BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past several days, Portland was the center of the track and field universe, with the world's best athletes in town to compete in the IAAF World Indoor Championships at the Oregon Convention Center. And indeed it was popular, with the OCC's temporary bleachers selling out their 7,000-seat capacity.
Over the past two years or more, however, behind the scenes, negotiations were being made to possibly hold the World Indoor Championships at a larger venue practically next door: Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
After taking office in 2013, mayor Charlie Hales reportedly spent months negotiating with Nike to try and involve the company as a private partner on an ambitious, more than $100 million Coliseum restoration that would have given the arena a new indoor track and much more. Ultimately the project didn't happen, perhaps because the city was counting Nike for a lot more than Portland itself was contributing, or perhaps for other reasons, like the company's ongoing reticence to put down roots in Portland proper or the fact that it's currently busy expanding its Beaverton campus. Now the likeliest outcome is probably a less ambitious restoration, something akin to the $32 million plan that nearly came to fruition under Mayor Sam Adams in 2012, or there could likely further limbo and slow deterioration of a profitable city asset, ultimately sometimes known as demolition by neglect.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Nike's Tinker Hatfield, who oversaw the creation of a redesign plan for the Coliseum on behalf of the company, and Jeff Kovel, founding principal of Skylab, which produced the renovation design. Hatfield is a legendary designer behind iconic products like the Air Jordan shoe, prompting Fortune magazine's to name him to its list of the 100 most influential designers of the 20th century in 1998. But the Portland-area native was trained as an architect at the University of Oregon.
The Coliseum renovation design made a few key steps, many of which were discussed and brainstormed over a long period of time involving not only Skylab and Nike but architect Mike McCulloch, who helped connect all the parties and advocated for a light touch on the building wherever possible, yet also recommended some of the flexible moves that would give the building a promising new future. Other stakeholders and players such as Portland Winterhawks president Doug Piper and developer Douglas Obletz were also reportedly part of the mix.
Most notable of the major design moves was expanding and transforming the concrete seating bowl to include room for concessions, ADA access, and a modest array of luxury boxes. Skylab's design also clad the new bowl in reclaimed Oregon Douglas fir. The design also created a new outdoor deck on the west side of the building, facing the Willamette River. It removed part of the lowest-level seating area in order to fit in a regulation 200-meter indoor track, but replaced it with temporary seating. The design improved access to the memorial walls outside the building in a sunken garden by turning that space into a new pedestrian street going all the way north to Broadway, simultaneously breathing new life into the large underground exhibit hall with walls of glass and skylights. The design additionally created a hydraulic floor to the arena that could be lifted up and down as needed, allowing for concerts of various sizes, an Olympic swimming pool, a velodrome, and other formats. Skylab's plan also extended beyond the Coliseum to create usable outdoor space atop the adjacent parking garages.
At first when I heard about this design, I was worried. Cladding the bowl in wood? Adding luxury boxes? But the more I saw and learned about what Skylab created, the more I liked it. Now I'm gutted that the city and Nike weren't able to come to an agreement, and hopeful, perhaps against reality, that such an ambitious design can still be realized.
Remodel over reinvention
Jeff Kovel described Skylab's approach as a remodel over a reinvention. "I think people had been approaching it to blow it up and build a new vision there," he said. "We came at it saying, ‘What are the inherent opportunities we could tap into?’ I think most people don’t know about the exhibit hall under the plaza, for example."
"If you study the site pre-Rose Garden you see a lot of aspects that were taken away, almost carelessly," Kovel added. "One of those, I think, is the idea that the veterans memorial is actually an on-grade street rather than a sunken plaza. Right now the only thing preventing that is a pair of cinder-block walls underneath the [entrance] bridge. These could go away. Restore that street and make it the connection to the neighborhood north of Broadway. We could then put new glass facades on the underground exposition hall and bring that whole piece to life, with the result being more traffic to the memorials as well as creating the seed for larger development to the north. It’s really bigger than the Coliseum renovation."
Kovel and Hatfield then went on to talk about the genesis of Nike's interest in the project was the history of indoor track meets that used to be held regularly at the Coliseum. "It was a short track that was banked," Kovel said. "At that time it wasn’t quite a regulation 200-meter track. It was around 175 or 165. This was before the standards of events became really strict but they had really exciting track meets there because of the small scale." Among those to find glory competing at Memorial Coliseum was Nike's patron saint, Steve Prefontaine. (You can see him set a world indoor-track record for the two mile race in 1972 here.)
"I was at some of those," Hatfield said. "It was even more electric than Hayward field. It was crazy. Indoor track when done in an arena like this is a three-ring circus. It’s raucous. Whatever that circumference was, 140 meters or something, it necessitated a steeper bank. It almost seemed a little dangerous. People would literally have to be moving fast to get around that thing, just like in a velodrome. There was this chaos out there that added to the excitement or to the entertainment value. They had to remove a section of it for the 60 [meter run]. You had to remove a section of the track and run through here to a heavily-padded wall."
