|By Tom Bell, Portland Press Herald,
MaineMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 10, 2012--PORTLAND -- The owners of the Eastland Park Hotel are asking the city for permission to build a ballroom on Congress Square Plaza as part of a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion of the 85-year-old hotel.
With the project's completion next year, the hotel would have New England's largest convention center outside Boston, with capacity for 1,000 people, the developers told city councilors Wednesday night.
The ballroom would take up nearly all of the public park. Advocates for the homeless and many residents of the neighborhood said the city should improve the park rather than sell it to developers.
But supporters of the project said the little-used park is home to loiterers and a magnet for litter, and the project would draw more people and investment to the city's arts district.
The plan calls for renovating the entire hotel and upgrading it to a four-star hotel affiliated with Westin Hotels & Resorts, an upscale chain, said Gerald Chase of Newcastle Hotels & Resorts, which is managing the Eastland and developing the project in a joint venture with Rockbridge Capital, which is providing most of the money.
Chase said the franchise agreement with Westin Hotels & Resorts has been finalized. He said the project would include upgrading the Top of the East restaurant and lounge and expanding it by about 1,000 square feet, renovating the existing ballroom and building a second ballroom with capacity for 500 people.
Every room in the building would be renovated, and the electrical and plumbing systems would be completely updated, he said.
He declined to specify the total cost of the project, but said as much as $15 million would be spent on labor by local contractors, not including building supplies.
The new ballroom would take up nearly the entire park, leaving a small "passive park" about the width of a driveway along Congress Street.
After the developers presented their plan, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee discussed the project in a closed meeting. State law permits municipal committees to meet privately to discuss certain financial issues, such as real estate transactions.
When the Eastland was built as a 12-story luxury hotel in 1927, it was the largest hotel in New England. Charles Lindbergh, who that year became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, was honored with a banquet in the ballroom.
Today, the hotel is classified as a "mid-range" hotel, its status in Portland long eclipsed by newer hotels such as the Hilton Garden Inn and the Portland Regency Hotel.
The city established Congress Square Plaza in 1981, after a Dunkin' Donuts shop at the site was torn down. The plaza has never been popular. In his blog about architecture and town planning, Portland architect Michael Belleau describes the plaza as a "sunken, empty, tar-covered space often filled with vagrants."
Four years ago, the City Council established a 15-member group to look at ways to redesign the plaza. In October, the group gave its support to a concept proposal by the Eastland Plaza Hotel to build a ballroom on a portion of the plaza.
Wednesday's meeting at City Hall was the first time since then that officials from the hotel have publicly discussed their plans. More than 40 people, some sitting on the floor, crowded into Room 209 at City Hall to hear the developers.
The decision to invest in the project is a "no-brainer" because there are enormous opportunities in Portland and its arts district, Adam Valente, senior vice president of Rockbridge Capital, told the committee.
"We want to embrace the arts and -- I'm not sure this is a technical term -- the foodie aspect of Portland," he said.
Supporters and opponents of the plan expressed strong opinions.
Jim Devine of Homeless Voices for Justice said the project would benefit only wealthy people and "push the people we represent right out of the way."
Alice Spencer, who lives in the neighborhood, urged the committee to reject the proposal. "I feel you should not give up on a public space just because it's a bad public space," she said. "It should be improved."
Eric Bryant, a Portland resident, said the proposal amounts to a "privatization of the public sphere."
But Barbara Whitten, president of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the proposal is an "amazing" opportunity because it would draw many more visitors to the city.
The expanded Eastland would make the arts district a "showplace" for conventions and keep the downtown thriving, said Doug Fuss, who owns Bull Feeney's in the Old Port and is president of the board of directors of Portland's Downtown District.
"We need to do as much as possible to help them be successful so the hotel can be returned to its former glory," he said.
Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland's Downtown District, said it's possible to let the Eastland occupy Congress Square Plaza and establish a public park elsewhere, perhaps replacing a parking lot a half a block away.
She said that preserving public space is critical. "It doesn't have to be (at Congress Square Plaza)," she said, "but it has to be accounted for."
City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who chairs the committee, said after the meeting that the next step might be for developers to meet with residents and other stakeholders to work out a plan that benefits both sides. Establishing a park at a nearby site is a possibility if there is space available, he said.
He said he would not support selling the park to the hotel just for the sake of economic development.
"There may be an opportunity to create some better public space that location, he said. "Whatever proposal comes forward, it has to have some public good to it."
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:
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