BY BRIAN LIBBY
Five years ago Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Portland's National Register-listed landmark arena, was threatened with demolition to make way for a minor-league baseball stadium. When a coalition of citizens opposed the plan, then-mayor Sam Adams reversed course and the baseball blueprints were set aside. But in the ensuing years, Adams and his mayoral successor, Charlie Hales, have been unable to take the next step: restoring the building.
Now, although the Coliseum has already been looked at numerous times, Mayor Hales has commissioned a new study that includes four options to be evaluated: renovation, doing nothing, mothballing the building, or tearing it down.
Although commissioning a study could perhaps be construed as a delay tactic, there is actually good reason for it in this case. As I learned from meeting with City of Portland officials over the past year on behalf of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, local leaders don't even exactly know if the building operates at a profit or loss. That's because the Coliseum's parking proceeds are part of a large pool that also includes the adjacent Moda Center as well as Providence Park downtown.
Since Hales took office, there have been whispers that the mayor was seeking a private partner to make possible not just a Coliseum restoration, but a substantially bigger one than the just-over $30 million restoration that Adams nearly brought to a vote before his term expired. With Nike involved in bringing track and field's 2016 World Indoor Championships to Portland, rumors began circulating earlier this year that the event might be moved from the Oregon Convention Center to a new temporary track at the Coliseum as part of a larger public-private partnership. But those discussions, as best I can tell, don't seem to be hapening any longer, if they really did happen at all.
It makes one wonder if there are other potential private partners to be had, such as Paul Allen and Vulcan. After all, Allen's Blazers manage Veteran's Memorial Coliseum and previously had been involved in discussions during the Adams administration to re-design and build on the area. Thouth their plan set off alarms with its suburban feel, the broader Rose Quarter still, for all the cricket-chirping silence of its badly planned public areas today, has the potential to become a vibrant urban space if its parking garages were to be buried underground and new buildings added. The Rose Quarter's northern border, Northeast Broadway, just put in a new streetcar line, which Hales first championed some 15 years ago as a development tool while a City Council member.
But even if no deep-pocketed private partner can be found, a more modest restoration like the one that nearly came to a vote last year would be a step in the right direction - especially since it would include a $10 million investment from the Portland Winterhawks. So actually it already is a public-private partnership.
Although the Coliseum's parking-revenue question should indeed be answered, we know that the arena remains relatively busy desoute its deferred maintenance, with about 100 events a year. Chances are the study will show that the building operates at a modest loss. If that's the case, a restoration would seem to push the building into profit or at least breaking even. Imagine if someone ran the Coliseum in a way that was supported by a state-of-the-art renovation that embraced the uniqueness of its open-curtain configuration. It's a cultural and economic resources begging to be taken advantage of, but it needs someone with vision and a reverence for good design (be it past or present) to get involved.
As the co-founder of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, obviously I'm not an objective voice in this conversation. I believe that this building, along with the Pietro Belluschi-designed Equitable Building downtown (which is the world's first aluminum-glass curtain walled building), represents one of the best examples of mid-20th Century modern architecture that Portland has.
Memorial Coliseum is virtually the only major arena in the world with a 360-degree view to the outside. Standing inside the arena when its curtain is open, one can look out at the Willamette River and the entire downtown Portland skyline. The building is equivalent to about four city blocks in size, but the whole thing stands on just four columns. The concrete seating bowl also sits completely detached from the glass box surrounding it. Quite simply, it's the most pristine work of modern architecture the city has.
But forget the architecture for a moment and consider the economics.
Organizations like the Portland Business Alliance and the Oregon Sports Authority have already gone on record supporting a Coliseum restoration. "It can bring us economic impact multiple times the renovation," the OSA's Drew Mahalic told City Council in December 2012. The Oregon School Activities Association also uses Memorial Coliseum for many of its more than 100 state high school sports championships each year, but the organization doesn't have the budget to hold all of them at the privately-owned Moda Center.
When City Council neared a vote two years ago on a Coliseum restoration, the Portland Business Alliance's Carly Riter testified: "This project is exactly the kind of investment that urban renewal was designed to provide, and produces the short and long term benefits that epitomize the role of urban renewal. Second, this development will catalyze this area and spur economic investment in the broader Rose Quarter area. This project will provide certainty for other investors that the city is a dedicated partner in revitalizing this neighborhood. Third, it creates a local and regional benefit by offering a viable entertainment facility for the Portland Winterhawks and other events. This attracts new energy to the area, enlivening it with civic and economic activity. Having the city and the PDC involved in this project and poised to assist with future development opportunities in this area will support additional strategic investment."
Then there's the symbolic value of a Coliseum restoration or demolition. Great cities don't destroy their most treasured, National Register-listed architecture. Even if you don't love the look of the Coliseum, or modernist architecture, it would still be a stain on Portland's reputation, be it as an aspiring sustainability leader or as a design capitol -- both of which represent leading city aspirations and core strengths -- to tear down a building that national experts have deemed a landmark.
When City Council votes on the study, a "yes" vote may be warranted in order to gain hard numbers we should have had already on data like parking revenue, but we should urge Council to take demolition off the table. $30 million or $70 million (the range discussed for a renovation) isn't a small sum, but it would come largely from urban renewal dollars already being spent to make the combined Convention Center area and Lloyd District a vibrant, high-density corner of the city. As Portland considers investments like a subsidized headquarters hotel, tearing down Veterans Memorial Coliseum would be a step in the wrong direction, and would ignore the change that is already coming here.
The Coliseum has been beloved by Portlanders for generations. It's ground zero for Rose Festival's Grand Floral Parade, which originates there. It is the state's most important veterans memorial, honoring Oregon's fallen soldiers from World War II and the Korean War with not only its memorial plaques in a sunken garden outside the building but in the light-filled arena itself. And while nostalgia isn't a reason alone to save a building, this is a repository of our most treasured cultural history: a place where the Trail Blazers won an NBA championship and where everyone from The Beatles to the Dalai Lama have taken the stage.
Surely the five members of City Council are well aware of the Coliseum's heritage and its combination of cultural, historical and architectural value. When the study was originally commissioned, demolition reportedly wasn't even going to be included. So while recent media reports such as those by The Oregonian and KOIN have focused on the demolition threat, we may instead be working our way towards a restoration. While I'm as biased as anyone in this conversation, I'm far from the only one who loves this building. It never would have been saved from demolition five years ago had there not been a broad coalition of citizens rallying to its cause.
Is it time to lobby Council again to come to its senses, or are they already working towards a solution we can be proud of? Only time will tell, but the debate will be closely watched as a harbinger not only of the building's fate, but as a referendum on what kind of city Portland wants to be: a design capitol that treasures its heritage, or just another sprawling metropolis where the dollar and the lobbyist hold the biggest sway.