Hatfield also noted that the original handshake between Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman occurred at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, across from Memorial Coliseum. "It was because they were both in Portland attending a track meet," he added. "During the day there’d be high school and small college competition all day long, and the night sessions were the top level of athletes in the world. I saw a world record by CK Yang in the pole vault. He was a decathlete. It was amazing. There was some sawdust out there and I grabbed some, because I thought it was historic."
The Nike designer and visionary also recalled the public skating rink that used to exist at the Coliseum. "We used to live two miles from this building, and we would take our young daughters skating," he remembered. "We’d all go there as a family. It was just the coolest. We’d not only ice skate but go roller skating on the concourse."
Of the Coliseum's design, Hatfield said: "There’s a purity to it, a simplification. Sometimes innovation is the distilling of ideas down to its essence. This design always struck us as important because of what’s not there. It’s beautifully simple. In my book it’s one of the top two or three buildings in Portland we've got."
Hatfield then noted an old photograph of the newly-opened Coliseum with hundreds of 1950s cars parked out front; he remembered going to the Coliseum as a child with a sense of wonder that built as he made his way toward the entrance. "You’d walk through this sea of cars and then this space-age bowl would be lit up at night. I’d go there for track meets, for the Russian circus. I remember walking toward this gleaming glass box. It was exciting. It was something that you could only find in this part of Portland, that kind of feeling of the future. I’m old enough to have gone to the world’s fair in Seattle. The reality is my recollection was that Seattle was this modern place where I went as a kid. I never thought of Portland that way until I went to this place. It was this un-Portland-like splash of bold modernity, if you will. It just didn’t exist anywhere else."
Hatfield also recalled the moment when Phil Knight first approached him about investigating a possible Coliseum renovation that could return indoor track there on a regular basis. It was 2007 and the Davis Cup finals were being played in Portland. Hatfield said Knight "gave me tickets and said, 'I want you to go watch the tennis match and come back afterward and tell me if we could ever put a 200-meter track in there. I went there and I paced it, I came back and told him what I thought would have to happen. I told him the only way you could was to carve away some concrete. You couldn’t do it any other way. Because I knew the dimensions. He was like, 'God damn it. Okay, thanks.' I think he was hoping there was a relatively easy way to retrofit this building so you could have track meets in there. If that was the case, he was willing to possibly invest in it. I actually showed him some sketches so he’d know what it meant by carving concrete away. I said, 'I don’t know what the number is, but it’s not insignificant to carve away the concrete. But it in no way compromises the structural integrity of the building itself, because of the way it was designed.' But I think he personally lost a little bit of interest because he saw too much investment."
Then, Hatfield says, Knight seemed to maintain interest after all. "I felt he was encouraging me to work with the city and say, 'Maybe the city should do this.' From my perspective, I think at some point Nike started believing that this is such an important building the city should be front and center with preservation or remodeling the building. There were a lot of things in the way but I didn’t quite let up myself. Then I hired Jeff out of my discretionary budget at Nike to work on this project. I think they came up with a fantastic idea. The rising floor idea, that’s the ticket."
"The idea was to say, 'Let’s make this ideal for track but see what other types of activities you could do as well," Kovel explained in reference to the hydraulic floor. You could build retractable seating outside of that floor, so you could restore the bowl, essentially. You don’t really lose anything with this. You only gain."
"I’m not a purist renovation specialist or anything like that, but I do respect old architecture," Hatfield said. "Sometimes something is so famous and important that you restore it as it was built, and sometimes you respect the arch but you improve it. Every chateau in France, every important building in London—they’ve all been altered. They’ve all been modified a little bit or maybe a lot over time. This needs to be a versatile arena for modern day activities, and as a venue for sports and theater and everything else, but it does need some updating."
"This region is kind of like track and field central," Hatfield added. My comments to [Tracktown USA president] Vin Lananna were kind of focused around the fact that Hayward Field is the center for track and field events in the US for outdoors. Why wouldn’t you want to expand that footprint to a much larger city? Portland could become the indoor center of the universe for track and field. They’re really two different sports. They’re separate in the eyes of the NCAA. They’re closely related. Being able to run those tight corners, accelerating in the sprints: it’s aggressive because you have less space."
Animation of Coliseum's hydraulic floor and movable seating (Skylab Architecture)
Kovel then talked about some of the additives, such as the expanded bowl, the west-side deck area and more about the hydraulic floor. "The idea of thickening the bowl to embed the original columns was actually a way of making the scheme better," he explained. "It’s something they might have done if they could afford it or the construction technology was better. And the west side is really where you want to add space. This was born out of asking how we could access that space but find a way to put a terrace on that you wouldn’t look at and think it was clipped on: that had a sculptural relationship to the old building. Doing a roof as a flex zone underneath seemed like an interesting idea. And when you look at the subterranean maps, there are already stairs there to the midway point. It would be utilizing the existing infrastructure and building off of that." Of the hydraulic floor, the architect said the idea was "when the floor came up you could walk underneath it. It could be where the teams were warming up before, and then come up through the floor. That arrival moment would be quite spectacular."
