BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently the Portland Timbers soccer team announced a new $50 million expansion to the east side of Providence Park that will add approximately 4,000 seats, bringing its capacity to about 25,000. This is the latest in a succession of expansions to the circa-1926 stadium by esteemed local architect AE Doyle, following projects in 1956, 1982, 2001 and 2011. Given that there are about 13,000 people on the Timbers' season-ticket waiting list, it will only reduce the list by about one-third. But the expansion will represent a striking addition to the stadium, and a first-ever stadium project for the city's most acclaimed firm, Allied Works.
The new expansion literally builds on the last expansion, designed by Ellerbe Beckett (now AECOM), which provided seating on the east side of the field for the first time, in order fully convert the stadium from multi-purpose to soccer-only and to meet a Major League Soccer stipulation that seats line all four sides of the soccer pitch. The design also manages to squeeze a lot of seats into a very confined space, along 18th Avenue, by stacking rows of seats vertically with a new large roof overhang. Allied also maximized space by extending the stadium over the sidewalk to create arcades, which are also part of Doyle's 1926 design.
A few days ago I spoke with Allied Works principal Chelsea Grassinger, who is leading the project, about the expansion. And this morning I spoke with Norm Rich, general manager of the Multnomah Athletic Club, which abuts Providence Park to the south, thereby preventing expansions in that direction, about what the future might hold in that direction. (More on that later.)
I asked Grassinger how Allied Works, which has never designed a stadium or an expansion of one, came to be the Providence park expansion architect.
"The project came about after the 2015 championship," she explained, when Allied Works founder Brad Cloepfil and Timbers COO Mike Golub got together to toast the achievement. "In that conversation, Brad asked, ‘What are you going to do now to stay competitive and address the long list of season ticket holders waiting for their chance?’ The assumption is you move out to the suburbs, where there’s more space. It’s the precedent you see more often than not. Mike said it was important for the Timbers to remain in the city and at Providence Park. Many people see the assets it brings. But how do you expand the stadium given its tight constraints? We offered to take a look at it."
Grassinger went on to explain that there were few precedents for how to squeeze seats into that constrained space. Their first inspiration was Estadio Alberto J. Armando in Buenos Aires, Argentina, better known as La Bombonera (and home to Boca Juniors), which "really stood out being surrounded by city on all four sides," she said, "and one of side is narrow like along 18th. And we were inspired by the nature of it: the wall of fans and the intensity that brings. That was really the one that stuck out as inspiration for what we could do here."
The Allied team also took inspiration interior theaters, such as the Globe Theater in London, a replica of the one that existed in Shakespeare's times, as well as Teatro Oficina in Sao Paulo, Brazil (designed by Lina Bo Bardi), each for "the stacked wall of audience close to the stage and the action, and really being within the action but also intensifying the stage and the activity," the architect explained. "Of course with a stadium you want that intensification of fans relative to the action on the field."
Of course it's a challenge to stack seating because of the steepness of the rake. "We want to achieve the sight lines and seats we need, but there’s a limit to how steep you can design this without getting to a point where it’s scary," Grassinger added. "It’s a delicate balance of all these parameters. You want to say it’s all about the sight lines but you can’t forget about the steepness or the overall stadium experience. It’s an interesting design problem."
Looking at the renderings, one thing that's quickly noticeable about the design is that the wall of stacked seats the expansion creates along 18th Avenue is surprisingly transparent, with double-height arcades providing a window onto the field from outside the the stadium at ground level, and glass and tubular steel guard rails that allow one to see the multilevel concourses.
"That was very intentional," Grassinger said. "It’s been one of our design objectives from the very beginning. Peole are used to seeing into the stadium from 18th Avenue. There’s a strong connection because of that. The 2011 expansion mitigated that a little bit, but we wanted to maintain that as much as possible now. That lacework structure helps us do that. It also goes back to the constrained site. With the roof canopy we had to spread the load as much as we could, with the concrete vertical tray structure. Our ability to bring that roof’s structural load through that façade element down to the arcade helps us a lot to distribute those loads. Everything sort of clicked."
