Veterans Memorial Coliseum (Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
In late October of last year, Commissioner Steve Novick introduced in City Council an amendment to an urban planning budget bill that called for Veterans Memorial Coliseum to be demolished and the land sold to a developer, on the condition that a sizable portion of the units be reserved for affordable housing. The amendment was defeated in a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Charlie Hales joining Commissioner Nick Fish and Commissioner Amanda Fritz in the majority opposition.
At the time of the vote, Novick told KGW reporter Chris Willis that he knew tearing down the Coliseum was an unpopular idea, but that he was committed to solving the affordable-housing crisis, and the city-owned Coliseum site presented an opportunity to take a significant step. Despite losing the amendment vote, Novick has vowed to continue with his efforts to tear down the Coliseum for affordable housing, even making it a tenet of his re-election campaign.
Admittedly as the chair of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, I am biased against anything that would harm or threaten this National Register-listed landmark. But having written about urban design, planning and affordable housing for the past decade and a half, I also was surprised to see an idea forwarded that made very little practical sense even from solely an affordable-housing and urban-design perspective.
Even if Veterans Memorial Coliseum weren't standing there, the notion of plopping down affordable housing on an isolated site at the Rose Quarter just because the city owns the land seems backwards compared to what generations of planning and affordable-housing and community design have taught us. Successful affordable housing projects come when they are well integrated into neighborhoods: places where young families can access parks and schools, and where affordable housing is part of a neighborhood mix of incomes. The Rose Quarter isn't even a neighborhood at all! Successful affordable housing projects are also part of a holistic planning process. What was proposed at the Coliseum site smacks of Robert Moses and the urban renewal era of mid-20th-century apartment towers that clustered poor families together in a way that stifled their transition into the middle class.
But given my lack of impartiality regarding the Coliseum, I decided to seek out some veterans of urban design, economic development and planning to see if they agreed. In short, they did. Unequivocally.
My first call was to Don Arambula, who co-leads Crandall Arambula, an award-winning urban design, planning, and architecture firm that has won awards for downtown planning commissions all over the continent, from Kansas City and Edmonton to Bellevue and Medford. Crandall Arambula has consulted on both regional and neighborhood planning as well as transit and street planning.
"It’s not a good strategy," Arambula said as our conversation about Novick's Coliseum-for-housing plan began. "It’s a non-starter to tear that building down. It’s one of the few jewels in the city. You’re destroying an irreplaceable building that could be a centerpiece for a mixed-income community that creates value and an asset for affordable housing in the Rose Quarter area. And to out of hand tear something down without having a strategy for the Rose Quarter and the central city itself is way too premature. I can appreciate the creative thought of saying, ‘Where are our opportunities?’ But when we want affordable housing we want it in mixed-income communities."
"We work on affordable housing all over the country," Arambula added. "Where it’s successful, you’re getting affordable housing without concentrations of poverty. The only way you can get affordable housing right is to do the planning required to say, ‘We want mixed income communities.’ There’s so many studies that say if you’ve got children and live in a mixed-income community, their likelihood of elevating themselves is much greater than it is in concentrations of poverty. And that’s the objective: to improve the life and the economic well being of everybody who lives there, and not just give them a place to live. Have a broader social agenda."
Veterans Memorial Coliseum (Brian Libby)
Arambula also argued that this attempt to demolish the Coliseum for housing speaks of a larger problem. "We’ve got a disconnect within the city of Portland right now," he explained. "We’re doing a lot of policy planning at a 10,000-foot level and we’re jumping right to individual projects without enough in-depth district planning. The city is committed to doing 30 to 40 percent affordable housing in urban renewal areas. You need to say, ‘Where is that going to go?' And you need to acquire the sites and go get the developers to build on that site. Is there land in the Rose Quarter available other than the Coliseum? Or in South Waterfront, or the Pearl? Are there other areas within the central city where this affordable housing needs to go?' It’s way premature to start getting at specific projects. You need planning to say, ‘What is the right amount, what is the right location, and what are the amenities needed to make it work, as a community?’ There needs to be an independent planning study, and we don’t do that anymore. It’s all silo'd. It’s all piecemeal."
