It was just 18 months ago that Portland’s Congress Square was at the epicenter of a fierce debate in the city. Now, people who were on opposite sides of that debate seem to be pulling in the same general direction, and instead of planning to sell off Congress Square, city officials are looking for visual artists and landscape designers for the next step in the square’s Cinderella-story revival.
Political grudges die hard, and it’s hard to imagine that so soon after a hotly contested referendum deciding the fate of the angular, brick-and-concrete park, parties on both sides of the issue are working together to revitalize the public space.
After all, a majority on the City Council sought to sell about two-thirds of the 14,500-square-foot space to private hotel developers for an expansion of the former Eastland Park Hotel (now the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel), and the city’s attorneys doggedly attempted to prevent a pair of citizens’ groups from getting their measure to effectively block the sale onto citywide ballots.
There were pointed, angry comments from people who felt strongly that city officials were abdicating their duty as stewards of public space by agreeing to sell the space to private buyers, as well as from people who argued an expansion of the historic hotel represented the best possible use of a square that’d become an underutilized eyesore and potentially dangerous gathering space for drug dealers or other street criminals.
In the end, after an exhaustive and bitter legal battle over whether the referendum question would even see the light of day, Portland residents were allowed to vote in June of 2014 and narrowly approved an ordinance change that put the proposed sale of Congress Square on ice.
The city and private hoteliers could have, within the newly approved framework of city ordinances, still pursued the sale in a second referendum vote the following November or even June of 2015, but a funny thing happened somewhere along the line in the bitterly contested case of Congress Square.
Everybody seemed to say, “Welp, let’s put this behind us and make this the best public space we can.”
Instead of gloating over their victory at the polls, the referendum backers at the recently formed Friends of Congress Square Park rolled up their sleeves and began holding public events in the space, like World Cup soccer viewings, live music (video above), free outdoor film screenings and even “kitten therapy.”
For their part, city officials were there cheering in June when their political opponents from the previous year — in particular, the group Friends of Congress Square Park — celebrated the receipt of a $100,000 grant from Southwest Airlines to support programming and improvements to the space.
And now, the city is putting out a call for visual artists and landscape designers who could, as a city news release explains, “concurrently develop schematic designs for the intersection and a public art commission.”
What does that mean? It means a landscaper and artist will work together for a potentially significant remodel of not only Congress Square park but the busy Congress Square intersection it abuts.
Could that include an expansion of pedestrian space into what’s historically been a busy space for motor vehicles, like in the so-called woonerf idea that’s built some momentum in recent years? Could that include sculptures or water features?
It’s too early to know for sure what the results of such a collaboration might look like — the city has made it clear it can afford “schematic level concepts,” and that a public forum of finalist teams will be held in March of next year, but that bringing the winning ideas to fruition would still require some yet-to-be-secured grants and donations.
“This is an exciting step for the future of Congress Square,” said Jeff Levine, planning and urban development director for the city, in a statement. “However, people should remember that any approved implementation will require significant fundraising efforts.”
Importantly, the committee overseeing the potential commissioning of public art in Congress Square features representatives from both Friends of Congress Square and the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, two groups which, less than two years ago, were on opposite sides of a very heated dispute.
To be clear, there have been disagreements along the way about the best way to revive Congress Square, and there was even lingering talk about redesigning the park in a way that could still feature the expansion of the hotel, but the discussions are nowhere near as contentious as they were 18-24 months ago.
There’s still a long way to go before the future of Congress Square is resolved. But now, it seems all stakeholders are working together for a common solution.
The city is accepting responses to its request for qualifications until Jan. 28, 2016. To read more or to apply, click here.