BY BRIAN LIBBY
Six years after the building was saved from demolition but three years after a planned restoration stalled in City Council, people often ask me: "What's happening with Memorial Coliseum?" And I don't blame them. It's a long saga that needs resolution.
Certainly City Council has a lot of projects needing money, such as the Portland Building and many miles of unpaved streets. But there is a strong economic case to be made for Memorial Coliseum, and the city's own numbers support this.
A little over a month ago, the city released the results of a study commissioned by the mayor's office to look at the cost of restoring Memorial Coliseum and what those investments would yield in terms of increased bookings and profit, as well as the cost of demolition or of converting the building to an open-air arena. Now it's arguably time to act on the results.
Restoration: Basic Numbers
The study came back with three basic levels of potential restoration.
At the low end, at $35 million, is what's called "Essential Repairs and Replacement," which would address things like plumbing, bathrooms and a new scoreboard. In the middle was "Tenant/User Enhancements" at $61 million, with full life safety and ADA upgrades, window repair, new seats and concessions. Then there was "Strategic Market Enhancements" at $91 million, which did all this while also adding crucial enhancements like a loading dock, improved acoustics, and a curtain that could be open and closed regularly, revealing the incredible 360-degree view more than just once or twice a year.
The study also looked at a two other configurations that I'd characterize as wildcards of varying unlikeliness. One was said to have been put forward to woo Nike as a private partner: a "dynamic" floor that would allow room for an indoor track. Portland is hosting the 2016 World Indoor Track & Field Championships, so this would have allowed the event to move from the Oregon Convention Center to the Coliseum. But this option would have cost about $143 million, according to the study, and no partnership was forged. The study also looked at a $95 million option to become an open-air venue, with the glass walls removed. But unlike the other restoration options, all of which would have increased the number of events at the Coliseum, it was found to be able to only host about 57 events a year.
So that leaves us with the question of the $35, $61 and $91 million restoration costs, or spending $14 million for demolition.
First, let's remember that even in its disrepair, Veterans Memorial Coliseum continues to break even. That reflects something else the study affirmed: that Portland lacks another venue in the 6,000 to 8,000-seat range, which the Coliseum (now at just under 12,000 seats) would be upon a restoration. In other words, the building serves an important niche in the portfolio of local venues.
Take, for example, Cirque du Soleil's sold-out run of shows over two weeks in May of this year. As Rose Garden management has confirmed, Cirque du Soleil would not have come to Portland at all this year if the venue weren't available.
$35 to $91 million is a lot of money, and city leaders are understandably cautious about committing that level of funds. As initial media reports by The Oregonian and the Portland Tribune pointed out, the profits that the Coliseum would generate would not be enough to recoup the costs of the restoration.
Even so, restoring Memorial Coliseum at this range of costs is a bargain, and it's time City Council members acknowledged this.
For a city-owned venue like the Coliseum, the question is not just the profit that it would make, but instead the economic impact it would generate. "It can bring us an economic impact multiple times the [cost of the] renovation," a representative of the Portland Business Alliance told City Council back in 2012, when a $31 million renovation package was being considered.
Maybe the question shouldn't just be how much a Coliseum restoration will cost the city, but how much positive economic impact we have already lost in the three years since City Council declined to bring the restoration to a vote. It could already be paying economic dividends and bringing jobs.
Comparison to New Construction
Once we establish that the city needs a venue in this size range, it's also relevant to compare the Coliseum's projected restoration costs versus the cost of replacement - something neither The Oregonian nor the Portland Tribune did in their reporting.
New arenas of comparable size to the VMC have been built recently in numerous cities like Chicago, ranging from about $165 million to over $250 million. As it happens, restoring an existing city-owned asset does indeed pencil out in comparison to either a new-arena replacement or in light of economic impact on the city.
A Simple Plan: Phased Restoration
Of course the question of how much to restore the Coliseum can't be separated from what the city can afford.
At the time of the proposed 2012 restoration package, Portland had about $22 million in Urban Renewal Area funds, and was counting on about $10 million from the Coliseum's anchor tenant, the Portland Winterhawks hockey franchise. Although that $22 million is increasingly being considered for other needs, it seems probable that the city, particularly if it was able to reach a new agreement with the Winterhawks, could put together the funds for the lower-level $35 million restoration outlined in the study. According to its findings, that would give the building an additional 20 years of life. And in this scenario, the city would only be spending about eight million than it would cost to demolish the building.