There is also the context of Broadway, which runs along the northern edge of the Rose Quarter and is sure to transform in the years ahead thanks to a new streetcar line as well as its centralized location. "Broadway north of the Rose Quarter needs to be rethought," Arambula said. "We went through the central city planning process and didn’t do any meaningful urban design. There wasn’t really integrated land use and transportation planning. It’s easy to throw out an idea, but there needs to be a process that’s connected with land and transportation. What is the overall character of Broadway? It’s not the environment anyone would want to live in today. Why would you just throw in affordable housing? You have a couple of sports bars there. Where’s the amenity? Where’s the park? Where’s the open space? In the absence of a larger strategy you’re creating a housing ghetto, and that’s the last thing we need. We don’t need to isolate affordable housing. And cherry picking a site and dropping in housing is not a good idea, whether it’s in a parking lot or over a parking structure or on the Coliseum site. It doesn’t make any sense."
"I applaud him for trying to get affordable housing in the central city," Arambula said of Novick, "but he’s jumping to a solution without going through a process."
The head of Impresa Consulting, a Portland based consulting firm specializing in metropolitan economies, economist Joe Cortright also sees an effort to build affordable housing at the Coliseum site as misguided.
"This whole idea you’re going to build affordable housing that’s segregated from other housing doesn’t make a lot of sense. If we do assisted or public housing, we have to do it in a way that leads to greater integration and mixed income communities," he explained. "That’s why places like the Pearl and South Waterfront make sense. You saw Columbia Villa being built from more of a mixed-income model. But to say, ‘Here’s this site,’ to pick a site and put a bunch of affordable housing by itself flies in the face of that. Starting with a particular site is kind of backwards from the proposition of integrating it into the neighborhoods."
Cortright didn't outright reject housing in this area, although it hasn't so far been the intent. "If the plan were to do residential in the Rose Quarter, which I don’t hear anybody saying, that might be one thing. But to build a concentration of low and moderate-income housing isn’t sensible to me," Cortright added. "It flies in the face of what has been the policy direction for a long time."
The economist also sees a pattern in this top-down thinking. "There are some eerie parallels to the Columbia crossing," he said. "People said, 'It’s in horrible shape and it will fall down, so we should demolish it.' The cost of demolition was about the same cost as a seismic retrofit. Demolition isn’t free, and you should ask yourself what you could do with those resources if you put them into the building." Indeed, the city's own study estimates it would cost about $14 million to demolish the building, while even a low-level $32 million restoration like the one nearly approved in 2012 would, studies show, help the building turn a profit and to make sizable contributions to the local economy.
"To me," Cortright said, "the question is what are the different alternative uses of that site and that money? Is that the use the community wants to make on it? Would we sell off Waterfront Park? It might have a bigger economic impact than its use as a park. But is that what we want for our city? The big question with what I’d call a civic asset like the Coliseum, one served well by transit and proximity to the Oregon Convention Center (and this is also a planning question) would be: what’s our vision for that locale?"
Portland Winterhawks' Winter Classic game at the Coliseum last year (Brian Libby)
Cortright also pointed out the context of this effort to demolish the Coliseum for housing happening when there is a lot of other available land for affordable housing that's better suited. "Given what’s happened in the Lloyd district, where parking and low-density space is being redeveloped, that’s clearly the first best alternative," he said.
The economist also wondered aloud regarding the financial aspect of the proposal. "How does this pencil out for a developer? I’d love to see the pro forma on that. The only way it seems to work to me is the city eats the cost of the demolition and whoever develops it gets to develop it for more than low-income housing. They’d have to develop it for market rate housing too." And if that happens, Novick's effort would no longer be about affordable housing on the Coliseum site, or not primarily. It would be a private-developer give-away with some affordable units tacked on.
Now a professor at the Technical University of Berlin's Institute for Urban & Regional Planning, international consultant, researcher, mentor and a UN advisor, Arun Jain served as the City of Portland's first Chief Urban Designer from 2003-09, at the invitation of then-mayor Vera Katz.
"I can’t say I’m terribly surprised," Jain said of the proposal to tear down Memorial Coliseum for housing. "It’s not a new thing for a politician to go gung ho for a 'great' idea they may have even though their sphere of expertise may be out of depth, or lacking a well-rounded perspective. The interest and effort is certainly laudable, so it’s not something to be outraged about. It’s just unfortunate."
"Does the pressure for affordable housing mean Portland should panic and start putting it anywhere, or can we be more deliberate about it, and what kinds of communities is the city building if it’s just building in a panic?"
Jain remembered first considering the Coliseum when Mayor Katz asked him to investigate that site and six others in the central city for a possible Major League Baseball stadium, at the request of a group of supporters trying to bring a team to Portland. After that effort fizzled, "Mayor Katz and I got together for a (rare) full day at City Hall with only a facilitator. She said, ‘Can we strategize as to what would actually work for Memorial Coliseum?’"
