Portland has picked a Philly design team to overhaul Congress Square. Here are 6 projects the firm did elsewhere

The city of Portland announced this afternoon the selection of Philadelphia-based WRT as its design team to lead a potentially ambitious overhaul of Congress Square.

It’s the latest news in the remarkable turnaround of the square, a roughly 14,500-square-foot downtown gathering space that was long neglected until it came under threat of being snatched up by private hoteliers three years ago.

After opponents effectively stopped that sale of the public lot, city officials and community volunteers have turned their attention toward trying to revive it.

So far, those efforts have largely consisted of robust event planning for the space by the group Friends of Congress Square Park, which has brought wireless internet, live music, movies, Tai Chi, kittens and a number of other attractions to the once overlooked square.

With people now coming to Congress Square more regularly — and on purpose — there’s a renewed interest in taking that revival to the next level. Alongside the real-time events, the city has been working to line up artists and designers to plot out a more substantial overhaul, one that could really blow things up and even expand the pedestrian space across the now-busy intersection of Congress and High streets.


Congress Square (WRT)

The city, along with the Friends, put a call out for designers and artists in December, and accepted submissions until late January. As the city explained in today’s news release, “of the 12 submissions received for the design contract, four were selected as finalists for interviews with the selection committee, a site visit, and a public presentation on May 4.”

And of those four, the aforementioned WRT was picked as the winning design team.

The WRT team also includes urban horticulturalist Patrick Cullina, graphic designer BlueCadet, and civil and traffic engineers Sebago Technics.

So that brings us up to now.

The city can afford to fund the development of schematics for the square, but before any of those plans become a reality, some serious fundraising will need to be done for the buildout. It’s not an insignificant hurdle. But nonetheless…

We’ve got a little time to kill before the city announces its finalists for the public art component of this whole project later this month, so let’s look at some projects WRT has in its portfolio, and daydream about how these types of approaches could translate into a new Congress Square.

I’ve pulled these out of WRT’s proposal to the city.

Dutch Kills Green, Long Island, New York

dutch kills green


“Dutch Kills Green, at the foot of the Queensboro Bridge in Long Island City, has been a gateway to travelers crossing between Queens and Manhattan for nearly a century. The site has long been defined by the presence of the elevated train. WRT reconceived the tangle of urban infrastructure cutting through Long Island City from a harsh, disorienting industrial maze into a lush, navigable landscape.”

Former Bethlehem Steel plant, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania



bethlehem 2“In 2011, one of the country’s largest brownfield sites, the 10-acre central core of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, was redeveloped by WRT into the SteelStacks Arts and Cultural Campus. WRT’s landscape and architecture designs focused on the project’s public space, providing a unifying framework for new site programs, and an enhanced connection between the site and local community.”

Market Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



“The Fashion Outlets of Philadelphia at Market East will be the result of an extensive effort to revitalize the existing Gallery at Market East as a once again vibrant mixed-use downtown Center City development. This transformation will occur as a result of a thorough renovation that will integrate the now disparate building elements into a unified and cohesive vision that resonates with commuters, workers and shoppers alike.”

Fringe Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania



fringe 2“FringeArts (formerly Philadelphia Live Arts Festival + Philly Fringe) has engaged WRT to transform the historic High Pressure Fire Service building at Race Street & North Columbus Boulevard — at the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge and directly across from the new Race Street Pier — into a thriving arts center that will house its operation’s headquarters and serve as its flagship venue.”


Crystal City Public Realm, Arlington, Virginia

crystal city


“While strides have been made, Crystal City’s open spaces simply aren’t meeting their full potential. The real question to be asked is how do we upgrade and transform Crystal City open spaces from simply being visual amenities to contributing heavily towards the quest for a healthy neighborhood ecosystem that serves the people that live, work, and visit the neighborhood.”

500/501 Union St., Alexandria, Virginia



“WRT in collaboration with Hickok Cole Architects for CityInterests and Rooney Properties, is transforming the approx. 6 acre industrial site, formerly known as Robinson Terminal North, into a mixed-use community. WRT’s landscape design features a streetscape along North Union Street that celebrates Alexandria’s history, a waterfront promenade that connects Founders Park and Oronoco Bay Park, a railroad-inspired native plants garden, and a public pier with views of the nation’s capital and the Potomac River.”

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.