If the Portland Trail Blazers are the favorite to win a city contract to redevelop the Rose Quarter and Memorial Coliseum, the next biggest contender is the Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex (MARC), offered by Douglas Obletz, president of the local development company Shiels Obletz Johnsen.
SOJ has developed numerous high profile projects in town, such as Museum Place downtown, which provided high density housing (by GBD Architects) on top of a Safeway (the first Safeway in the nation to have housing above the store).
Obletz, who I visited with and interviewed two weeks ago, insists the MARC proposal is not simply the endeavor of a large local developer looking to get a piece of the Rose Quarter pie. He talked about how Memorial Coliseum is a public building, and thus no private entity -- the Trail Blazers included -- should be set up to use the building as a for-profit venture. Obletz believes the RFP (request for proposal) process being employed at the end of the city's Stakeholder Advisory Committee is flawed. "The only people who can afford to go through the RFP process are the Blazers," he said. "And should they make money off public land?"
Obletz also believes the Rose Quarter is better off as what he calls a "sports village", not the entertainment district the Blazers are betting on. And his MARC proposal, drawn up by TVA Architects with an assist from architect Peter Meijer (who wrote the Coliseum's National Register application), does just that.
As many know, the MARC plan was first offered several years ago, when the Coliseum came dangerously close to becoming redeveloped into a big-box retail outlet, possibly a Home Depot. At that time, the idea of a recreation complex sounded infinitely better. However, if you were looking at the MARC plan from a Coliseum preservationist perspective, it was ominous; that initial MARC proposal would have entirely removed the Coliseum's seating bowl (now protected by the National Register listing). And TVA's renderings refashioned the original glass exterior to look like...well, like a TVA building.
Meeting with Obletz to look at his revised MARC plans earlier this month, it was clear that they had changed significantly -- and for the better. Now they include, like the Trail Blazers' proposal, an approximately 7,000-seat arena that would continue to be home to the Winter Hawks hockey team. What's more, Obletz envisions Portland State University basketball teams using the Coliseum as their home court, as well as state high school playoffs in basketball, wrestling, swimming and numerous other sports.
Although the MARC would retain an arena, the design drops the arena down a floor, so that when one entered, the top of the seating bowl would be at eye level instead of the bottom. "The existing seating bowl is completely removed in our proposal," Obletz explained. "It is replaced by a smaller diameter seating bowl with 6,500-7,500 seats. Some of this new bowl will rise above the Concourse Level, but not to the extent of the current bowl." By giving the arena a "haircut", as Obletz called it, room would be left over for a new floor above called the Field House level. These areas, along with underground spaces, would provide a bevy of athletic facilities: olympic sized swimming and diving, more basketball courts, and workout equipment.
The new Coliseum arena would also be flexible enough to provide a velodrome track, thereby incorporating Portland's burgeoning bicycle culture as well as a competing plan for the building. It would also allow for indoor track, something I've heard Nike has advocated the Blazers make a possibility for in the Jumptown plan.
Along with preserving key elements like the glass exterior and entry canopy, the National Register listing also calls for no other architecture to be touching the perimeter of the Coliseum. The MARC plan honors this, but adds a small building to the north side of the Coliseum that, while not touching the original facade, would more or less abut it with an underground passage.
Also like the Blazers' Jumptown proposal, the MARC would also make room for a sports museum. Instead of being branded by Nike, the museum would be a resurrection of the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame, which used to be housed downtown.
The MARC would also move the veterans' memorial out of the sunken outdoor garden where it now exists and move it to the front of the Coliseum; this is somewhat similar to the idea the Trail Blazers have of moving the memorial to the northwest corner of the Rose Quarter.
Overall, Obletz makes a viable case that the MARC would be more successful than an entertainment complex like Jumptown at bringing Portlanders into the Rose Quarter on a daily basis. He also argues that the MARC would do more to activate residential development along Broadway (the north edge of the Rose Quarter) and in the Lloyd District without creating duplicate entertainment and restaurant venues that would otherwise compete with existing retail enclaves like Northeast Broadway, Alberta, and North Mississippi.
Personally, I would find it difficult to throw my support entirely behind the MARC because, while a seating bowl is technically retained, it still does too much from my Coliseum preservationist perspective to change the inside of the building.
At the same time, there is undeniable validity to some of what Obletz says and proposes. A public athletic center for the whole community to use on a daily basis probably would be a better course than a cluster of restaurants, bars, etc. And Obletz's company is a local developer with a long track record of generating very Portland transit-oriented developments. The Blazers' development partner, The Cordish Company of Baltimore, has a consistent history of creating banal, crassly commercial developments that seem to attract suburbanites and embarrassing racially motivated security incidents.
Obletz also argues that, while both the MARC and Jumptown would require public funding, his plan does it more honestly. His idea is for approximately 25 percent of the project to be funded with public dollars. Or as Obletz put it, "I suggested that we try to put together about 25% of the project cost from available public resources, e.g., urban renewal and coliseum reserve funds, plus private fund raising from foundations and sponsorships, and other tools like new market tax credits-- then go to the voters for the balance." As I understand it, talk in the past about Jumptown or other Rose Quarter proposals would be more likely to raid urban renewal area funds meant for the Convention Center or Interstate urban renewal districts.
“This is a defining moment for the future of the Rose Quarter, Memorial Coliseum and our city," Obletz added. "Now is the time for the citizens of Portland to step up in support of a community project that symbolizes what Portland is about. The MARC represents responsible use of public assets, promotes health and wellness, serves kids and families, preserves our architectural heritage, commemorates our veterans and enhances tourism and economic development.”
In an ideal world, we'd be able to take the best of both the Jumptown and MARC plans and merge them into one. Make it athletics-oriented rather than entertainment and bars like Obletz suggests, and keep the Coliseum a public building. But leave the arena solely an arena like the Blazers plan, and move the athletic facilities into surrounding spaces such as the massive underground area beneath the Coliseum and its adjacent plaza. Both plans already call for a sports museum and amateur athletic facilities anyway.
Assuming such a merger won't happen, we're left with some gray area. There are things to like about both Jumptown and the MARC, and things not to like. And each plan needs further vetting, both with respect to the design itself and how it would impact the community.
A public meeting is sheduled for January 26th to review the various proposals submitted.