Photo courtesy Blue Ruin
As the mayor’s Rose Quarter Stakeholder Advisory Committee begins vetting proposals later this month for the renovation of Memorial Coliseum, here at Portland Architecture I’ve tried to describe the pair of leading contenders, the Trail Blazers’ Jumptown and Douglas Obletz’s Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex (MARC), more or less objectively. I also plan to write about some of the other proposals that have been offered, and will do that in the days ahead.
But in the meantime, I want to make something clear: The Trail Blazers appear to have the plan that is vastly more preserving of the original bowl-in-the-glass-box design that makes Memorial Coliseum special and great. That said, appear is an operative word. They still have to prove it with more drawings and follow-throughs on pledges.
Image courtesy gdwriter.com
It was easy to be distracted from the Blazers’ plans for the Coliseum when the Jumptown scheme was released earlier this month. At this stage of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee process, only Coliseum renovation plans have been asked for, but the Blazers went ahead and submitted their ideas for the entire Rose Quarter district. Their plans show not just a renovated Coliseum, but also a vast array of hotels, residential construction, an entertainment complex and more. It spreads not only through the RQ but also across Broadway to and across Interstate Avenue to the riverfront.
Usually taking a holistic view from the get-go is a good thing, and the Blazers are correct to see that the Rose Quarter is not an island (even if it seems so now) but instead connected to the city fabric in crucial ways. They see it’s the Rose Quarter that’s the problem, not Memorial Coliseum.
The building, designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill and opened in 1960, represents a culmination of integrity, excellence and wonder. The size of four city blocks but resting on just four columns, it is perhaps the only arena of this size in the world that has a completely transparent exterior facade. It's a glass jewel box.
The Trail Blazers are proposing a light-handed renovation for Memorial Coliseum that preserves nearly everything crucial and wonderful about the architecture.The seating bowl inside would remain intact. Likely only the seats themselves would be switched out, allowing not only more leg room for attendees but also for the team to create the approximately 7,000-seat arena they seek without any structural change to the bowl.
Although the MARC plan has evolved positively to now include a similarly sized 7,000-seat venue to what the Blazers propose (originally Obletz’s scheme had no arena), and even though renderings now show the building’s exterior glass façade being preserved (instead of a TVA Architects-designed façade that resembled their own portfolio more than the original structure), one thing is still clear: The MARC proposal completely guts the inside of Memorial Coliseum, so much so that it would no longer be the same building. The Blazers’ proposal is the truest preservation we have.
What’s more, a lot of what Obletz is proposing for the MARC is also proposed in the Jumptown scheme, only in a less invasive way. The Blazers too are offering a bevy of athletic facilities available to the community. But the Jumptown plan puts those facilities in the massive underground portion of Memorial Coliseum, a space so large that Portland used to hold its annual show there. Both schemes even include a sports museum, but only the Blazers’ proposal would preserve the interior of the Coliseum itself.
photo by Brian Libby
The Obletz scheme is more ambitious in its provision of athletic facilities; there are more swimming pools and basketball courts. Yet it completely sacrifices the interior of the building to produce what seems to be only an extra 50,000 to 75,000 square feet of additional athletic space.
Then there’s cost: While the Blazers may have ambitious plans for the rest of the Rose Quarter (and beyond) with Jumptown, the team’s Memorial Coliseum scheme would be vastly, vastly cheaper than the MARC proposal. We’re talking about a minor facelift versus radical reconstructive surgery. Considering we’re still stumbling through The Great Recession, does Portland really want to choose the more expensive scheme?
At this point you might say, “OK, I accept that the Blazers have the more preservation-oriented about the Coliseum, but I’m really concerned about Jumptown.” After all, the Jumptown renderings show a cheesy array of faux-historic brick buildings with a crassly ginormous canopy. What’s more, the Blazers’ development partner, The Cordish Company, has a controversial reputation, and the entertainment districts Cordish has built in places like Kansas City, Louisville and Los Angeles don’t seem like the right fit here.
