The folly of the Federal Street Folly

Developer Jim Brady and the Press Hotel on Congress Street in Portland. David Harry | The Forecaster

Developer Jim Brady and the Press Hotel on Congress Street in Portland. David Harry | The Forecaster

If there was any doubt remaining that the City of Portland puts the interests of wealthy developers and tourists ahead of those of ordinary locals, the Federal Street Folly should take care of that.

This aptly named mistake has all the elements exhibited in previous efforts to cater to rich visitors at the expense of the public, like the back-door push to sell Congress Square Park. City officials have bent over backward and bent the rules to accommodate a hotel developer’s public-land grab; the concerns of critics who value the space were ignored and then dismissed; and Portland’s art elites have given this project a patina of legitimacy that’s as weak and transparent as Scotch tape.

Meanwhile, no one in city government or the mainstream media is calling the Folly what it really is: the co-opting of a public street for private profit.

So let’s use the correct terminology right off the bat. The Folly was initiated by the developers of The Press Hotel, which occupies the building on Congress Street previously occupied by the Portland Press Herald. Commonly referred to as a “boutique hotel,” The Press Hotel is actually part of the Marriott chain. It fits the loose definition of “boutique” by virtue of the fact it has a theme (newspapers) and is located in an ugly building some might consider historic. But aside from a few decorative touches, almost all the rooms are the same, of a uniform size and furnishings. A boutique B&B it ain’t. This is a 110-room chain hotel run by a multinational corporation.

Unlike most hotels on the peninsula, this Marriott has no outdoor dining and drinking area. Its bounded on all four sides by public streets, two of which are one-way. So the only way to gain outdoor space is to take over part of a downtown street. In almost any other North American city, this would be a non-starter, but in Portland these days, it’s almost too easy.

The hotel’s management decided to annex a block of Federal Street for most of this summer and well into the fall. The block is one of the few connections between Exchange and Market streets, one-ways that run in opposite directions.

One would think a plan a close a downtown block during the busiest season of the year would require review by the planning board, a traffic study, and hefty fees. Small-business owners have to jump through similar administrative hoops to do things with much less impact on the public.

The Press Hotel needed none of that. Officials in City Hall circumvented the planning board by designating this project a “street festival.” It’s a funny kind of “festival,” in that it will continue around the clock for over three months, and the hotel’s management has yet to identify a single specific activity that will take place there, other than the sale of its own food and drinks.

In lieu of an expensive traffic study, the city was content to rely on the anecdotal opinion of a traffic engineer who said the Old Port isn’t very busy in the summer, so closing this block shouldn’t be a big deal.

The proprietors of small, independently owned businesses in the area don’t take such a blasé attitude toward the loss of parking spaces and the confusion the block’s closure will cause their customers to experience. The hotel’s outreach to these neighbors was, by its own admission, too little, too late. The city’s outreach was practically non-existent. Neither Mayor Mike Brennan, whose City Hall office is a block away, nor any city councilor (including Kevin Donoghue, who represents this district) bothered to stop in and talk with the owners of retail businesses on upper Exchange to hear their concerns.

It’s been estimated that a similar plan to close a downtown block for over a quarter of the year would cost upwards of $10,000 in fees. The Marriott is paying the city $600 for one lost parking space.

The board of Portland’s Downtown District (PDD), which was keen to sell Congress Square Park, apparently has a newfound appreciation for public space. Having cut all its arts programming in other downtown parks last year, the PDD is now allegedly working with the Marriott to find people to strum acoustic guitars and read poetry inside this AstroTurf playpen.

Big players in the so-called “creative economy,” like Portland Museum of Art Director Mark Bessire, threw their clout behind the Folly, claiming the undetermined and unfunded arts programming there will be a boon to the city. A year ago, Bessire wanted the city to sell most of Congress Square Park, a bigger and better space for the arts, to the Westin hotel chain.

The public put a stop to that folly. This Folly should meet the same fate.

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.