L-R: Randy Gragg, Sam Adams, J. Isaac, Rick Potestio, Sarah Mensah. Photo by Brian Libby
Last night's Bright Lights talk about the Rose Quarter development, hosted by Portland Monthly editor Randy Gragg and featuring Mayor Adams and three members of the Trail Blazers team, was both encouraging and, at times, a little baffling.
The talk began with an explanation from Gragg about why the two non-Blazer finalists for the Memorial Coliseum renovation - the VMAAC (Veterans' Memorial Arts & Athletic Center) and the MARC (Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex) - were not participating. "For tonight it’s both broader and more specific," he said. Gragg mentioned three decisions coming up that needed vetting: the expiration of the Blazers’ Coliseum development rights in 2011, whether Urban Renewal Area funds from other districts should be used here, and whether the Convention Center URA should be reshaped in 2011 to include the Rose Quarter.
Gragg then invited Portland State University professor and historian Carl Abbot to give a brief refresher talk on the 100 years of history that predated construction of the Rose Quarter. This parcel has always had value as high ground, Abbot explained: a peninsula of higher land between Sullivan’s gulch and the bottom lowlands. “It was one of the few places where dry land came down to the river on the east side.”
Then, with the addition of streetcar lines in 1904, the future Rose Quarter area became a cross section of two principal arterials: Broadway running east-west and Interstate Avenue (then Portland's principal highway) running north-south. The Broadway Bridge construction in 1912 made Broadway a commercial corridor. As Portland developed a working waterfront in the 20th century, the mixed-income and mixed-race neighborhood of Lower Albina flourished here. Approaching and during World War II, industrial jobs helped Portland's African-American population grow by tenfold, from two thousand to 20,000. After the war, like most American cities, Portland added freeways (Interstate 5) and huge urban renewal projects (Memorial Coliseum). These had value, but at the great price of destroying a once thriving neighborhood.
I've been to several Gragg-hosted panel discussions over the years, and they almost always start with each of three or four speakers giving presentations, and then a discussion finally at the end.
So next Mayor Adams was introduced to the crowd, but he had a message of his own to deliver before sitting down with Gragg.
First, the mayor paid tribute. "It’s with a great amount of reverence and humility that we have to approach this," Adams said. "Reverence in that this was once a functioning neighborhood…and reverence for the fact that this part of the city includes the displacement of African American Portlanders who had not much of a toe hold of any sort of security in this city for very long—except for this neighborhood."
Some of Adams' following comments were the most controversial of the evening. The mayor asserted that he was not blindsided by opposition to demolishing Memorial Coliseum for a baseball stadium last year.
2009 Rose Parade at Memorial Coliseum, photo by Brian Libby
"When we were looking to site a new triple-A ballpark, I was a strong advocate for it to go in the Rose Quarter," he said. "It was really a great place to put it. But when our charrette of people got together and said the only way to site it was to tear down Memorial Coliseum, I said after two days…that this would be very controversial, but I wanted to honor their work and get the word out for public input."
“I did not support tearing down Memorial Coliseum but I thought the discussion was a good and healthy one.”
Many of us were shocked that the Mayor argued this was all part of his master plan. Gragg followed up by asking, "The process the way you portrayed it was very intentional and methodical. But you were a bit blindsided by the reaction against putting the stadium there, weren't you?"
"No," Adams insisted. "If you were there at the charrette…I told people in the room this was going to be controversial. It was as contentious as I predicted it would be."
I'm sure the mayor and his advisors are smarter than me when it comes to politics; Adams has a limitless passion for ideas. But I'd have advised the mayor to demonstrate a bit more humility about the journey of the past 15 months. We've all had a learning experience, and I would bet that includes the mayor as well.
Gragg then asked Adams about the now-controversial recent decision to dive into generating three finalists for the Coliseum commission only to set aside two of the finalists. The Mayor indicated that this, too, was all part of the plan.
"Absolutely," he said. "It was important that we only get it to the point of being half baked because we needed the ideas of the district to inform the ideas about the coliseum and do diligence on what was really realistic for the future of this building."
I'm not saying Mayor Adams is wrong or that he's lying. But his version of the last year and a half of wrestling and debate over Memorial Coliseum is very different from the memory that most of us have. That Adams was supportive of the Coliseum all along is a very shocking revelation that's difficult to believe. But the important thing is that he supports it now.
"There have been press reports about it being halted," Adams continued. "But we’re going to take the most inspired but doable ideas out of Memorial Coliseum, look at the district and come back to the Coliseum. I realize it’s tough to track. This kind of negotiation usually happens behind the scenes. At one time people were surprised when it was going to be a big box. One of the lessons I learned was it needed to happen in the daylight, to look at all the ideas and take them seriously."
“I told [the Stakeholder Advisory Committee] at the beginning we were going to come up with some half baked ideas of the Memorial Coliseum and let a discussion of the Rose Quarter inform the discussion about the Coliseum and vice versa. You’re going to have to cover the same waterfront of issues if this is going to go forward. You couldn’t do one in isolation, but they were so big you had to look at them apart.”
"Because there’s so much emotional attachment to the Coliseum and the Rose Quarter, for some, that passion presented itself with people with very firm and confident ideas on what the future for Memorial Coliseum should be and what the future of the rq should be. In my time I’ve heard ideas that have run the gamut. So I knew it was important to let people present, and that the good, doable ideas, no matter where they came from, we’d try to move those ideas forward. That’s why we had such an odd, open process move forward."
