Ugly metal monster harming downtown businesses
City seemingly powerless to stop it
By Chris Busby
It’s been there for over a year, a bane to the blind and the tall alike, blighting the view and hurting two small businesses in the heart of downtown Portland, while making anyone’s walk down its side of the street an obstacle course.
The length of a city block, it stretches around one of the busiest corners in the state, a gateway to downtown, where Forest Avenue (a.k.a. Route 302) meets Congress Street. It serves no discernible purpose. The city has no alternative but to tolerate it. It will be there for at least another year.
This beast is the metal and plywood scaffolding surrounding the former Congress Street Hotel. Now called Congress Square Plaza, the historic hotel was remodeled 25 years ago into an apartment building serving elderly and disabled people.
The property is owned by Congress Square Associates (CSA), a for-profit partnership. Among CSA’s many partners is Warren Sawyer, President and CEO of The Caleb Foundation. The foundation, part of The Caleb Group, is an interfaith Christian non-profit, based in Swampscott, Mass., that provides services to low-income elderly and disabled people throughout New England, including the residents of Congress Square Plaza.
Over a year ago, Sawyer said, a piece of masonry came loose from the building and fell to the sidewalk. The scaffolding was erected to protect pedestrians should that coming winter’s water and ice loosen more masonry. In the meantime, CSA began trying to secure funding for repairs inside and outside the building.
No work has yet been done, though Sawyer said CSA has secured funding from the Maine State Housing Authority to begin repairs. The targeted construction date is this coming January, but Sawyer added, “nothing is cast in stone.”
Once construction begins, Sawyer estimates it will take a full year to complete the $6 million-plus renovations, which include exterior masonry work, window replacement, and various interior improvements.
By that time, the two Congress Street businesses behind the maze of metal tubing may be long gone.
Cai Qi Zhong and her husband Song opened Stir Crazy, a Chinese restaurant, about a year ago – around the same time the scaffolding went up right in front of their new business. Cai said people still stop in asking for coffee and pizza, thinking the café that occupied the space last year is still there.
“It’s not good for my business,” said Cai, who added that another full year of obscurity behind the scaffolding could doom Stir Crazy, an eatery that depends on take-out and walk-in customers who live and work downtown.
The other business being pushed to the brink of closure is North Atlantic Leather, a clothing and accessory store that’s been on the corner for 20 years. North Atlantic’s owner declined to comment on the record for this article, but others, such as Jan Beitzer, Executive Director of Portland’s Downtown District, attested to the negative effect the scaffolding has had on retail in the area.
“Sidewalk bridges,” as Beitzer calls them, “are extremely detrimental to the retail business and the restaurant that are beneath it.” Beitzer, whose tax-supported non-profit promotes the downtown area, has fielded a steady stream of complaints about the scaffolding, and has brought up the issue with city officials.
“What I was told was [CSA] had to begin work within six months of the scaffolding being erected,” Beitzer said, “but if there are mitigating circumstances, the city tries to work with the property owner – as long as they are trying to move forward [with repairs].”
Mike Nugent, head of the city’s Inspection Services Program, was unavailable for comment, but program employees said that’s essentially been the case with Congress Square Plaza. CSA, they said, has been awaiting federal money to begin the project, and after a long delay, that funding is now available.
“Trust me, everyone is extremely irritated by [the scaffolding],” said one city inspections employee, speaking off the record in deference to Nugent. “I personally would not want to walk under that building, even with the scaffolding. I thought they should close that sidewalk down.”
Indeed, after a year, the weathered plywood overhead is sagging and the paint is peeling from the metal supports, revealing extensive rust. The supports themselves stand on haphazard wooden blocks, and metal handles stick out from the supports at ankle-to-knee-height. People with wheelchairs, walkers and canes – like many of the residents of Congress Square Plaza, who enter and exit their building beneath the scaffolding – have a particularly difficult time negotiating the makeshift tunnel, as does anyone walking a curious dog on a leash.
The city’s willingness to wait while the for-profit CSA makes funding arrangements to its liking strikes the same inspections employee as hypocritical. “If I owned it, [the city] would make me repair it,” the employee said. “Or they’d do it themselves and charge me double.”
City Councilor Will Gorham represents the district that includes Congress Square Plaza, and chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. Asked what Portland officials can do about the scaffolding hazard, he said, “That’s a very good question.”
“There should be a time limit,” said Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who heard about the issue when her boss, U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe, a customer at the leather shop, called her from the shop to find out why the obstruction was still there.
“When someone is issued a [construction] permit, it’s not open-ended,” Leeman said. “If they want to come in and renew it, they have to have some justification.”
If, as Sawyer acknowledges is the case with Congress Square Plaza, the scaffolding exists because the property poses a threat to public safety, Leeman said “there’s no excuse, absolutely no excuse, for not fixing the problem…. I have no sympathy. Find the money.”
Leeman said she plans to introduce an ordinance aimed at rectifying situations like this in the coming months.
It’s unclear to what extent city officials have leaned on CSA to get the projected started. Asked if he’s been pressured by Portland officials to begin the work, Sawyer said, “I’m not on the firing line. I heard one comment from somebody, some time ago. They were asking questions about it.”