But you have to understand something about Jumptown: Other than the Coliseum renovation plan, the scheme unveiled is still in its early stages. Even if we greenlight Jumptown, there is still time to convince the Blazers to employ a top local architect and to favor contemporary architecture over faux historicism with the buildings comprising the entertainment portions of the Rose Quarter.
photos by Brian Libby
What we’ve seen so far are just early renderings provided by Cordish and its frequent architectural partner, Baltimore-based Design Collective, which has a picture of a combination Barnes & Noble-Hard Rock Café in neo-historic packaging on its website. That’s not the kind of design talent we need for Jumptown, but it’s probably not the designers we’ll get. In conversations with the Trail Blazers, team leadership has repeatedly emphasized that they want to build what the community wants. A local architect working with them and Cordish? No problem. A change to the Jumptown scheme? They say they’re all ears. The problem is that so far we have to make a leap of faith in believing them. The more the Blazers sign contracts and produce renderings going in the preservation direction, the more support they should garner.
It would be naïve of me (or anyone) to accept every Blazer pledge about Jumptown and to skeptically ignore Obletz’s ideas about the MARC. That’s especially true given that Obletz has provided in his numerous renderings a much more extensive look at what the MARC would actually look like. The Blazers, on the other hand, have only provided one rendering of their Coliseum plan. So an apples-to-apples comparison is tough when you’re looking at a single rendering versus about 10.
What’s more, this isn’t a black and white preservation choice even as it relates to just the Coliseum. After all, the MARC proposal has the Jumptown scheme beat in one regard: it preserves the Coliseum’s outside entry canopy and Jumptown does not. According to Trail Blazers’ Vice President J.E. Isaac, though, the team is absolutely willing to keep the canopy. And while the Blazers are now proposing a relatively hands-off approach to the Coliseum, they have previously discussed making additions to the buiding with swoopy curves, which would be utterly disastrous.
photo by Brian Libby
This is not a perfect process. It’s easy to get confused when we’re dealing with two Coliseum plans and only one Rose Quarter plan. And even if the Blazers’ preservation of Memorial Coliseum is preferable to Obletz’s, we’re talking about an out-of-town developer running Jumptown compared with a local developer spearheading MARC, the latter of which would be more in tune with Portland’s values. Even so, if you want to see Memorial Coliseum preserved as it is and always has been – as one of the greatest contemporary buildings in Portland, and one of the most architecturally unique large arenas anywhere in the world (it’s the only truly transparent arena) – it seems clear that the Trail Blazers are the ones looking to best preserve the Glass Palace.
What we need now is to hold the Blazers to their pledges and see more proof. We need more renderings of Memorial Coliseum as the Blazers see it in the future, and a commitment to keeping the swoopy addition plans in the waste bin. We also need the Blazers to commit to hiring a local architect. So far they have on board a superlative Portland architect, Rick Potestio, but my understanding is that he’s so far only an adviser, and is not producing designs. Ultimately, whether it’s Rick or another Portland architect/firm, the final Coliseum management agreement needs to come with a contractual provision that the winning suitor has to work with a local architect. As things stand now, it’s a little too easy for the Blazers to parade Potestio as part of their team while still relying on Cordish and Design Collective to actually provide the blueprints. Having a great Portland architect like Potestio or Brad Cloepfil, and leading the design process (not the developer), is a priority. It’s what makes Portland the design capitol it seeks to be.
Because I write this blog and am also involved in the leadership of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, it can be confusing with regard to what hat I’m wearing as I write this. So it should be said that the qualified support I’m pledging for the Blazers’ Coliseum/Rose Quarter plan is my own, and not an official Friends endorsement. And even if this were a no-holds-barred vote for the Blazers from myself and the Friends, it would be contingent on the Blazers doing and showing more before the deal is sealed. Ultimately, the National Register listing should be the real guide for how to proceed with this landmark building.
Having said all that, though, it appears today as if the Blazers have the best plan out there for truly saving Memorial Coliseum. Now we need to hold them to it.
UPDATE, 1/21/10: After reading several comments responding to the idea that I have endorsed the Blazers' Jumptown plan by writing this post, I want to clarify my remarks: I am not unequivocally supporting the overall Jumptown plan - at least not yet. I support the Blazers' plan for renovating Memorial Coliseum over the MARC plan because it's far more preservation oriented. But I also am concerned about the rest of Jumptown as the Blazers have presented it so far, in terms of the aesthetics, programming, and the use of an out-of-town developer that arguably may be out of step with Portland values. The fact that we're comparing a Coliseum plan to an overall Rose Quarter plan is indicative of this confusion.