In today's Oregonian, art critic D.K. Row looks at the Memorial Coliseum and Rose Quarter process currently being undertaken by the City via the Mayor's office and the Portland Development Commission.
The piece is called "Openness, with an asterisk" and the sub-headline reads, "A clause neutralizing Memorial Coliseum as a threat to the Blazers' Rose Garden makes for a flawed design process."
This article has a lot of good information and Row (who, in full disclosure, is my former editor at the paper) is a smart, perceptive critic. At the same time, there are a few points raised in the article that I want to clarify or expand upon.
First of all, the article - just like Janie Har's article in the paper a few weeks ago - incorrectly uses a rendering of the Blazers' proposed Jumptown development instead of an image of their plan for Memorial Coliseum. Jumptown is all but irrelevant right now. Jumptown hasn't been designed yet, and the rendering is just an artist's impression of some vague ideas about the overall Rose Quarter. Many people have concerns about Jumptown and justifiably so, but that rendering tells us little; it's the cart before the horse.
The issue right now is Memorial Coliseum, and the Blazers are the only one of the three finalists chosen by the Mayor's Stakeholder Advisory Committee who propose to preserve the landmark Coliseum as an arena with its seating bowl intact. Yet their plan, if people go by The Oregonian, is being judged on that meaningless rendering. I think the mistake was made not by DK Row, but is a result of the Coliseum story being parceled out to numerous reporters and sections over time, so a different Metro, Business or How We Live editor makes the same mistake each time..
Second, while DK Row's reporting is sound, I'd argue the sub-headline ("A clause neutralizing Memorial Coliseum as a threat to the Blazers' Rose Garden makes for a flawed design process"), which editors usually write instead, is misleading.
The Blazers do indeed hold the cards when it comes to the right of refusal with other projects and the RFP. But the Blazers' contract is expiring in November, and the structure of the deal could be completely rewritten. More importantly, it's not the clause that "makes for a flawed design process". It's the flawed design process that makes for the flawed design process. It's the structure of the competition, which had no provisions about budget, stocked the Advisory Committee with people protecting their demographic turf, and discouraged any kind of design expertise or inviting of talented designers.
That said, there are several passages in Row's piece that are worth passing on. Row writes:
It's a narrative rife with so many tactical layers that instead of common-sense clarity, it's as cloudy as an Oregon winter. Even two city commissioners of often intensely contrasting opinions agree that this latest design episode is a murky affair that might even prompt reconsideration of how the city conducts public design processes.
"This began as a community-wide effort to save the Memorial Coliseum from the wrecking ball," says City Commissioner Nick Fish. "I celebrate that, as we now debate how much public investment we want to make into that building and area. But I fear we've structured this process to ensure an unsatisfactory outcome."
By changing his position from wanting to raze the Coliseum to rescuing it for future development, Mayor Sam Adams showed he can respond to the public - but he also doesn't have a sharp vision of his own for the building and area.
Fish and Row both make a good point: That it was great that the Coliseum was saved from demolition for a baseball stadium, a ludicrous plan. And Adams deserves credit for backing away from the baseball plan. At the same time, the ensuing process has been disastrous. Memorial Coliseum never needed some new programmatic idea. It's already a functioning arena that compliments the Rose Garden from a business perspective - actually drawing a comparable number of events to the Rose Garden in 2009 with over 150 events and over 450,000 visitors.
So for the past several months, we've encouraged people to submit ideas in a way that for all the admirable symbolism of openness and populism is totally unrealistic about the goal. And that's the problem I think has marred PDC process time and time again: process for the sake of process rather than process for the sake of product. The Coliseum process culled together a huge Advisory Committee not of creative thinkers, but of members from the community representing particular interests: a bicycle person representing bicycle interests, a neighborhood organization person representing neighborhoods, and so on. Here the appearance of inclusiveness trumped the need to figure out the dynamics of the Rose Quarter and find a way for the Coliseum and Rose Garden to work collaboratively with a variety of new functions to enliven the district. It trumped the invitation of design expertise and vision.
Looking ahead, one can already see City Council grappling to find a way out of this three-finalist process. Two of the proposals, the MARC (Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex) and the VMAAC (Veterans Memorial Arts & Athletic Center), would be exponentially more expensive than what the City has funds for, at a time when floating a public bond measure is extremely untenable.
"We've launched a process at the front end without an agreement of what we, the city, are willing to spend," Fish told Row. "We've deferred on the money issues."
As it happens, the design side is no better than the money side.
