Congress Square's controversial facelift

Urban Development  
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 23, 2013

RockBridge Capital's latest proposal.

The fate of Congress Square Plaza, the hardscaped half-acre on the corner of Congress and High streets, is back on the table, with city officials and downtown stakeholders weighing a new proposal from the hotel developer that wants to buy and build on it.

At the end of April, RockBridge Capital (the Ohio company in charge of the $40 million renovation of the Eastland Park Hotel) and Canal 5 Studio (a Portland-based architecture and design firm) presented a new proposal for the plaza to the city's Housing and Community Development Committee (HCDC). The new "event center" pitch is different from previous proposals (which were rejected by the city council) in that it leaves more of the parcel for public use (4836 square feet as opposed to 3500) and features architecture that "interfaces with the public realm," according to a memo prepared by the city's Planning and Urban Developmet Department.

"The building has a glass façade with habitable and hopefully interactive space bringing activity and visibility to the plaza whereas the previous proposal had blank and solid walls facing the plaza," the memo reads." The additional advantage to the recent proposal is the gallery-like space which may include art and public function space. The lighting of the glass gallery at night can bring added interest and safety to the plaza."

The plaza would no longer be sunken from street level and would feature abundant seating as well as tree plantings. Jan Beitzer, of the Portland Downtown District, describes the new design proposal as "truly spectacular."

But not everyone is enamored with RockBridge's plan. A group called Friends of Congress Square Park, dedicated to preserving the plaza as open space for local residents, is troubled by the idea of selling public space to a private developer.

"This is a dense population center that needs open space," says Frank Turek, an artist with studio space in the State Theatre building overlooking the park. "What is their plan going to offer the downtown community?" Turek, who is also a member of the Congress Square Redesign Study Group (formed in 2008), believes the park has been purposefully neglected in order to make the prospect of selling it more appealing. He points out that $50,000 originally earmarked to hire a landscape designer to re-imagine the plaza has still not been used.

City Councilor David Marshall, who represents the West End, says "the sale of the park is by no means a done deal. If this went to the council today it would be a very close vote." He believes the proposal is a "missed opportunity" to incorporate important urban elements such as public art, green space, and retail storefronts.

The Congress Square Redesign Study Group meets this Wednesday at 5:30 pm to review Rockbridge's proposal and send comments to the Housing and Community Development Committee (HCDC) as well as the full council; the HCDC meets next Wednesday at 5:30 to hear public comment on the proposal. Both meetings will take place in City Council chambers.

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