Friday, August 16, 2013

Renovations: Getting Congress (Square) to work

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Five years after launching a citywide effort to redesign Congress Square, the city of Portland is launching a citywide effort to redesign the area around and including Congress Square. But all is not as lost or absurd as that sentence may suggest. Rather, it seems a modicum of common sense may have invaded City Hall and resulted in this new twist in the saga of the city’s most beleaguered, maligned, and steadfastly defended public space.
In 2008, the City Council set up a 15-member committee, the Congress Square Redesign Study Group. As originally proposed by councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue, it would have looked at not just the park but also the public and open spaces around it, including sidewalks and roads. But the council limited the group’s scope to just the park area. Now that august body has seen the sense in the initial idea.
Since 2011 the redesign study group has been the focal point of controversy over whether the city should sell a portion of the park at the corner of Congress and High streets to the new owners of the former Eastland Park Hotel, soon to reopen as the Westin Portland Harborview. (See “Congress Square’s Controversial Facelift,” by Deirdre Fulton, May 24.)
While all parties agree that something must be done to change the park’s current underused, sunken hardscape (which city officials are now terming a “plaza”), the debate has been hamstrung: As even the city’s own Parks Commission pointed out in correspondence with the City Council back in May, a proper choice would not be between the RockBridge proposal (which itself has had several major variants) and the park as it is, but
between the RockBridge idea and other real alternatives, “such as a re-designed park in the same space, a fully designed smaller plaza, and other building or architecture options.”
Which is where this new citywide effort comes in. Many ideas have come forth from many parties about what could go there instead of a privately owned event center (including our own suggestion for an amphitheater with greenspace and benches, in Calvin Dunwoody’s “Reimagining Portland,” August 24, 2012), but there hasn’t been one centralized place to view and discuss all of these proposals.
Now, at last, there is. The city is calling it a “visioning process for the redesign and programming of Congress Square,” including not just the park but also the streets at that intersection, “the public spaces in front of the Portland Museum of Art and the H.H. Hay Building, and surrounding sidewalks and traffic islands.”
City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg says the new conversation is a “holistic view,” but indicates that any outcomes will not stop negotiations with RockBridge (which the City Council has directed city staff to undertake), nor another process under way to determine whether it makes sense to make High Street a two-way road.
But it could serve as an umbrella conversation that may affect how those other efforts develop over time.
That’s the hope of Frank Turek, a leader of Friends of Congress Square Park, a group fighting the sale of the park to RockBridge. He’s  keeping “a cautious eye” this new effort. “The word is that they’re pretty set to go ahead with the park” — selling it to RockBridge, that is — Turek says. So this could be a diversion, “to sort of show that they’re open to all views but really they’re not.”
On the other hand, he hopes that city leaders are taking the advice Ethan Kent of the Project for Public Spaces gave in a talk at the Portland Museum of Art back in June. “His idea was that we should step back . . . and get an idea of what does the city want this whole area to be,” Turek says. “It’s the important question that no one’s ever bothered to ask.”
His group, which has already begun collecting suggestions for how to make the park better, will participate in the process, though Turek stresses that is not a signal of a changed position. “We want to keep the park. This isn’t a road to compromise,” he warns.
Marshall, for his part, is pleased his original idea has finally been approved by the council. And while he favors keeping the full park public, he indicated city officials may already be leaving that debate behind. “This is designed to open up the conversation to be much more than the park itself,” Marshall says. “Regardless of what happens in that little corner of Congress Square . . . we need to work on some of the issues,” including vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and the overall layout of the area.
You can contribute to the community discussion in several ways. First, and perhaps most easily, propose your own ideas, and vote on others’ suggestions, at (yes, that’s three Ss).
Or take an online survey about your use of the area at (it’s in a tiny one-word link in very small print in the upper left corner of the Planning Department page, just beneath “p&d news”).
Also, tweet thoughts with the hashtag #CongressSquare.
If you’re more into meatspace, attend the public meetings that will be scheduled in August and September (check the city’s website for times and places), or go to Congress Square and write down your ideas on signs posted there.
All these ideas will be collected into a report for the public, and distilled into a request for proposals in the fall, seeking an urban-design person or company to develop a master plan of the area.
While an original timeline had data collection happening through September 6, the process is now more “rolling,” says Jeff Levine, director of the city’s planning department. “We’re trying to see which sources of input are the most fruitful,” he says. So keep the ideas coming.
The Friends of Congress Square Park will meet Tuesday, August 27, from 6 to 8 pm, at Portland City Hall, room 24.