’s “national objectives.”

City officials think the sale meets two of those objectives: eliminating blight and benefiting low- or moderate-income people, specifically by creating jobs for them. To say the sale meets the first condition is patently ridiculous. It’s essentially telling the feds: “You gave us public money to create this open space, we allowed it to become blighted, so now we want your permission to sell it to a private developer.” Good luck with that argument.

The jobs objective is only slightly less absurd. The Westin Portland Harborview Hotel already has nearly 16,000 square feet of space for corporate conferences and events of the type the proposed event center would host, and enough staff to cook for and clean up after those guests. How many additional full-time jobs would be created if another function room was built? Would the hotel have to hire another full-time staff person just to book that room or sweep its floor or mix cocktails on the relative handful of days during the year that it’s in use?

If the city is found to have failed to meet any of those conditions, it may still be able to sell the park, but it would likely be obligated to repay HUD hundreds of thousands of dollars, making a terrible deal even worse for taxpayers.

Speaking of big money, a new political action committee has been formed to fight against the citizens’ initiative. The Forward Portland PAC’s leaders include former City Councilor and Mayor Jim Cohen (a corporate lawyer and lobbyist who lives in North Deering), former Councilor and Mayor Nathan Smith (a commercial real estate attorney who also enjoys plenty of open space off the peninsula) and corporate attorney David Very (“sole Maine counsel for one of the nation’s largest home improvement ‘big box’ retailers,” according to his online bio).

Also on board: Rosemont Market owner John Naylor and my old pal Lauren Wayne, who manages the State Theatre across the street from the park. I find it more than a little obnoxious that the guy selling pricey produce and the gal hawking pricey concert tickets are teaming up to take away a public park enjoyed by people who shop at Paul’s Food Center and put on free shows in Congress Square.

And speaking of free shows, the Friends have teamed up with SPACE Gallery to present music, art, dance, movies and other events in Congress Square Park throughout this summer, and SPACE commissioned a local artist to make the handsome wooden seating installation recently placed in the middle of the square. The Westin’s management may even sponsor one or two of these events. It seems like even they are beginning to see the light.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.