After more than a year of wrangling about the future of Memorial Coliseum, first under the threat of demolition for a minor league baseball stadium, and then with a mayor-appointed committee considering re-use proposals, City Council is set to take up the fate of the building this Wednesday.
Earlier this year, three finalists were selected for the redevelopment: The Memorial Athletic and Recreation Center (MARC) from developer Douglas Obletz, the Veterans' Memorial Arts and Athletic Center (VMAAC) from a consortium of veterans and other stakeholders, and the Trail Blazers' Jumptown proposal.
At issue now is the Request For Proposals being issued by the city. One of the finalists' backers, Obletz, lobbied City Council to renegotiate the agreement before offering development rights it may not have to others. In his letter to Council, Obletz expressed concern that a component of his proposal, a 6,500-seat arena, would not be allowed under the operating agreement because the city's operating agreement with Portland Arena Management allows the city to operate the Coliseum only as a non-spectator facility.
"The Blazers have been very forthcoming with our team and have repeatedly indicated that there are no circumstances under which they would be willing to relinquish their operating rights to the Coliseum," Obletz said in the letter. "Given the Operating Agreement language, and the Blazer's stated position on these rights, we must question the legal ability of the city to offer the use of the Coliseum for our proposal."
Obletz requested that city council delay proceeding with the RFP process until the operating agreement can be re-negotiated between the city and PAM. But Mayor Sam Adams announced on March 22 that such a renegotiation wouldn't happen because it’s not necessary because all finalists, even the Trail Blazers, would need to renegotiate the operating agreement for whatever use they have planned. The Blazers currently hold operating options on the facility until 2023.
“The best time to renegotiate the details of the Operating Agreement is once we choose a proposal for the Memorial Coliseum and embark on negotiating a redevelopment agreement,” he said in the letter.
Are you confused yet? Even after following this for more than a year, I am. But it seems to me that the RFP issue Obletz speaks about is fairly moot if the agreement is rewritten down the road.
Meanwhile, I wanted to address a very discouraging effort by an otherwise laudably progressive organization, Onward Oregon, which describes itself as "part of growing grassroots movement to restore civic power to the people of Oregon and their communities. We envision a state where all of us can enjoy comfort and prosperity, equal opportunity and a beautiful and healthy environment."
Recently Onward Oregon began asking its members to lobby City Council for a selection of either the MARC or VMAAC proposals - in other words, specifically to vote against the Trail Blazers' Jumptown proposal.
"As you may know," its website says, "the leading contender is the Trail Blazers’ plan to create an entertainment district called Jumptown. Many feel that such a district, including their proposal for the Memorial Coliseum, would serve a narrow demographic and will privatize a space that was once shared and owned in common. We are concerned that Jumptown & the Trail Blazers’ plan for the Memorial Coliseum will make Memorial Coliseum a commercial and community deadzone."
No doubt there are reasons to be critical of the entertainment zone the Blazers have proposed, as well as the out-of-town developer they've chosen to work with, Cordish, which seems to favor chain stores and a generally antiseptic, suburban milieu.
BUT - and this is the crucial thing - the Jumptown proposal is the only one that would save Memorial Coliseum.
Both the MARC and the VMAAC would only leave the Coliseum exterior, and would otherwise completely gut the building's interior. Is that moving us "Onward" to blow up history and architectural mastery?
If you gut the interior of Memorial Coliseum, you might as well tear the whole building down. The entire reason this building is an architectural landmark of international renown, and unique in the world for large-scale arenas, is because of the relationship between the arena seating bowl and the surrounding glass perimeter: the bowl in the box. The curving organic form of the concrete seating bowl, free of any columns other other impediments, sitting inside the rigid linear geometry of the glass box.
I'm not saying Jumptown is perfect by any means. In fact, it's very much imperfect. But the entertainment-zone plans, the potentially crass neo-historic architecture Cordish favors: all of those can still be changed for the better. The Blazers are open to countless other ideas: housing, community facilities - many of the very things the MARC and VMAAC propose. Yet if either of the other two finalists is chosen, Memorial Coliseum will be ruined.
Onward Oregon ought to know better. They've been on the correct side of many past political debates. But this time the group has come down on the side of local proposers at the expense of Portland's history and one of its irreplaceable landmarks. I'm sure these are good people at Onward Oregon, trying to do the right thing. But shame on them and their potentially catastrophic ignorance.
Look, I don't mean to sound like an angry know-it-all lecturing people about architecture and Memorial Coliseum. And I certainly don't feel comfortable siding with a corporate developer over local interests. But the truth is that MARC and the VMAAC pose a much greater danger for Portland than Cordish does. And anyone who has been inside that building with the curtain open, looking out at a panoramic view of downtown Portland through the glass, will likely feel the same way. This is an absolute treasure, and if Jumptown isn't selected as the future of the Rose Quarter, the masterpiece known as Memorial Coliseum will be destroyed.
Oh, and as it happens, MARC and VMAAC would be much more expensive than keeping the building as an arena. Does Portland really want to take money from funding schools or affordable housing, for example, to dump scores or hundreds of millions into gutting the Coliseum? Why spend so much on something frivolous and destroy history in the process?
Instead of building the MARC or VMAAC inside the Coliseum and ruining the building in the process, I think we're missing the obvious.
A few days ago I went to Memorial Coliseum to photograph the building from a western vantage point, trying to get a shot of the building before all the deciduous trees in front of the building begin to sprout foliage, thus blocking off the Glass Palace from proper view. Standing along Interstate Avenue, across from the Coliseum, I happened to look at the riverfront property beside the Broadway Bridge. You know what's there? A big freaking parking lot. It's where Rose Quarter employees keep their cars.
This waterfront space is some of the most potentially valuable real estate in the city, and it's currently a riverside parking lot. Isn't THIS where we should be adding functions like an athletic center or arts facilities? Why not use the empty space you have, especially if it's prime riverfront space, before destroying architectural landmarks?
Obviously the city process thus far has been focused on proposals for Memorial Coliseum. But if the whole process were handled a bit differently, we might be able to look at the development in a more holistic manner - one that could be beneficial for everyone without cutting off Portland's nose to spite its face.
Look at the Rose Quarter riverfront parking lot shown above and picture a smaller glass palace, a foothill to the Coliseum's mountain, where people are exercising and/or making art with a view of the Willamette. Wouldn't it be great?