BY BRIAN LIBBY
In Wednesday's Daily Journal of Commerce, Nick Bjork reports that a local company seeks to convert Memorial Coliseum into a media production center.
As Bjork's article details, the plan is led by Tim Laurence founder of Beaverton's Digital Works Productions, and Rob Cornilles, founder of consulting firm Game Face. The Coliseum’s interior would be divided into three soundstages totaling 51,000 square feet with additional theaters and offices, all divided over four stories. “I wasn’t familiar with this building at first, so I just wasn’t sure,” their Tustin, California-based architect, Gary Bastien, told the DJC. “But the more I find out about this one the more it seems like an ideal structure.”
Since the battle in 2009-10 to save Memorial Coliseum from demolition to make way for a minor league baseball stadium, there have been a host of ideas, most of which were floated during a city-led process seeking out contributions from the community about how to best utilize the landmark National Register-protected modernist arena. There was the idea of a water park. There was a peace garden. There was an athletic center. Legitimate, highly funded proposals by prominent developers were made alongside grassroots efforts detailed with magic markers on posterboard.
What Mayor Adams, the Portland Development Commission and a Citizen Advisory Group ultimately concluded (and what the building's preservationists were clamoring all along) is that Memorial Coliseum (or "Veteran's Memorial Coliseum", as it has since been officially renamed), is already economically viable as a multi-purpose arena. In fact, last year the Coliseum actually drew more events than even the much newer, larger Rose Garden Arena next door. It just draws smaller events, which is why the plan emerged to restore the arena with about 8,000 seats rather than the 10,000-12,000 it originally had. So the plan to restore it is rooted in sound financial findings. At the same time, this also must be weighed against cultural, sustainable and historic concerns. Luckily, the green thing to do, and the most mindful of history, was to let Memorial Coliseum be Memorial Coliseum - only with the maintenance it should have received a long time ago. This isn't about preserving history, though, but marrying the past with the future. It's what great cities are all about.
Memorial Coliseum is the only arena with a 360-degree view to the outside, hence its nickname, "The Glass Palace." The building was designed by perhaps the most eminent American architecture firm of the 20th century: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. While some may see today an outdated building in need of deferred maintenance, Memorial Coliseum is a signature work of mid-20th century architecture. It embodies the generation of glassy buildings that followed the end of World War II, a time when architects created futuristic, transparent buildings that spoke to the desire for peace and prosperity. Memorial Coliseum is, as its new name indicates, a veterans memorial: that's true not just for the commemorative placques outside the building listing the name of Portlanders who served in the historic conflict, but in how this one-of-a-kind arena, with its panoramic view outside to the downtown skyline, makes light itself (as opposed to the dark claustrophobia of the war) the star attraction.
It's easy for people to mistakenly think that Memorial Coliseum is still up for grabs. For example, last week in a letter to the editor published in The Oregonian, local citizen Alan Willis suggested that Portland should revisit the notion of building a baseball stadium at the Rose Quarter.
Why the vaccuum? The Portland Development Commission and the City Council have been slow in hammering out the details of the restoration plan: where (or from which urban renewal area) the funding will come from, how the Rose Quarter district overall will be developed (with retail, hotels, housing or other uses), how it coincides with the building of a new streetcar lin along the district's northern edge, and whether adjacent properties like the Portland Public Schools facility (also just north of the RQ) might be incorporated into the master plan.
But taking months behind mostly closed doors (the Citizen Advisory Committee not withstanding) isn't the same thing as inaction. The good news is that this summer the mayor, as well as the city's Rose Garden master planner, Michael McCulloch, and even yours truly will be presenting the Coliseum plan at a meeting of the Portland City Club. It will provide the public with a clear sense of why preserving economically viable landmark buildings is in keeping with Portland's quest to become a sustainable capitol, and how a public-private partnership will rejuvenate not only the Coliseum but the entire Rose Quarter development and beyond.
Digital Works, the Beaverton company, is probably right that Memorial Coliseum's remarkably open interior -- a building four city blocks in size resting on just four columns -- would be ideal for adding four floors of studios and offices. The thing is, a building that vast in volume would be able to hold just about anything. In that way, over the past two years the Glass Palace has acted as a kind of blank canvass onto which business hungry developers or circus impressarios can project their most ambitious or wild dreams.
But it's time to end the idea generation stage. It reminds me of an article I wrote for a business magazine in 2007 called "How to Nurture New Ideas". Idea gathering was just the first stage. Next came the need to filter those ideas and, finally, to field test the best one.
Memorial Coliseum was built in 1960 as a multi-purpose arena. It has hosted concerts by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Luciano Pavarotti and Bob Dylan. Basketball history like the 1965 NCAA Championship and the 1977, 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals has been played inside its glassy confines (a curtain at the top of the seating bowl temporarily blocking the light). The Dalai Lama and Barack Obama have spoken there. More importantly, though, it is home today to myriad events from Winterhawks hockey to the Dew Sports Tour to religious gatherings, school graduations and Veterans' Day celebrations. It's a beautiful, utterly unique work of architecture that remains vital to the community. It represents not just the best of our grandparents' generation, but, in its restoration, the best of Portland today. Whether you come from Beaverton or Belmont Street, whether you're seeking a sound studio or a waterpark, it's time to look somewhere else for a single-use building that could be built anywhere but happens to fit inside a city landmark erroneously open for consideration. It's time to commit to Memorial Coliseum. Luckily the truth, like the building, is transparent: all you have to do is open its curtain to see the light.