On Monday, July 12, the Bright Lights discussion series from Portland Monthly magazine and the City Club will present a talk about the future of the Rose Quarter, hosted by the magazine's editor, Randy Gragg, and featuring Mayor Sam Adams and Trail Blazers vice president of business development J.E. Isaac.
"Sam will talk about process moving forward. J will talk about their programming concepts for the coliseum and the quarter in concert," Gragg explained in a Thursday phone conversation. "This is intended to be an unofficial kickoff to basically re-examine the problem and what’s on the table in terms of money, what’s on the table in terms of how far they want to go."
So far the city's Portland Development Commission-led process has focused on Memorial Coliseum. But now attention is being turned to the overall district. It's too bad the Coliseum and the Rose Quarter are being looked at separately, but that's one of the many difficulties that have been inherent to the process so far, from a lack of budget consciousness to a discouraging of professional design expertise. But it's encouraging to see the city is finally ready to take a holistic look at the Rose Quarter.
"Basically the Blazers have had the development rights to the Quarter since they built the Rose Garden," Gragg added. "I think this is a bit of a moment of recognizing that it’s not just about the building. It has to work in consort with the rest of the Quarter. Whatever you do with the Coliseum can’t be done in isolation."
Speaking of isolation, it's worth pointing out who won't be a guest of Gragg's for the Monday conversation: the other two finalists besides the Blazers that were selected by the city's Stakeholder Advisory Committee process: the Memorial Athletic Recreation Complex (MARC) and the Veterans Memorial Arts & Athletic Complex (VMAAC). Even though as a staunch Coliseum preservationist I'm glad to see the city possibly moving away from the two plans that would have gutted the building and cost exponentially more than the city can afford, one can certainly see why the MARC and VMAAC proponents would feel angry about being marginalized after all that effort to generate their proposals.
That said, perhaps there is still room for a portion of either the MARC or VMAAC proposals or both - simply in places other than Memorial Coliseum. As I and others have said for over a year now, since the Coliseum was first threatened by a ludicrously ill advised minor league baseball stadium plan, there is huge opportunity to transform the Rose Quarter into a vibrant, mixed-use district: but that opportunity shouldn't begin with ruining the best thing the Rose Quarter has going. Instead, imagine new facilities along the riverfront, or on the site of two giant Rose Quarter above-ground parking garages, or on the site of One Center Court's hideous above-ground parking garage, in the huge exhibition hall underneath the Coliseum's entry plaza.
I also can't help but wonder: the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade extends from OMSI in the south to the edge of the Rose Quarter in the north. Wouldn't it be ideal to extend the Esplanade so it runs past the Steel Bridge and the Rose Quarter, continuing on to at least the Broadway Bridge? This way pedestrians could walk to the district pleasantly from virtually anywhere downtown or in Southeast.
Last week on Portland Arts Watch, Barry Johnson offered some ideas about what the process needs:
First, any urban planning solution to the Rose Quarter's 'dead zone' problem should be part of an overall plan for the area surrounding the Rose Quarter, especially the blocks north of Broadway, along Williams and Vancouver streets, and the Lloyd District. The Rose Quarter needs to be connected to these areas in some way to be successful at anything it attempts to do. Second and related, the neighborhoods nearest the Rose Quarter, including the River District across the Willamette River, needed to be consulted.
For the past year with private development at a near standstill, public projects like the Columbia Crossing bridge and the Rose Quarter have garnered all the more attention. The Columbia Crossing is a disaster waiting to happen, with the process hijacked by state transportation departments and flying in the face of local values. The Rose Quarter could just as easily become a failure - or more accurately, remain a failure - but there is also no reason why it can't be a great success.
It's true that the Portland Development Commission can sometimes be a detrimental force just like state governments are doing with the CRC; the agency has a history of favoring process for process sake - a parade of community members talking rather than an investment in great designers. Even so, at least PDC is of Portland, stocked with people who understand the city and live it every day. The wild card in that sense may become The Cordish Company, the Baltimore developer that the Trail Blazers have so far insisted on making their partner. Would Cordish be able to develop a Rose Quarter that is truly expressive and representative of Portland? It won't happen simply by stocking local businesses in a neo-historic brick building made to ape jazz clubs of a half-century ago. Whomever the developer is, they need talented planners, architects and other designers involved.
We also have to figure out funding. Gragg said Mayor Adams will be largely talking about the process moving forward. Perhaps the biggest aspect of the process will be the question of where the money comes from. The city has a very small amount of budget to devote to the Rose Quarter and the restoration of Memorial Coliseum unless the city is able to draw from urban renewal funds allotted to the Convention Center Urban Renewal Area and/or the Interstate Urban Renewal Area. But it's been an ongoing open question as to what funds will be drawn from where, and what impact the loss of those funds might have on these urban renewal areas.
Another way the City of Portland can bring clarity to the Rose Quarter redevelopment process is to hasten a decision on the future of the Portland Public Schools site that lies just across NE Broadway from the Rose Quarter. Will it be a place where we can build mixed-use housing and a new neighborhood? Because housing is the primary component needed in making the Rose Quarter successful. The problem with the whole area between NE Broadway, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Burnside is that it is both (1) not scaled for pedestrians and (2) not home to much of any pedestrians. We can't change the fact that people coming to the Rose Garden arena for events will usually come in cars, because Trail Blazer games and concerts attract people from all over the region. You can't walk here from Newberg or Washougal, at least not in time for a 7PM tipoff. Yet if the Rose Quarter is to become a successful district, not just during events but when there aren't any, we need to give people reason to be walking here - as in it being where their condos, apartments or even hotel rooms are.
We also need to find a way to find out if the plans being discussed will ever really happen. It's one thing to plan a holistic, vibrant neighborhood with housing and public amenities. It's another to build it. How long will it be before a transformed Rose Quarter plan is implemented? We could be talking several years. At the same time, Memorial Coliseum could be restored starting tomorrow. Upgrading its facilities is a quintessential 'shovel-ready' project even if it doesn't require a shovel.
The Bright Lights discussion will be held, as always, at the Gerding Theater in the Pearl District (SW 11th between Couch and Davis), with doors open at 5:30 and the talk beginning at 6:30pm.