PORTLAND – The Ohio-based developer that is renovating the former Eastland Hotel would pay nearly $524,000 to purchase two-thirds of the adjoining Congress Square Plaza, with plans to build an events center on the site.
Rockbridge Capital would purchase about 9,500 square feet of the park, which abuts the hotel, for $55.12 per square foot, according to a purchase and sale agreement made public Friday.
The purchase would clear the way for Rockbridge, which is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the hotel, to build a single-story event center on the site while leaving 4,800 square feet of space for a public plaza. The hotel is expected to open in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.
Some city residents and neighborhood associations have voiced opposition to the potential sale and launched a public awareness campaign. Local businesses support the sale, saying it would fuel economic development and fill a need for convention space.
“I think the price is pretty much an insult to the people who know the value of this space,” said Holly Seeliger, who has been working to save the open space. “People still have time to influence their city councilors.”
Bruce Wennerstrom, who will manage the hotel, believes the negotiations resulted in a fair price — based on a market appraisal — for the property, which is in the heart of the Arts District.
“It’s been a long, healthy process,” Wennerstrom said. “We’re looking forward to the future of that entire square.”
In May, the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 to draft a purchase and sale agreement.
The committee, which hammered out the details of the agreement in closed sessions, will take it up in a public session for the first time at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
At that time, the committee could make a recommendation to the full City Council, which would make the final decision. The sale must also be reviewed by the city’s Tax Acquired Property Committee.
The purchase and sales agreement outlines deed conditions that would be attached to any sale.
According to a memo from city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell to the committee, those conditions are:
• The event center must be the primary use for at least 10 years; after that it could be converted to “uses customarily found in hotels,”
• Conversion to other nonhotel-related uses allowed by zoning would require City Council approval.
Rockbridge would have until Feb. 15, 2014, to receive all necessary approvals for the event center. If not, Rockbridge can rescind the transaction and sell the property back to the city at the purchase price.
If approvals aren’t received by June 1, 2014, the city may rescind the sale. The project must be “in substantial conformance to the quality of plans” previously presented to the Housing and Community Development Committee, Mitchell wrote.
The sale does not include the Union Station Clock.
Rockbridge would pay $45,000 for infrastructure improvements, including a new sidewalk. Construction of the event center would also have to be timed with the redesign of the smaller plaza.
The agreement also requires that public art shows be offered at least six times a year, although Rockbridge can terminate that clause with notice to the city.
In the 1990s, the plaza was well-tended and hosted movies and other events, but a lack of funding led to the cancellation of those events.
A task force, appointed by the council in 2008, recommended the city hire a landscape architect to redesign the plaza, which many consider to have a flawed design, its dark corners promoting illicit activity.
The city allocated $50,000 to hire the consultant, but that process was put on hold in 2011 when Rockbridge purchased the Eastland. A previous proposal to develop the whole park was rejected by the city, leading to the recent proposal and sales negotiations.
Frank Turek is a founding member of the Friends of Congress Square Park, which has been working to save the plaza. On Friday, he sent a letter to City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. requesting an opportunity make a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Over this extended period of time, the committee has not had a balance of presentation from the perspective of how retention of this public park space will better serve the city,” Turek wrote. –”We believe this perspective to be critical in making an informed and balanced decision.”
Seeliger said activists are planning a variety of strategies to scuttle the sale, including legal options.
Activists may also plan a physical occupation of the park, she said.
About a year and a half ago, activists established the Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park to protest perceived income inequality. Occupy Maine started with as many as 40 tents there in October 2011, although the number dropped off deeper into the winter. The Occupy group was forced to leave the park after a court order Feb. 1, 2012, after weeks of tension with the city.
If the sale is approved by the full council, Seeliger, who was active in the Occupy movement, said activists would collect signatures to put the issue to voters.
Wennerstrom, however, believes that Rockbridge has already won the debate about buying the land.
“Some people just continue to look back and won’t let go,” he said. “We had a lot of meaningful discussion — a lot of public discussion — and the (May) vote has brought us to this point. I think it time to move forward.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: