Privatizing Congress Square Park: A bad trip

On Aug. 1, Portland officials announced the launch of a “visioning process for the redesign and programming of Congress Square.” Unfortunately, this “visioning process” does not involve peyote, The Doors, or a sweaty trek across the Desert of Maine.

Instead, the city is asking residents to provide feedback via a website, an online survey or Twitter. People are also encouraged to write their ideas on signs erected around the square and in City Hall, and to attend public “visioning meetings” this month and next where hallucinogens will most likely not be provided.

That said, this vision quest is no more real than any other hallucination. Since last spring, city officials have been involved in secretive negotiations with an out-of-state investment firm, RockBridge Capital, that bought the adjacent Eastland Park Hotel in 2011 and wants to buy the public’s park for its private use as an event center. With a deal now close at hand — another closed-door meeting to discuss the final terms took place this week — city officials are attempting to gloss this big-money land-grab with a patina of “public input” in a pathetic attempt to blunt criticism of this outrageous breach of the public’s trust.

I already provided feedback in a column published here last May (“Another Congress that shouldn’t be for sale”) and in a follow-up piece in June (“To save Congress Square, throw all the bums out”). But since the city is now asking for more — the visioning process is called “#Congress Square — What do You Want?” — I’m glad to oblige.

The first thing I want is for the denizens of City Hall behind this farce to stop insulting the public that pays their salaries by asking Portlanders to spend their time and tax money on this “visioning process.”

In the press release announcing the initiative, city spokesperson Nicole Clegg, its author, attempts to redefine the boundaries of Congress Square to include not only the concrete park, that for decades has been known to everyone as Congress Square, but also the surrounding streets, “sidewalks and traffic islands,” and something city officials have begun to refer to as “Congress Square Plaza.”

“Congress Square Plaza” is a euphemism for the small sliver of Congress Square Park — a slightly wider section of sidewalk, really — that would be left for the public’s use after RockBridge builds its event center atop most of the existing square. The ridiculous argument that Congress Square also includes the tiny patch of sidewalk in front of the Hay Building across Congress Street, as well as the wide stretch of sidewalk across both Congress and Free streets in front of the Portland Museum of Art, echoes RockBridge’s lame attempt in its proposal to include the square footage of adjacent sidewalks in the area that would remain “public space.”

A sidewalk is a sidewalk, not a public square or “plaza.” And is the city now suggesting that people relax on the tiny bollard-protected traffic island at High and Congress or in the intersection itself? I thought they just passed an ordinance banning people from traffic islands.

If you go to the website where citizens are encouraged to “propose or vote on an idea” for Congress Square, neighborland.com, the lie behind this “visioning process” is revealed. “**Please note that this is not intended to be a forum for the time-sensitive, pending Rockbridge proposal in Congress Square Plaza,” the site states. “[W]e suggest comments related to the event center decision are best directed to your City Councilor.”

In other words, public input on the future of most of Congress Square is not properly part of the visioning process for Congress Square, but the public is welcome to suggest changes to the surrounding streets and sidewalks. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer that the city hire traffic engineers to reconfigure the intersection of Congress, High and Free streets rather than rely on opinions received via Twitter.

The public-input phase of Congress Square’s redesign actually started years ago when the city convened a task force for that purpose. The task force recommended that the city engage the services of a landscape architect, and $50,000 was earmarked for that purpose, but officials ditched that plan when the high rollers from Ohio showed up and offered to privatize one of the few public spaces remaining downtown.

Friends of Congress Square Park, the group of citizen activists trying to save the space, has organized a genuine public process in which citizens can submit ideas and designs for the actual square (via congresssquarepark@gmail.com). A design meeting and potluck takes place Aug. 31 at the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street.

Bring your own mushrooms.

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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.