Grassinger also discussed the roof of the expanded seating area, for which "there’s been a lot of study and iterations on the scale and massing, and getting into the specifics of the structural steel truss," she explained. "And the canopy: should it be opaque? Should it be fabric? A lot of that is balancing what we need to do in 2017 but also how it fits the historic context. We’d constantly visit the stadium and think about what we’re adding onto. Our connection to the historic colonnade on the exterior, lots of study about the spacing of our columns, the height of the beams, to knit those two together but also acknowledge that they’re two different things. We do a lot of projects adding onto a historic building. It’s a process we have for a lot of buildings, be they museums or other cultural buildings. We looked at metal membrane roofs: opaque in the sense of filtering light. We came back to fabric canopy to allow a little bit more glow and light. But trying also to make sure that the expansion fit this historic context, that it doesn’t feel like this thing landed. We’re continuing to look at the height and how we can make sure the two relate to each other. There have been discussions about bringing it down a bit and reconfiguring floor levels and seats. We’re continuing to refine."
If we're talking about expansions to Providence Park, to me there has always been a kind of elephant in the room: the fact that the Multnomah Athletic Club abuts the south side of the stadium. It would have been natural to expand in this direction. The fact that Allied and the Timbers were able to add 4,000 seats without expanding to the south on the MAC site is a partial solving of the too-small-stadium problem. But at 25,000 seats following expansion, the stadium is still one of the smallest in MLS. If there are future expansions, where will they be?
Grassinger told me that for this expansion Allied Works explored the idea of adding a second tier of seats — basically an upper deck — to the historic original stadium but abandoned the plan in favor of the east-grandstand expansion now being pursues. If Providence Park were going to be expanded substantially in the future, presumably the upper deck would be the most likely course of action. But given that the MAC Club has moved and been altered numerous times in its history, I couldn't help but wonder if the Timbers and the club have ever discussed the possibility of adding seats to the south side of Providence Park, either as part of a hybrid of MAC and stadium or, far less likely, the club actually moving out.
Multnomah Athletic Club general manager Norm Rich assured me (in a phone interview) that they have "no plans to move or go elsewhere." But I wondered: given how the MAC has expanded on its own site a few times, what if the Timbers were to offer some sort of hybrid plan, where Providence Park is able to claim a portion of the club to add seating (perhaps stacked vertically like in this expansion) but with the team in return bankrolling an expansion of the MAC that makes up for the lost space.
"Would the club be interested? That depends," Rich said. "When the original  deal was put together, there were some preliminary discussions, but it went nowhere," Rich explained. "They wanted to put the scoreboard there. I know the Timbers well and I’m sure if they had a request they would ask for it."
I then asked Rich about the parking garage that the MAC owns immediately across from the club on Salmon Street. In theory, the MAC could expand onto that site and thereby give up some space that could comprise a future Providence Park expansion.
"We really don’t talk about that at this particular time," Rich said. "We are happy with our footprint."
I remember attending my first game at Providence Park in 1980, when it was still called Civic Stadium. It was a memorable baseball game, with the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, led by stars Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Tug McGraw, facing their then-farm team, the minor-league Portland Beavers. The MAC club side facing the baseball field was festooned with a banner marking where a star of the Beavers' former major-league parent team, the Portland Pirates' Willie Stargel, had previously hit a home run that broke the glass of the MAC club. Even then, as an eight-year-old, I remember thinking to myself, "What is that building doing there on the side of the stadium where there should be seats?" 37 years later, nothing has changed, but if Providence Park is going to remain viable as the home of the Timbers for decades into the future, I wonder if the right financial motivation might convince the MAC to reconsider. Either that, or Doyle's lovely original stadium will be affixed with an upper deck that would provide inferior seats to a south-side expansion.