Parks and Referendum

A fight to save a local park taps into the global movement for public space.

Theo Anderson

An architect's vision for transforming Congress Square Park into a 'free open space for art.'

Congress Square Park in downtown Portland, Maine, doesn’t look or feel much like a park. Rather than trees and grass, it’s filled with bricks and concrete. It’s situated below street level, so you have to descend a set of steps to enter it. Once there, your seating options are a few grungy benches.

For all its shortcomings, the park is beloved by many locals. So when Portland’s city council voted 6-3 on September 16, 2013 to sell the land to a private developer for about $500,000, a group of Portland residents organized to resist.

But for all its shortcomings, the park is beloved by many locals. It was created in the early 1980s with the help of federal grant money, and in the 1990s, it was a thriving public space that hosted outdoor concerts, movies and community events. In a document created in the mid-1990s, city planners identified the park as the heart of Portland’s arts district.” In 2008, the city created a task force to redesign it.

So when Portland’s city council voted 6-3 on September 16, 2013 to sell the land to a private developer for about $500,000, a group of Portland residents organized to resist. Some believe that preserving the park is vital to the quality of life in Portland. Some believe the stakes are even higher. Holly Seeliger, an outspoken critic of the sale, and a member of the Portland School Board and participant in the local Occupy movement, wrote on her blog that public space is inherently linked to freedom of expression. … When governments are not interested in what we have to say, public space is no longer a priority and private sale is encouraged.”

The city council approved selling two-thirds of the park to Rockbridge Capital, an Ohio-based developer that is renovating an adjacent hotel. Rockbridge hopes to build an event center on the land, with the idea that the center and hotel will attract conventions.

A councillor who voted in favor of the sale said his constituents see it as a win-win for the city. They see a failed public space. They see an opportunity to bring 200 to 500 people into the city for events at this center.”

However, a poll taken over the summer showed that about half of Portlanders opposed the sale, while only a third supported it. In a different city, the council’s vote might have been the last word, regardless of public sentiment. But registered voters in Maine have the power to change local laws by putting referendums on the ballot. This citizens’ initiative” process received national media attention recently when it was used to legalize marijuana in Portland, with about two-thirds of Portlanders voting in favor.

In early September 2013, a nonprofit called Friends of Congress Square Park (FCSP) proposed a referendum that would significantly raise the requirements to sell public parks in Portland, necessitating eight of nine city councillors to vote in favor. Short of that, the people of Portland would get to vote directly on the sale.

Since late September 2013, Portland’s city government has been locked in a legal tussle with FCSP concerning the group’s right to put the referendum on the ballot. The city argues that managing public lands is an administrative function,” which means that the selling of public lands cannot legally be the subject of a referendum.

FCSP won the most recent battle in the dispute, and on Election Day its volunteers gathered more than 4,000 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot — well above the 1,500 signatures that they needed.

The dispute between FCSP and the city is now in the appeals process, and a final ruling is expected in January. Because FCSP began the initiative process before the city council’s vote to sell the park, a final win for the group in court would negate the deal, and Portlanders would vote in June on the group’s proposed referendum.

In the meantime, FCSP hasn’t lost sight of Congress Square Park and the factors that have made it a vulnerable public space, including changing aesthetic sensibilities and cuts in the city’s spending on parks. Many people we encounter are like, You want to save that ugly park?’ ” says Frank Turek, president of FCSP and an artist who has lived in Portland for 30 years.

They can’t picture it beyond what it looks like now.”

To showcase the park’s potential, a landscape architect (and a member of FCSP) solicited proposals for a reimagined park. Ideas submitted by several firms are posted on the group’s website, including proposals from architects as far flung as Hong Kong and Argentina. FCSP has also used public events in the park to ask local residents what they’d like it to become, and some members of the group have put forth their own alternative visions for the park. Picture this: The sunken concrete pit is gone,” as David LaCasse of FCSP wrote in an op-ed in a local newspaper. In its place is a beautifully landscaped park with open access from both [adjacent] streets, an abundance of seating scattered throughout, public art and distinct areas animating all corners of the park.”

For his part, Turek says he’d like to see Congress Square Park imitate other small, well-used parks. It needs trees and walking paths and an upgraded performance area, he says. He believes such changes will restore the park’s role as a vital, open and welcoming public space.

Whatever the outcome of FCSP’s battle to preserve Portland’s parks in general, and to save and revitalize Congress Square Park in particular, the experience has been transformative for some Portlanders, creating a sense of connection to a broader movement. As Holly Seeliger put it in a blog post, the struggle has made her realize that I am working in solidarity with people all around the world who are fighting the trend of privatization. … The spontaneous utilization of public space [during the Occupy protests in nearby Lincoln Park] inspired me to … commit to doing what I can to create community in a realm beyond the political.” 

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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