The City Council has charged the Congress Square Park study committee to report on the idea of a new park built on top of a hotel ballroom which would fill the current park.
To gauge whether such an idea makes any sense, look first at the problems with the park as it was for the past 10 or so years before this year.
People complained about three major problems. The park:
- Had dead back corners and edges that prompted antisocial uses.
- Was cut off from the street life because it was walled off from High Street and submerged below Congress Street, and
- Required money for renewal and upkeep which the city has lacked.
So how would a rooftop park address these issues?
Instead of dead corners and back edges, an elevated park would be isolated, invisible and dead in its entirety. What mother would venture with her children up to a space she cannot see?
- It would be hard to be more cut off from the street than being put up on a roof. At least the current lowered park is perfectly visible from the street.
The current park also has the advantage of allowing food trucks, service trucks, and the wheelchair-bound to roll directly into it.
- As to cost, no version could be more expensive than a park on a roof. To construct a park this size (10,000 square feet or so) with reinforced room structure supporting it, membranes and other special drainage features, and an elevator to reach it would cost on the order of $5 million, two or three times more than the same park rebuilt on the ground.
Maintenance costs would be especially high. In New York City, the elevated High Line costs greater than 100 times more to maintain than the city’s parks on the ground.
Overall, then, this park in the sky is pie in the sky.
It’s too expensive to be built, and even if the money were available, we wouldn’t want it built.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting what the Friends of Congress Square Park have accomplished in this year—without help from the city—toward solving those same problems in the current space.
- Wifi, tables, chairs, plantings, umbrellas, and food trucks have helped create a variety of spaces and brought activity to essentially all parts of the park. Vinland restaurant has helped by serving outdoors in the park.
(City councilors please note: This is now the only city park or plaza with free wifi and movable public planters, chairs, tables, and umbrellas.)
- The people drawn to the “new” Congress Square Park are generating more street life in this major intersection so central to the entire downtown than at any time I can remember in the past 30 years.
- The cost to taxpayers? Next to nothing.
In short, the Friends of Congress Square Park have proven that this is a viable space—even without an ideal physical form—as long as it’s given continuous attention and a modicum of creativity and money.
To see a thorough review of the positive impacts of recent changes to the park and the next steps needed to transform the park and Congress Square as a whole into a great place befitting a 21st Century Portland, read the just completed site-specific analysis by the Project for Public Spaces.
The June vote and the Friends of Congress Square’s success—and the reconceived and newly outfitted park must be considered an unalloyed success—suggests upcoming actions for the City Council to take:
- Vote down once and for all the idea that a building will occupy the park,
- Allow the redesign process for the park and the square as a whole to go forward without further City Council demands, deadlines, or interruptions,
- Encourage citizen participation in the renewal and management of the park, and
- Partner promptly and fully to fund and support the resulting design, maintenance, and management plans.
Revitalized urban parks and reconceived downtown intersections around the world are proving to be the iconic calling cards for cities on the rise. Consider Times Square and its car-free areas or the central crossroads in Poynton, England.
And cities now either rise or fall. They, and we, cannot stand pat. Past or current attractiveness is no guarantee of future success. Consider Hartford or Detroit.
Our city must move decisively and wisely. Portland’s future will pivot on how we deal now with places like Congress Square and its park.