Ballot issue on tiny park in Portland, Maine, divides residents on eve of referendum

PORTLAND, Maine – City residents, less than a year after legalizing marijuana, are going to the polls again to settle a squabble over a half-acre park that evolved into a much larger debate over the future of the city’s public parks.

The ballot issue would add 35 open spaces to the city’s list of protected lands and make it more difficult to sell them. Among the spaces is Congress Square Plaza, a small patch of trees, red bricks and concrete in a busy commercial section of downtown Portland, most of which the city wants to sell to an Ohio-based hotel owner.

It’s one of several closely watched local elections Tuesday. Also on the ballot are hotly contested primaries in the race for an open seat in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud is vacating to run for governor.

Supporters say the parks vote is a referendum on Portland’s commitment to public spaces, with some backers saying failure could imperil other open spaces in an increasingly congested city.

“What we’re fighting over now is not that half-acre of public park,” said Bree LaCasse, a campaigner for the referendum’s passage. “It’s naive to think there won’t be pressures on any other parks.”

Opponents of the measure, including business leaders, say reneging on the sale of property to the owner of the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel would discourage investment in the city.

“This referendum is about one thing — Congress Square Plaza,” said Chris Hall, chief of the Portland Regional Chamber. “We’ve got a failed urban space at the heart of the city.”

Supporters and opponents have dotted Portland with signs expressing both perspectives on the referendum. It’s the latest in a long line of causes to take root in Portland, a city of 66,000 residents that has been a hotbed for activism in recent years on issues such as marijuana legalization, gay rights and same-sex marriage and the rights of homeless people.

Portland has many parks that date to the 19th century. Congress Square Plaza housed a coffee shop frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes before federal money helped it become a park in the 1980s. It retains its reputation as an underutilized space.

The City Council voted in September to sell two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to Columbus, Ohio-based Rockbridge Capital for $523,640. Rockbridge, which owns Harborview Hotel, plans to build a one-story event centre on the site. The remainder would be renovated as park space.

If passed, the referendum would require at least eight of nine City Council members to approve selling any property on the city’s land bank list. Properties also could be sold if six councillors approved the sale, provided the proposal receives public support in a municipal election. The new rules would make the land bank list grow from 25 to 60 properties and would apply retroactively to Congress Square Plaza.

“This is one of the more rigorous referendums I’ve seen in Portland in a long time,” supporter John Eder said.

Rejection of the referendum, he said, could “bring an end to the enlightened era of parks.”

Jim Cohen, a former Portland mayor and opponent of the referendum, said he also sees the vote as about more than a small park — he believes it’s about the city’s economic health.

“We don’t want to be the kind of city where investment becomes dangerous,” Cohen said.