PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Residents of Maine's largest city have approved a referendum to save a half-acre downtown park and give more protections to the city's open spaces.
The ballot question Tuesday asked Portland residents if they wanted to add 35 open spaces to the city's list of protected lands and make it more difficult to sell them. The key piece was Congress Square Plaza, a half-acre plaza in downtown Portland. The city wanted to sell most of the plaza to an Ohio-based hotel owner.
The referendum was 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.
The city 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.
Voters approved the ballot question, 4,888 to 4,605, to save the park. Supporters said failure of the referendum could have imperiled other open public spaces in a city that has seen increased development interest in recent years. Some also faulted the city for failing to maintain Congress Square Plaza.
"Neglect shouldn't be a reason to" sell a public park, city voter Abraham Alain Schecter said. Opponents of the measure argued that passage would discourage investment. Others said the city would be better off without the little-used park. "I don't think Congress Square is ever going to be a suitable place for a park," said Richard Roberts, another Portland voter.
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, wanted to build a one-story event center on the site.
The referendum requires at least eight of nine City Council members to approve selling any property on the city's land bank list. Properties could also be sold if six councilors approved the sale, contingent on public referendum approval. The new rules grow the land bank list from 25 to 60 properties and apply retroactively to Congress Square Plaza.