"I pointed out to her the displacement history [with African American neighborhoods cleared out to make way for the Coliseum], and the fact is that this area is completely packed during events but also completely dead when nothing is going on: just a collection of huge empty buildings. But I also pointed out to her that Memorial Coliseum is in a unique location. It’s sitting on a promontory, visible from most places of elevation in the downtown. It stands out as this prominent structure on the hill. It’s got good transit access and it’s not surrounded by anything that would be affected by noise. So we asked ourselves, ‘What’s the highest and best use for that location? The answer was it had to be civic."
Jain and Katz came up with the idea of building "the equivalent of the Lincoln Center for the performing arts," as he described it, in the Rose Quarter, with the Coliseum and the Rose Garden [now the Moda Center] augmented by smaller, but hi-tech oriented performing arts supporting daytime revenue generating venues to activate the dead periods. "Then we called in the two guys from the Office of Management and Finance who were managing the MC at the time. We said, 'Here’s the thinking. How would you take it forward? That’s where we ran into a dead end. OMF said, 'We don’t know how to pursue a development mix of this kind.' They looked at us and said, 'We don’t have the energy to do all that, so we’re just going to fix the leak in the roof and put in new carpet which would be much cheaper. And it kind of died on the vine right there."
"I’m not saying our solution was the best solution," Jain added, "but something along those lines needs to be done." To tear down the Coliseum is "neutering or castrating the few truly civic assets Portland has left. It’s tragic."
Jain also argued that solving Portland's affordable housing crisis requires "some kind of clear-headed understanding of what’s driving the demand for housing. You might start by asking, 'Is the demand because housing is being overpriced, or is there a genuine shortage?' Both require somewhat different strategies. If there’s an escalation in the value of housing, you have to take on a financing strategy, because it’s not necessarily only a supply issue. Then you can ask, 'What kind of financial measures are possible to provide assistance to those who are being squeezed out?' It’s not just about the production of housing in terms of making up a shortfall (real or perceived). It’s about taking a multifaceted approach that includes improving the economic assets and capacity of the people needing housing. And you have to look at it in terms of the urban design as well. Portland’s got this great history of livable neighborhoods all over the city. You say, 'That’s our blueprint.' Which means that if you’re going to build new communities, they need to be as least as good as the neighborhoods that exist: with a diversity of housing type and size and cost. And they all need to have access to parks, schools and retail—fundamental civic functions."
Veterans Memorial Coliseum from the Broadway Bridge (Brian Libby)
"I’d take this community development approach and say, ‘Let’s look at the neighborhoods we already have and check how much we can add to them,'" the urban designer continued. "You need to do that sort of assessment and say, 'In this neighborhood here’s a segment we can squeeze in there, without destroying its nature and character.' I prefer to look at complex problems in this comprehensive sort of way. A variety of different strategies have to be put together to solve this kind of housing issue." It’s worth noting that Berlin currently has a massive housing shortfall due to immigrants and growing attractiveness. Jain is pushing for that city to consider similar ideas across a more mature spectrum of possibilities.
Jain also addressed the notion of Coliseum demolition for housing when there is lots of under-utilized land available. "One of the things I did in the then-Bureau of Planning was to use a report (since updated) about the un-utilized capacity of the downtown core. Looking at the findings from an urban design perspective, we were able to show that Portland’s inner core had a 30-60 year supply of unutilized zoned capacity and volume. And while this capacity is not necessarily where it is needed, it did clearly demonstrate that Portland does not have a shortage of sites or locations. This goes back to the MC. What are we getting in a tizzy about if that location is underutilized, when there are other sites that are eminently more suited for housing?"
"The point," he added, "is that city officials often get ideas that may seem like they are solving several problems at the same time, but often those problems don’t relate. So trying to conjure a common solution is likely to have a poorer outcome than the status quo. In this instance there is a need to understand that Portland (like many other cities) is underdeveloped and over-zoned. It’s important to understand there’s some under-utilized capacity to be found in almost every corner of the city. If Portland has a housing shortage, it should be asking where, and working to fill in these gaps first, not tear down what is. It ought to begin with enhancing existing neighborhoods."
"It’s the same old nonsense, basically," Jain concluded. "You can’t blame a developer for wanting to put his or her average idea on a high-value site. But somebody in the city needs to say, 'These high-value sites are not going to be pissed away. They’re catalytic locations that can, and should spur all the kinds of precious civic-minded functions the city needs. Everyone should know them and their public value, and then either collectively work to accelerate their development as civic oriented catalysts, or bank them for their highest and best use. These sites are the city’s family jewels. Memorial Coliseum is one of them."