Talking about the Rose Quarter moving forward, Adams had some potentially encouraging signs. "Inspired by the Coliseum itself, it’s an opportunity for us to have a stand up neighborhood that is modern in its form," he explained of tentative design plans. "It’s a chance for us to break from the re-creation of past forms and create a new form that’s inspired by the Coliseum itself."
Considering that the Blazers' plans for the district, tagged "Jumptown", seemed by their first released rendering to be built in a cloying neo-historic style, the team's plans have come a long way. But the Blazers, for all their faults, have one thing over Adams: they freely admitted to changing their thinking according to public input.
"We’ve changed our approach from what we initially thought about the coliseum and the larger district," Isaac said. "But we’re still in the middle of this and we’re still looking for input."
"If there’s one message that we would want you to take home with you tonight, it’s that this district can be whatever you want and we want it to be. The potential hasn’t been captured yet. We want the district to reflect how Portland is changing. It’s got to embody the values that make Portland different."
Isaac also argued for the Coliseum to remain an arena, not for architectural reasons but for business ones.
"We feel like an arena function is a benefit to this community that is very little known. About half a million people a year come into the coliseum. We still have those graduations, and winter hawk games. And we bring major events to town because we have two arenas. It functions well and brings activity to the community. We wanted to add to it rather than to take away."
Isaac was then joined by Rick Potestio, the ultra-talented Portland architect who may be leading the Blazers' Rose Quarter design plans long with Nike's Tinker Hatfield and Baltimore-based firm Design Collective (Cordish's longtime partner).
“The Rose Quarter’s potential is based on its connection to the rest of the city," Potestio said. "It's the best located opportunity the city has to bring a vibrant neighborhood into connection with our waterfront.” He went on to emphasize its connections not just to North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods and the Lloyd District, but also Chinatown, Old Town and the Pearl District across the river. Most of all, though, he emphasized the river. "This gives an unprecedented opportunity to create a vibrant riverfront experience, something we’ve tried in the rest of the city but have really been yet to achieve," he added. "It has incredible proximity to all modes of transportation. The southern edge is an important intersection of light rail system, the north side will have the first streetcar line on the east side, and the fact that this is a nexus of bike routes is really significant." Potestio has long been an avid cyclist.
"I also imagine a future with high speed rail and water taxies," the architect continued. "High speed rail could be adjacent to if not within the Rose Quarter. "And parks and public spaces need to be an integral aspect. And the Rose Quarter was once part of of city street grid. While it’s not possible to recreate that, we have the opportunity to create a series of blocks and streets that are intimate and human in scale."
The Blazers' chief marketing office, Sarah Mensah, also joined the discussion. She walked the audience through a huge array of ideas being considered for the Rose Quarter: a farmers market, retail pods and food carts (“pop-up retail”), music and arts, local and regional microbreweries & wineries, housing. "We’ve got to figure out to make the rose quarter an accessible and desirable place to live, and not just to visit," she said. "When people live there, they tend to spend time there. The same with office space. It will be a critical component to a mixed use development." She also mentioned one or more hotels.
A skeptic might argue that these are all just seductive keywords: "organic", "local", "brewpubs", "food carts", "river", and that Mensah was just forging a superficial relationship to things that define us.
Something else Mensah said could be even more important: "This does not need to be a single-source developer either. That’ snot traditionally how it’s been in Portland."
Of course the other piece of this puzzle is the Cordish Company, the Baltimore-based developer the Blazers are partnering with on the Rose Quarter development. Cordish has taken a barrage of local criticism based on the company's proclivity for developing chain-oriented places with an antiseptic feel that feels more suburban and mall-like than befits a central urban area. But as Gragg pointed out, Cordish also has designed places more urban and less dissimilar from what Portland wants.
"Which Cordish are we going to get?" Gragg asked Isaac and Mensah.
"They recognize Portland is different from any other market," Isaac answered. "They get that something that worked somewhere else might not work here."
"We get what we deserve," Mensa added. "At the end of the day, the city and PDC are setting the parameters here. We’ve got specific goals in place that we want to follow. We’re comfortable that they want to be successful. The last thing they want to do is invest in a project like this and have it not be accepted by the city in the future."
"I’m not for or against Cordish," Adams said, "but I think we can get a little provincial. Remember it a was local developer that a few years ago wanted to add big-box retail in the Coliseum." He was referring to Brewery Blocks and South Waterfront developer Gerding Edlen.
One Center Court from Memorial Coliseum, photo by Brian Libby
Ultimately the evening's talk was just that: talk. How the process unfolds from here will be the proof.
Adams, despite perplexing the audience with his claims that he never wanted to tear down the Coliseum, has embraced a contemporary, mixed-use vision for the Rose Quarter that includes a functioning, restored MC that is retained as an arena. That's good - credit to the Mayor for that.
The Blazers say the right things about adding a variety of functions from food carts to plazas to a riverfront with water taxis. For all of Paul Allen's Nixonian isolation, the Portland-based Blazer staff do listen to the community and are rooted here. The organization, to its credit, has also come a long way in its thinking about the district. Yet can we trust the organization to let Rick Potestio's considerable talents lead the way and to deliver on its other promises? Can we get Cordish to develop something contrary to most of their portfolio? It's hard to say. My inclination is to have a blend of trust and skepticism, and to hold all these players accountable every step of the way.