What next for Congress Square and its park?

Congress Square model.smCongress Square is one of the most important open spaces in downtown because it is central to the city’s urban area, it is the central public space along Congress Street between Longfellow Square and Monument Square, it is surrounded by iconic architecture and major public (art museum, Children’s Museum) and private (Westin hotel, State Theater) buildings, and it hosts the primary streets through downtown.

There is no reason it could not be a jewel on the diamond necklace of Congress Street, and every reason it should be. So why isn’t it?

Reasons could include the nature of building owners, a redesign process for the square as a whole and its corner park interrupted a few times (including now) to consider whether part of the park should be sold to the adjacent Westin Hotel, and until recently the lack of a new paradigm for traffic movement that would allow the square to become a wholly integrated, shared space for all users.

As a result, Congress Square has been considered in its fragments and defined by its problems: its chaotic and scary traffic; its un-renovated building facades; and its underutilized, ‘attractive nuisance’ park.

So much of this has been and will be changing that it is time to think of re-making the entire space as a vibrant, perhaps unequalled mecca of downtown. The hotel has been rebuilt, the park has acquired active stewards, and there is a new traffic paradigm supportive of urban liveliness well suited to this place.

To build on these recent successes requires considering the entire Square as one space—not a collection of small fragmented problems requiring piecemeal solutions, but a unity. Such a central and potentially vibrant place deserves a comprehensive, coordinated design effort.

What the many public and private interest groups want in the Square has been established during the three rounds of visioning that have been held in the last two years. But those requests—for green space and outdoor event space, cafe dining and public art, for bicycle and pedestrian accommodation to match that for motorists—have not been translated into schematic space needs or alternative redesigns.

It is time to allow that logical, sequential process to go to completion—free of major distractions—with its potential production of an unprecedentedly vibrant space worthy of Portland’s reputation for livability. We are not the only parties believing that. The venerable architect Harry Cobb, designer of the Art Museum’s Payson building on the Square, also favors immediate completion of the Square’s redesign. See his piece here.

Sadly, the Council has again put its foot on the neck of the Redesign Study Group: 1) the group will report back to the Council by Nov. 17, and 2) whatever else the group does, it will include an assessment of a park built on the roof of a hotel ballroom.

Still, Councilor Nick Mavadones has it right: What the Council now owes the city is a definitive decision about the hotel ballroom before the Council membership changes in January. It will have the Redesign Study Group’s recommendation in November. It will soon afterwards have the recommendations of the Parks Commission and the Land Bank.

Up or down, a final decision about the ballroom/event room. With luck, either the Land Bank will refuse to recommend it, which would be its death knell, or the Council will lack the 7 votes needed to forward it back to a public vote.

If either of those two facts prevail, the Council should promptly announce that the hotel’s proposal is dead, and that the Congress Square Redesign Study Group and its hired designers can carry out its long awaited, long delayed job of re-conceiving the entire Square, without precondition or deadline.

Despite the thinking of a majority on the Council, there is no rush. The square’s redesign needs to dovetail with whether High Street becomes two-way. That decision is more than a year away.

Meanwhile, we look forward to seeing for the first time what the public’s interests might look like arrayed on parts of a Square, reformatted as a whole to be a truly vibrant, shared space worthy of us as a 21st Century livable city.



otel or not.

The arguments in favor of instead setting the Westin/Rockbridge request aside and redesigning the square as a whole now are that this:

  • Avoids another acrimonious campaign and its political and capital costs;
  • Allows the Friends of Congress Square Park time to demonstrate their fundraising power for the Park (instead of another political campaign);
  • Gives time for the city and the Friends to work out a permanent management and funding structure for whatever park will reside there after the redesign/
  • Determines for the first time if public needs fill the square and the Park or there would be space left over for private use;
  • Depicts for the first time what people have asked for as it might appear on the ground; and
  • Allows the overall redesign of the Square to proceed without yet another delay.


If you agree, contact your councilor with your thoughts before Monday. Click here to receive their contact information.

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