Oregon Convention Center (photo by Nancy Erz)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
If one searches on OregonLive for news stories tagged with the phrase "Portland headquarters hotel," the list of stories published since 2008 says it all: "Convention center hotel back on life support," one story reads. A few weeks later, the headline is reversed: "HQ hotel lives on," it says. But a few months later the story flipflops again with the headline, "Portland convention center hotel is dead." (Long live the convention center hotel!)
Once the local and national economies tanked, it seemed this long-proposed, long-defeated idea, championed by Mayor Sam Adams after other mayors before him, was finally...well, put to bed. It wasn't that an additional 500 rooms around the Oregon Convention Center-Rose Quarter-Memorial Coliseum cluster wouldn't be needed. Everybody pretty much agrees that all of these venues would be able to generate more frequent, larger events and generate more economic activity if there were a greater number of rooms within easy walking distance. Have you ever noticed, for example, that the NBA All-Star Game has been played in almost every city in the league except Portland? It's becuase of having too few hotel rooms nearby.
Rather than demand, the sticking point was always public subsidy. Can Portland afford to commit funds that could go to any number of needs - education, transportation - towards subsidizing large corporate hoteliers who would then stand to make a substantial profit? Is it right for Portland to subsidize a large hotel with public funds even as it takes business away from the local hotels? After all, Portland prides itself on being a shopkeeper economy: a patchwork of small businesses more than a few giant corporations. To subsidize a headquarters hotel seemed to be a step Houston or Phoenix or even Seattle would make, but not the home of Portlandia.
Now, as the Business Journal and Willamette Week have reported, the headquarters hotel is once again being promoted by Metro, the regional government overseeing Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. But this time around, using large public subsitdies is supposedly off the table.
Metro told the Business Journal's Wendy Culverwell that "ongoing interest from unidentified hotel developers signaled private-sector interest in such a project." She quotes Metro venue manager Teri Dresler saying a request for proposal to developers "will be crafted after Metro builds consensus about the project with its counterparts at the city of Portland and Multnomah County, both of which are partners." Though there may not be taxpayer money going toward development of a convention center hotel, "The city, county or Metro could provide the site for the project, or there could be small subsidies to encourage development." Culverwell also reports that Metro could select a developer and plan by the end of 2012.
There are still few details about such a plan. Where would it be located, for example? Two years ago, a site directly across from the Oregon Convention Center, between Grand Avenue and MLK Boulevard, was planned: a 600-room Westin hotel with a more than $200 million budget, designed by ZGF Architects. But it was shelved when the economy collapsed. Since then, a public plaza has been built on the site.
There have also been proposals for other nearby sites, such as the west side of MLK directly north of the convention center, or even the Portland Public Schools site north of the Rose Garden and Memorial Coliseum. I'd also suggest the city and private developers consider using the site of the Rose Quarter's massive above-ground parking garages. It would still be a less than five-minute walk to the OCC and would help transform the moribound, disastrously designed RQ property, which the public avoids like plague during non-event days.
The mere fact that this project is often called a convention-center hotel may speak to difficulties in the past with thinking about this area of town holistically. After all, this is an intersection of the convention center not only with the city's two largest arenas, but its largest shopping mall. Today the Portland Development Commission's Convention Center Urban Renewal Area includes all of these parcels, but for much of the city's recent history, these areas have been planned and considered separately. As the city and private developers have sought to re-imagine the Rose Quarter, for example, there has been little thinking about how it relates to Lloyd Center or vice-versa, even though Multnomah Boulevard leads straight from one to the other.
Regardless, a convention center hotel is just one of this area's needs. So far, despite a few modest gains, this area of town sorely lacks housing. A large hotel or two may attract larger conventions and events to the OCC and the two arenas, but this area still feels more suburban than urban. We can't put craftsman bungalows on major boulevards, but high-density condos and apartments will do a lot to address the dichotomy of business (on event days) and emptiness (on non-event days). Nobody claims the Lloyd District, the OCC or the arenas as their own, as their homes - not since the original African American neighborhoods were removed in the mid-20th Century. If more people lived there, we'd have a smaller ratio of surface parking lots and chain stores because business would cater less to short-term visitors and commuters from the suburbs and outside the Portland area.
Thankfully streetcar service is on its way, which will act as a development tool for any number of projects along Broadway, Grand and MLK. That may be the reason private hotel developers are looking to resurrect the headquarters hotel without much of any public subsidy. It goes to show: some types of subsidies are more effective than others. Maybe the right mix never was to massively subsidize one headquarters hotel, but to devote public funds to the mass transit that will transform this sea of multi-lane boulevards and chintzy chains into a true Portland neighborhood. It's not just about public funding, but about building the right mix of transit and pedestrian friendliness so they (in this case private hotel developers) will come.
The funny thing about Metro's renewed headquarters hotel proposal is that a giant hotel may be already coming to this area, but because it would be about 300 rooms instead of 500, Metro doesn't consider it a headquarters hotel. As Lee Fehrenbacher reported in a February Daily Journal of Commerce story, developer Joe Weston has proposed what was originally a 31-story condo project before the economy's collapse, called the Cosmopolitan Tower, is now being proposed as a hotel on Grand Avenue, just a few blocks from the Oregon Convention Center. The design, by LRS Architects, is modeled on the point tower condos of Vancouver, British Columbia, although it also looks like a sibling of the Weston-developed Fox Tower (designed by TVA Architects) of the late 1990s. Regardless, the new Cosmopolitan as a hotel would be a major step towards having the 500 or so rooms said to be needed to attract major conventions.
Here's another thought, though: Portland will never be a major attractor of conventions. Its competitors, the cities that attract the most conventions - Las Vegas, Phoenix, Orlando - are all sprawled cities desperate to bring convention business with as many subsidies as it takes. Those cities are also in warm weather climates that have a leg up in attracting wintertime conventions. Perhaps massive convention center hotels are like Fortune 500 companies in Portland, or buildings by starchitects: it might be a nice boon to the economy or the culture to have more of them, or maybe what's special about the Rose City is borne from a lack of them: a smaller-scaled but more sustainable place to live, a shopkeeper economy where you chase not the biggest bucks but where you realize the smaller offerings are much more plentiful.