C.J. Opperthauser, executive director of Friends of Congress Square Park, comes to Portland from Providence, Rhode Island, where he worked on several projects to create pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly zones. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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C.J. Opperthauser sees great potential when he looks at Congress Square Park.

Opperthauser, the new executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Congress Square Park, said the open public space in the heart of Portland’s downtown has historically been a place for gatherings and events that he expects will continue in the future.

“Congress Square Park is such a delight because of its size and location,” he said. “It packs a big punch for its size.”

Traffic at the intersection of High and Congress streets in Portland, with Congress Square Park in the background. The intersection is scheduled to undergo redesign and reconstruction over the next two years. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Though small, the square is a highly visible part of the city’s downtown and its development. It was created in 1982 at the corner of Congress and High streets, after a coffee shop known for its clientele of prostitutes and drug dealers was torn down. 

The owners of the neighboring Westin Portland Harborview hotel tried to buy the property from the city in 2013 but were thwarted by a public referendum. The square, home to the historic clock that sat atop Portland’s Union Station on St. John Street until that building was demolished in 1961 – a watershed event that sparked the city’s preservation movement and the eventual creation of Greater Portland Landmarks – has since been stewarded by the volunteer-led Friends group. 

Redesign of the park and intersection has been in discussion for several years, including the creation of a public art installation. The city selected New York artist Sarah Sze in 2016, but progress has been slow. Since Congress and High streets are state roads, the Maine Department of Transportation is involved and the work hasn’t made the state’s to-do list.

Paul Merrill, spokesman for the DOT, said the project is locally administered and slated to go out to bid this year. He said construction is expected to be completed next year. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin said funding requires approval from the city and state before bids can be sought. 

“We are in the process of discussing a number of cost-reducing ideas with our consultant and need to finalize the plans, specifications and estimate,” Grondin said. “At this time, pending City Council funding approval, bidding is expected in early summer with construction commencing late summer (or) early fall of this year.”

Opperthauser, 31, said “the redesign will be much more pedestrian-friendly and safer and more attractive. We’re excited to tell people what’s going on with that.” 

In the meantime, he said the Friends of Congress Square Park have already begun working on programming for 2021, which he said will include “old classics” such as tai chi in the square and potentially even movies at night.

“The nice thing is we can audible as we go,” he said. 

A vacant storefront at the intersection of High and Congress streets in Portland, with Congress Square Park in the background. C.J. Opperthauser of Friends of Congress Square Park said customers attracted by nearby businesses are essential lifeblood for the park. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

A big plan once the weather becomes favorable, he said, is to try to get live music going again in the square, with appropriate social distancing.

“Even if it’s not their style of music, just the very chance to sit down and hear and listen to live music is an itch people are desperate to scratch,” Opperthauser said.

Another returning event will be a series of art installations. Last year, he said, the organization promoted four installations, and this year it hopes to grow that with installations from five artists displayed on a monthly basis.

Opperthauser, who began his work remotely in January and just moved to Portland on Feb. 14, said he also hopes to better utilize businesses that surround the square. One idea is a series of pop-up markets where retailers can use the space to get outside, especially as the coronavirus pandemic and its limits on indoor activities stretch into a second summer.

He also said while the Friends are considering making the square available as program space for local organizations that have had to conduct strictly remote gatherings throughout the pandemic and want the ability to reconvene.

“We’re finding events that will bring people together while being mindful of social distancing,” he said.

Businesses adjacent to the Square, most notably the State Theatre, have faced some challenges. The theatre has largely been dark during the pandemic, with the exception of a few streamed concerts. Across the street, the first floor of the historic Schwartz Building on the southwest corner of Congress and High streets has been vacant for several years. 

But Opperthauser said the neighboring businesses provide the blood that pumps through the heart of what his group hopes to do. He said they hope to continue to create opportunities like the chess tournaments Yes Books has helped curate in the past. He said a public space like the square is good for “organic programming,” with people showing up to drink a cup of coffee or eat a takeout lunch, or to have a meeting, or even just sit and enjoy watching other people.

“A public space, like Congress Square Park, is only as good as its surrounding neighbors, and especially businesses and restaurant neighbors,” he said.

Originally from Michigan, Opperthauser spent the last seven years working in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was a volunteer coordinator with WaterFire Providence, an art installation and summertime event in the city; managed Grow Smart Rhode Island’s training program; was a CityWorks fellow with DownCity Design; served as events chair on the board of directors of the Rhode Island Bicycle Coalition; was a program committee member of the Roger Williams Park Conservancy, and founded a pedestrian advocacy group called Walk PVD.

Opperthauser said his experience working on what he called “complete streets” projects that create more pedestrian- and bike-friendly areas, can be applied in Portland, especially as the square goes through its city redesign.

“The opportunity here in Portland just was very much up my alley, it’s pretty much my dream job,” he said. “I had been to Portland a number of times, and like most people, I was delighted to have an excuse to move up here.”