There's an old legend about Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But what if a member of the Roman senate was actually lighting the flames?
That's how I would characterize a report in Wednesday's Vancouver Columbian newspaper that Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard has renewed his personal campaign to demolish Memorial Coliseum.
The story also re-affirms the close relationship between Leonard and millionaire Merritt Paulson, son of George W. Bush's former treasury secretary, Henry Robert Paulson, and owner of the Portland Beavers and Portland Timbers franchises.
Leonard told the Columbian's Brian T. Smith that "he re-proposed an idea last week to Portland’s City Council about tearing down the Coliseum and building a new, state-of-the-art facility for the Beavers."
"Leonard’s vision for the venue mirrors one recently described by Paulson," Smith adds, "an open-air ballpark located near the waterfront in downtown Portland, surrounded by restaurants and community-oriented businesses. The 7,000-10,000 seat stadium would complement the Rose Quarter, and provide almost year-round sports entertainment when paired with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers."
“I applaud Randy Leonard’s unwavering commitment to keeping baseball in Portland,” Paulson said Tuesday. “He has been a staunch supporter of our efforts all the way through this process.”
“It’s getting down to the wire,” Leonard continued. “And what it takes is just the will of two more council members to stand up to the raging architects...“I’m just flummoxed that the council would be persuaded by that lobbying effort. It’s the least persuasive lobbying effort I’ve been subjected to in 20 years of politics.”
Notice that Leonard used the term "lobbying effort." You know what? I bet a millionaire like Paulson can afford a slicker, more substantial lobbying effort than a grassroots group of ordinary citizens.
Let's recap for the Commisioner's sake.
Memorial Coliseum was dedicated in 1960 as a memorial to war veterans - not just the plaque outside but the entire building. Veterans of Oregon are united in efforts to preserve the building. Leonard argued to the newspaper that veterans are coming around to the fact that the building is a terrible memorial. But that's a twisting of the truth. The memorial, like the rest of the building, is in disrepair because the city hasn't engaged in proper upkeep of the building. But renovating Memorial Coliseum, including a re-designed veterans memorial, would accomplish this without destroying the gift that our grandparents' generation gave to the city for permanent keeping.
Architecturally, the arena is one-of-a-kind in the world, with the only major indoor spectator facility that boasts 360-degree views of the city including the downtown skyline and Willamette River. It was designed by the most accomplished and renowned American architecture firm of the 20th century: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, with legendary designer Gordon Bunshaft behind the design.
Know what Leonard thinks of Memorial Coliseum? He calls it a Costco. An elected official representing a city of millions has indicated that he sees no difference between landmark modern architecture and big-box retail. By this rationale, Leonard would also see no difference between a vintage Porsche and a new Chrylser PT Cruiser.
Cultural history alone wouldn't be enough to save a building without it having matchless architecture, but as it happens, many of the most significant cultural moments in the history of the city happened at Memorial Coliseum: The Beatles' only concert here. The Trail Blazers' 1977 NBA championship. Concerts by Luciano Pavarotti and Bob Dylan. The campaign of President Obama. And lots, lots more.
Saving the arena has become a matter of importance to the green building community as well. Tearing down a historic arena is not sustainable.
That the arena is empty is also a fallacy. Memorial Coliseum drew over 150 events last year, even more than the adjacent Rose Quarter. A minor league baseball stadium on the site, even besides the irreparable destruction of landmark architecture it would cause, would never draw as many events.
Leonard has routinely attempted to characterize support for Memorial Coliseum's preservation as coming from only a small group of architects. Au contraire, Monsieur! The United States Green Building Council (America's foremost green building organization), the National Trust for Historic Preservation (the nation's largest historic preservation entity), and the American Institute of Architects (the US's largest group of architects) have all explicitly called for Memorial Coliseum's preservation. So have the Portland Trail Blazers and a wide grassroots consortium of ordinary Portland citizens. Leonard should know, too. Many of them testified to City Council in support of the Coliseum's preservation.
One can agree with Leonard and Paulson about one thing: It's too bad that the Portland Beavers don't have a home and will likely have to be sold to an out-of-town buyer. That's the result of Paulson's other team, the Portland Timbers, making the city-owned PGE Park a soccer-only facility. It will be great to have the Timbers in Major League Soccer, and it would be nice to have the Beavers in town too. But destroying one of Portland's major landmarks is not the way to solve this impasse.
If Paulson and Leonard really are thinking only about saving the Beavers' presence in Portland, why not find a site anywhere else in the entire Portland metropolitan area for the Beavers and the approximately 2,000 to 3,000 per-game spectators the team draws?
Also, Portland is seeking to become a world-class metropolitan city that attracts people from all over the world. Does the phrase "minor-league baseball" seem like the way to do that? We may not be New York, but we're not Toledo, Ohio either.
It was 15 months ago that a minor-league baseball stadium was proposed for the Coliseum site. When that happened, there wasn't just opposition to the plan. There was an overwhelming avalanche of people coming out of the woodworks to speak up for the Coliseum. We, not only in the Friends of Memorial Coliseum but all Portlanders, are prepared to oppose the Leonard-Paulson alliance until our last breath is exhaled. Memorial Coliseum isn't just glass and steel, but possesses something we do: the very DNA of Portland, Oregon: its history and its expression of hope for the future, and how it exemplifies how design and creativity are foundations of our city fabric and its people.
This is by no means an attempt to vilify Commissioner Randy Leonard or Mr. Paulson. Particularly in Leonard's case, he is a big-hearted man with a passion for Portland. I would agree with him on other issues like a bond measure for the Fire Bureau, or going after restaurateurs with condemnable buildings. The Commissioner just happens to have some kind of vendetta or utter blindness when it comes to evaluating the continuing value in and love for Memorial Coliseum. But that's where the rest of us come in: to stand up for the great Portland places that make us who we are.
Thankfully if Commissioner Leonard is committed to the wrecking ball, the other four members of City Council are committed to honoring and preserving this local landmark. And luckily it takes at least three votes to make a majority, and I'm yet to see how Leonard even has two.
I wonder if the Pittock Mansion, Central Library or the Portland Art Museum ever faced such attacks in generations past.