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Visiting the concrete epicenter of a debate on failed public space


Congress Square Plaza, Portland Maine.On a sunny, 72-degree day, I’m sitting in Congress Square Plaza, the concrete epicenter of a clash between two cultures, Portland’s grittier face and gentrifiers. 
Portland is currently engaged in a robust debate about keeping Congress Square Plaza public versus selling a large portion of the space to an adjacent hotel for an events center. In this case, it is a $40-million restoration of a landmark hotel versus a decidedly downtrodden plaza.
Most observers agree that the plaza is failed public space -- very failed space with a plethora of anecdotes about drinking, drug sales, urination, defecation, and sundry other “-ations.”
With this debate and its impact on current plaza users in mind, I have come to experience Congress Square Plaza. 

Extreme hardscaping 

I see a lake of concrete, blowing trash, and many pigeons. The plaza is a dirty, sunken  space with a “stage” on one side, a few benches, and a couple of plants. On the plaza’s periphery are a number of either planters or giant ashtrays edged with concrete triangles to discourage sitting. The effect is a ring of barriers that resemble WWII-era, anti-tank obstacles.  I half recall the term “brutalist architecture.”
A man coaxes a pigeon on his head at Portland's Congress Square Plaza.Despite the perfect weather and its critical location in Portland’s architectural landscape (across from the iconic Portland Museum of Art facade and the beloved H.H. Hay building) the plaza is ignored by the marching lunch-hour crowds of office workers heading for more welcoming spots.
Meanwhile, at the center of the plaza, three women and a man are shouting as two toddlers happily chase pigeons. A Millenial sits and spits, a lot. Two grizzled men, probably homeless, sit down, remove their packs and share a smoke. A man on a bicycle tries to lure pigeons onto his head.
The plaza is clearly a home for Portland’s marginalized, and that clientele and the plaza’s nightmare aesthetic are at the root of developer proposals to transform the space.
Over the years, Portland has tried to soften the hardscaping with a few cosmetic touches: a visitor’s kiosk here (then gone), a curved walkway to mitigate the hard edges there. But the original design is tough to temper. For the past couple of years city committees and neighborhood groups have met to discuss ways to improve the space, but money is in short supply, and fixing the plaza requires much more than the addition of a couple of pretty bushes.

A transformational offer

Enter an attractive proposal to purchase a large section of the plaza by RockBridge Capital, the developer transforming the adjacent, faded Eastland Hotel into a Westin Hotel.
RockBridge is proposing transforming a large portion of the adjacent Congress Square Plaza into a 5,000-square-foot events center, reducing the current plaza to around 4,200 square feet, with a 40-foot wide public swath running along Congress Street. The developer presented its latest vision of the site in April. The proposed building is modern, clean, with lots of glass.
In effect, the hotel would gain both revenue generating space and majority control of real estate currently used by a crowd the Westin's four-star clientele would prefer not to encounter.

Balancing development

Eastland hotel, union station clock tower, Congress Square Plaza Portland maineOn a number of levels, the hotel’s proposal is attractive and solves a perennial problem. The proposed space would become a functioning part of the Arts District and its appearance would enhance the heart of the city.
However, there is also the loss of public space now enjoyed by parts of Portland’s diverse community. The kids chasing pigeons and the smoking old men also deserve a place in this city, which is why it is critical to temper any removal of public space with the creation of new space nearby.
The current plaza users (and the rest of us) deserve a better place than the current dirty, concrete pit. Perhaps a well-designed, new space nearby could be part of a deal that does something Congress Square never did – become a better designed and maintained magnet for multiple Portland cultures. Such a quid pro quo deal has been in the background of ongoing discussions. Perhaps it should be at the forefront.
In the end, the word that comes to mind when looking at the current space is “disappointment”-- for a failed design and because the public money and the will just aren’t there to fix the problem.
Entombed in a glass-walled structure in the corner of the plaza is an antique clock rescued from Union Station, which was razed in 1961. The station’s destruction energized Portland preservationists. It seems a cruel fate that this clock is again atop a Portland landmark teetering on the edge of a controversial transformation.
It would be nice to think that we could get things right this time by recognizing that RockBridge’s proposal is part of a solution that must also include mitigating the impact of development on our marginalized fellow Portlanders.


Ironically, Congress Square Plaza was created in 1981 with a goal of sprucing up a rough-around-the-edges area that included a Dunkin Donuts that had earned a reputation as a sort of shared office space for prostitutes. 
That committee is currently considering  RockBridge’s proposal. On May 29, the committee may vote on whether to recommend the plan to the City Council.

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