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Battle Over Portland Public Park Heads for City Council
09/06/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Battle lines are being drawn for what's likely to be a contentious City Council session on Monday night in Portland. At issue is a plan to sell a public plaza to a hotel developer. Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital, owner of what's now the Westin Harborview Hotel at Congress Square, wants to buy adjoining plaza and build a new event center on part of it. But a group called Friends of Congress Square Park has formally launched a petition drive seeking a citywide referendum that would prevent the sale and development of the plaza - and more than 30 other city spaces. Tom Porter has more.

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Battle Over Portland Public Park Heads for City Co Listen

Congress Square 6

Portland's Congress Square Park adjoins the Westin Harborview Hotel, which is seeking to buy the space.

"You don't go and buy a public park and then build on it," says Frank Turek, president of Friends of Congress Square Park, which wants to keep the plaza in public hands. "I'm not against the idea of building a convention center in downtown, just do it in the way that it's always done, where they buy previously-owned land and then build upon it."

Tom Porter: "So you're not anti-development?"

Congress Square 10Frank Turek (in photo, right): "No. I'm anti-development on a public park."

After hearing public comment on Monday, the City Council will vote on whether to sell 9,500 feet square of Congress Square Park to Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital, owner of the new Westin Harborview Hotel - formerly the Eastland Park Hotel - which is due to open in December.

Rockbridge wants to build an event center on the site, while the remaining 4,800 square feet of the park would be retained by the city to develop as a smaller urban plaza. The sale price would be $524,000, with Rockbridge contributing a further $95,000 to develop the public area.

"I just think it's a win-win situation for the residents of Portland and for the city," says Portland mayor Michael Brennan. Brennan says the city has made numerous efforts in recent years to protect and develop public space. But in this case, he adds, he sees a unique opportunity to work with a private developer.

"This is an opportunity to really take a space that hasn't worked very well in the city, and to simultaneously transform not only that plaza to a much more usable space, but also the entire intersection," Brennan says.

Congress Square Park is regarded by both sides in this debate as being in need of improvement. It's a mostly sunken, paved area, facing away from High Street, often the scene of complaints about public drunkenness and urination. While Friends of Congress Square would like to see it developed as a public space, those who support existing development plans describe them as an opportunity for economic revitalization.

Bruce Wennerstrom is general manager of the Westin Harborview Hotel, which is undergoing a $40 million renovation. He says the event center will attract more visitors, more jobs and more money to the area. Over the last two years, he says, the development proposal has garnered much support among the local business and residential community.

"We've been diligently working through the system, and we've talked to over 30 different groups along the way - neighborhood associations, private organizations, corporate groups," he says. "So we've done our homework and reached out to a lot of people and we made a lot of friends."

But not the Friends of Congress Square Park, who have formally launched a petitition drive seeking a citywide referendum that group President Frank Turek hopes would save the plaza - plus more than 30 other city spaces - from being sold and developed.

"This is a citizens' initiative that will strengthen the existing code of Portland, that basically has no protection of public parks," Turek says.

Long-time resident Jack Curtis, who was taking a Friday afternoon walk through the plaza with his daughter, admits that the park does need an overhaul. But he's not sold on the plan that's now on the table.

"My kids have been playing since they were teeny," he says, "and I just think it's wrong that they're going to let another big corporation take over a public space again."

Supporters and opponents of the development are expected to turn out in force for Monday night's city council meeting, which gets underway at 7:00 p.m.

Photos:  Tom Porter


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