A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Another choice for Congress Square

As many readers of this blog undoubtedly already know, the task of improving the mediocre public space at Congress Square has had the attention of a city-appointed advisory committee for some time now, and the new owners of the Eastland Park Hotel have pitched a proposal to buy most of the park's real estate from the city and turn it into a ballroom for conventions and events.

Unfortunately, the Eastland Hotel's proposal has galvanized the debate. On the one hand are out-of-town hedge fund managers who want to convert public space to private use. On the other hand are suburbanite activists who are treating this half-acre of downtown Portland like it's Yosemite Valley. The goal of creating a higher-quality public space that benefits the entire neighborhood has been mostly lost in the shuffle.

So thanks to Clifford Tremblay, an architect who recently moved to Portland, for trying to change the conversation. Clifford pitched these ideas for Congress Square at a Portland Society of Architects "Drink 'n Crit" earlier this winter (I was on the design jury while he presented this concept and I'll try to paraphrase his pitch here).

Courtesy of Clifford Tremblay

Clifford's proposal consists of two fundamental elements: activating the center of Congress Square by inviting through-traffic, and activating the edges of Congress Square with new uses and friendlier edges.

As for the first challenge — getting more people into the center of Congress Square Park —  Clifford proposes a new diagonal orientation for the park, to encourage cut-through foot traffic from Congress to High Street (see site plan above). The center of the park would become a secondary pedestrian-oriented street, defined by a row of trees and a water feature. Clifford makes the point, echoing a number of other architects and members of the citizens' advisory committee, that the current park's sunken design, with several steps leading down into the park from Congress and High, should be eliminated. Clifford would level the park with Congress Street, and relocate a more modest set of stairs leading up to the park to the western edge of the site.

Courtesy of Clifford Tremblay

The second crucial aspect of Clifford's proposal — and again, it's an idea that's been echoed by several architects, business owners, and neighborhood activists — is that the edges of Congress Square need to be more porous in order to invite more public use and public ownership. The sketch above shows a view of Clifford's proposal from Congress Street, with the Eastland hotel in the background. Note the active sidewalk dining on the eastern side of the park (this building, the former "The Kitchen" restaurant, is supposedly under contract to become a new haute-cuisine restaurant). The northern corner of the park, currently a no-man's land of bleak shrubs, is here transformed into a more inviting — yet still relatively secluded and quiet — spot for tables and a performance stage.

At the rear of the site, Clifford has optimistically suggested new windows and awnings to the Eastland Park Hotel's facade (currently a blank wall painted with a mural). Last of all, note the previously-mentioned lack of stairs between the sidewalk and the park. Sure, it's just a Sketchup drawing, but it looks a lot more inviting, doesn't it?

The primary strength of the ballroom proposal from the Eastland is that it provides an economic development boost to this part of the city. Still, what they're pitching isn't nearly good enough to overcome the opposition's strident concerns over the loss of open space. I don't particularly agree with those concerns, but from a purely pragmatic perspective, the owners of the Eastland need to do a whole lot better in terms of their own designs (a preliminary and pathetic example of which is pictured at left) if they really want to convince the public to surrender the less-than-perfect status quo.

This is valuable real estate in the heart of the Arts District. What if the City built — and collected rent on — a row of small artists's studios built to screen the Eastland Hotel's blank walls? What if the City leased park space to the new restaurant on the Congress Street side? These new uses could generate new rental revenue to support park renovations, while adding to the park's vibrancy as a public space, and improving property values in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Eastland Hotel's current proposal frankly can't compete with these possibilities.
This is still public space, and Portlanders absolutely should demand a higher standard of design. Thanks to Clifford Tremblay for changing the conversation in the right direction.



June said...

Wow! Excellent proposal through and through, and this only in summary. Wish I had seen the full presentation.

will kessler said...

It would mean forgoing all tangible value, save that of the cultural and social fabric, BUT what about a skate park?