More importantly, investing $35 million could be packaged as simply the first phase of a multi-year, multiple-phase restoration. It would start to bring in the additional concerts and other events that would help the building pay for its repairs with added revenue. Once that happened, and as more city funds became available, we could commit at a later date to some of the additional enhancements that would bring in even more bookings.
Much as we have to make financially prudent decisions about city buildings, the case of the Coliseum is also a referendum on what kind of city Portland wants to be.
Last week at a joint meeting of the American Institute of Architects Historic Resources Committee and the organization's Urban Design Panel (the latter in collaboration with local American Planning Association and American Society of Landscape Architects chapters), longtime ZGF Architects principal and former City Club president Paddy Tillett said something important. In the recent past, he argued, when addressing the restoration needs of historic landmarks like City Hall or the Multnomah County Central Library, we never considered demolishing them. We had a conversation about how to fund their restorations, but we remained devoted to their preservation. It was a no-brainer.
One might argue that a city-owned and operated arena is less essential than a city hall or a library. But when one figures in the architectural significance of the building, as well as its status as a veterans memorial and its ongoing roles such as a concert venue and the originating point of the Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade, and the size niche it fills amongst local venues, the case becomes stronger.
Architecturally, the Coliseum is incredible. Equivalent in size to three city blocks, it stands on just four columns. Its concrete seating bowl sits completely detached from the glass box surrounding it. It's nearly the only arena in the world with a 360-degree view to the outside. I've watched the sun set over the entire downtown skyline from my Memorial Coliseum seat, and it's among the most breathtaking architectural experiences I've ever had. The building was designed by one of the 20th century's most important American architecture firms - Skidmore, Owings and Merrill - at the height of their design prowess, with legendary architects like Gordon Bunshaft and Myron Goldsmith contributing. Although some still find it strange to think of a work of modernist architecture being historic, it's absolutely true. And the public has increasingly developed a taste for mid-20th century modernism, from the Eames Chair to the soon-to-be-renovated TWA terminal at JFK airport. The Coliseum was thusly added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
Centerpiece of a Burgeoning District
We also have to look at the Coliseum in an urban planning context. With changes coming to the Interstate 5 interchange and valuable central-city real estate in play at a time the city is booming, the Coliseum can become a centerpiece of what is destined to become a kind of second downtown in the years ahead. With a new streetcar line and major parcels like the Portland Public Schools site waiting to be redeveloped, the area bordering the Rose Quarter east of the Broadway Bridge will over the years ahead give way to high-density development, as we are already seeing in the adjacent Lloyd District and Convention Center area.
The City can take action both toward addressing the Rose Quarter's urban design failures and help the Coliseum itself by redeveloping the two arenas' parking garages, which are structurally equipped to withstand buildings being built on top of them. Doing so would raise funds that could contribute to the Coliseum's restoration. There is also similar opportunity with the riverfront parcel directly west of the Coliseum across Interstate Avenue, which is currently being used as a parking lot for Moda Center employees. A restored Coliseum could be the cultural and architectural centerpiece of a new high-density area with the energy and foot traffic of the most successful such transformation of the past decade: the Brewery Blocks and the adjacent Gerding Theater (renovated from the historic Portland Armory).
But don't take my word for it. Look at The Oregonian's recent editorial arguing for a Coliseum restoration, or the recent op-ed in the Tribune. Or consider the on-record support for investing in the building that has come from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the US Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects, or the aforementioned Portland Business Alliance. The world's best cities, the ones people want to visit and invest in, continually renew and re-imagine their great places. If Portland lacks the rich heritage of some European or Asian cities, it's therefore all the more important to preserve the signature buildings and spaces we do have. And with the city trying to establish itself as a design and sustainability capitol, to do anything but a restoration would go against the values.
If you'd like to make your voice heard, the mayor's office has created an online page for the public to weigh in on the Coliseum's fate as part of a two-month online comment period.
[In continuing full disclosure, I am the co-chair of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum. Check out our video below or visit our website to learn more.]