Worse, two of the finalists gut the building: the MARC on the inside (by gutting the interior) and the VMAAC outside (by adding a scaffolding-like exoskeleton and tacking on more program). This is a building on the National Register of Historic Places that is matchless in the world: the only major arena on Planet Earth that boasts a 360-degree glass view out every direction. We should be talking about anywhere else to put these functions in the Rose Quarter except for the Coliseum. So we're looking at a process where two of three options not only are vastly more expensive than the City can afford, but also spit in the face of the building's National Register listing, which protects the seating bowl inside as well as the glass exterior outside.
The Blazers are not blameless either. Their insistence on working with an out-of-town developer known for suburban, antiseptic, corporate-feeling entertainment zones has made the local public skeptical on the design front. What's more, by releasing an image of Jumptown without doing any design work first, the team has put its worst foot forward. We should be talking about the Blazers' Coliseum design plans, yet all one ever hears about is Jumptown, Cordish and a Kafka-esque operating agreement. And while the Blazer plan for Memorial Coliseum is vastly more preservation oriented than either of the other two options, it does call for the removal of the Coliseum's iconic entry canopy. And that's saying nothing of the potentially crass, neo-historic design work that seems to be the operating principal of the Jumptown district. I think the Blazer plan would look so much more attractive if they'd hold off on talking about Jumptown, commit to Rick Potestio as their lead architect (he's currently a paid consultant) and rethink what the Rose Quarter needs to be for the city: not just an entertainment feeder to the arenas, but a vibrant mixed use neighborhood.
Luckily the City Council is taking a hard look at the 'Base Case', which is, depending on whom you talk to, a kind of fourth option along with the other three, or a Plan B alternative to the three finalists. Base Case is the idea of restoring Memorial Coliseum as an arena, but even that is subject to debate.
The City is looking to create a Base Case restoration option that does the minimum amount of deferred maintenance; it's being dubbed the "status quo" option. The group that I'm part of, the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, would like to see a Base Case that goes further and tries to enliven the building with new design concepts, such as enhancements to make the Veterans Memorial wall more accessible, remodel the massive exhibit hall underground, and reconfigure the Coliseum's concourse stairways to create more of a winter garden-like public space.
Think of it this way: Imagine Portland owns a classic 1960 Corvette. We could either (A) tear apart the whole thing, (B) only tear out the engine and interior but leave the body, (C) leave the car but try to buff out some of the scratches and dents with a rag, or (D) restore the car. Oh, and we only have a few dollars for the whole thing.
Photo by Matthew Ginn, courtesy Homestead Images
I'd obviously pick "D", but maybe that's just me. Then again, though, it's not just me. It's the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the US Green Building Council, and the American Institute of Architects, all of which have called for Memorial Coliseum's preservation as an arena. And it's the silent majority of Portlanders who don't want to vote for a bond measure to gut the building when schools and parks and social services are woefully underfunded. It's the veterans who fought in World War II and to whom the entire building is dedicated, such as my grandfathers. It's the kids at Jefferson High who want their school to be a school again, or the homeless street people who'd rather have a homeless day center than be harassed for sleeping on the sidewalk. It's Blazer fans who saw the team win its only championship there. And it's the world architecture community, who doesn't want to see Portland throw away its Glass Palace.
The more I observe the Memorial Coliseum process, the more I go back to the original flaw that began this whole thing. There was a proposal by the Beavers/Timbers owner to raze the Coliseum and build a baseball stadium on the site, which was defeated. But then that issue set in motion a public process to generate ideas for the building and, from the City's perspective, find a private entity willing to buy their way into a public-private partnership. Whether you blame the Mayor or PDC, the City wound up rushing into a process to generate ideas for the building. I keep hearing from people at the City, "There were so many ideas for the building and the public wanted change." But I disagree with that premise. There were a lot of people against the baseball stadium replacing and destroying the Coliseum. Sam Adams did a great job of recognizing that. But instead of staging a giant parade of process to solicit ideas from everyone and their mother, we should have just stopped, recognized that the Coliseum has financial and cultural value as it is, and start working toward making overdue maintenance upgrades to the building. But instead, we've opened the floodgates to a spectrum of interest groups with their own programmatic agendas for the building and the allure of getting their hands on public dollars to make it happen. A private developer resurrected his old plan for a recreation center. Arts and community groups threw together proposals that would entitle them to all that space. But that wasn't the right question to ask in the first place. We didn't need a new program. And so now we're choosing from three plans that answer a question we shouldn't have asked.
Luckily this is dawning on City Council because these official yet erroneous finalists all have programs that would be prohibitively expensive. It's ironic to me that budget is what could kill the VMAAC or the MARC, and not the fact that that they're wrong for the Coliseum. But if that's what saves the building, from demolition and from the ass-backwards, wide-eyed process that's gotten us here, that's fine by me.