The architect also stressed that this Coliseum renovation plan was not necessarily track-centered, at least not in a way that's impractical. "What I think is great about this plan is it enhances just about every other use as well," Kovel said. "By trying to fit a 200-meter track in we tried to look at what else it could do. For action sports, for concerts you could have the stage rise up out of the system. It can restore back to hockey, back to basketball, but there are new possibilities like a velodrome. We did a velodrome model that fits within that footprint. There’s been a number of events with temporary pools for things like Olympic trials for swimming. But that wouldn’t fit in the current bowl capacity. And multiple basketball courts, multiple tennis courts. I think while the goal was to do a world-class track, it elevated both sport and concerts and other events at the same time. In addition to the Rose Parade and other things happening there."
Hatfield also noted the value in the underground exhibit-hall spaces. "What makes it unique among almost all arenas today is it has what’s left of the old exhibit hall space underneath the plaza. It’s still quite useful for sporting events if you chose to do so," he explained. "Most arenas don’t have that kind of prep or practice space. Even the Rose Garden falls into that category, as big and well thought out as it is for usage. It doesn’t have that space. So that to me is a really nice instigator or a validator of why this building is so important for all kinds of performances inside and outside of sport. You have this ability for people to prepare, warm up. You could talk about different ways that could be utilized. It’s kind of too bad the rest of the exhibit space was removed. The auto show was there. It was the convention center before there was a convention center."
"We thought the starting point of this big planned development would be to refurbish the VMC, but what it really becomes is the anchor point for the whole district, or that collection of properties there," Hatfield added. "You’d want to initiate some kind of further development. If you want to follow this thing logically through, if you look at the way cities get built in the first place, it’s a tried and true way to develop: you build something people want to be associated with, and then you build other things. We talked about offices, housing, skateboard parks, an outdoor 300-meter track with smaller sized recreation field in the middle. You could create a city, a town, inside the city, that has a reason for being."
Anchor of a district
Hatfield explained that although the starting point was a Veterans Memorial Coliseum restoration, "what it really becomes is the anchor point for the whole district, or that collection of properties there. You’d want to initiate some kind of further development. If you want to follow this thing logically through, if you look at the way cities get built in the first place, it’s a tried and true way to develop: you build something people want to be associated with, and then you build other things. We talked about offices, housing, skateboard parks, an outdoor 300-meter track with smaller sized recreation field in the middle. You could create a town inside the city that has a reason for being."
The legendary Nike designer also made reference to an idea forwarded last fall by Commissioner Steve Novick to tear down the Coliseum for affordable housing (which, in a separate post, several experts have said is a bad idea from a planning and even an affordable-housing perspective). "The first thing you want to ask when you create affordable housing is, 'Where do you recreate?' If you’re going to attract families, which is what affordable housing means to me, you’re thinking of vertical structures where you have access to outdoor recreation as well," Hatfield said. "The thing that really drives me crazy, I have to tell you, is that to build a facility like the Coliseum from the ground up is probably half a billion dollars. Why would you tear down something that’s probably worth, if you put something into it, half a billion dollars? The most environmental thing you can do is not tear something down. And by having that building there and making space around it, you could have a thriving community."
I then mentioned to Hatfield that the City of Portland commissioned a 2015 study of the Coliseum's market potential, and it found that the building would turn more and more profit as it's restored. In fact, the Coliseum turns a profit even now, despite its deferred maintenance. But in my private conversations with City of Portland officials, they have suggested the problem is that it would take too many years for a $35 or $100 million return on investment to be recovered, as if the city-owned Coliseum were not a public building.
"Here’s something I just don’t understand: do civic buildings, buildings built for the betterment of the city with a civic role to play, ever make money? By definition they’re not moneymaking adventures," Hatfield said. "I just bristle when I hear anyone say, here’s much money it would make or lose if it were this way or that way. When does anybody build anything civic with that in mind? Does something built for the common good of a society that values education and entertainment, at what point does making money off those things really kick in? I just don’t understand how that makes sense, or where the argument is."
"On top of that, how come no one does ever factor in the economic impact of a destination like this for the hotels and restaurants and the other service providers in the area?"
"They are looking backwards instead of forward," Kovel added. "They are not looking at how in 20 years there will be a lot more people there and the venue will be needed all the more."
Nike and the City of Portland
Hatfield recalled a meeting at Skylab with Commissioner Novick to view the Skylab expansion design. "We went through the pitch, but it was like the whole time he was waiting to tell us that it was just a matter of dollars and cents," he said. The commissioner questioned whether the city should spend money to restore the building, even though it turns a profit even in its disrepair. "I had to finally say, ‘Nike pays me to come up with ideas. And they cost a lot of money to dink around with new ideas. But Nike’s business plan is to then leverage those ideas into more business," Hatfield explained. "The idea itself is expensive: in apparel, in footwear, in marketing. All of those things cost a lot of money, especially to innovate. They pay me a lot of money to be an idea guy. They get that it starts there. A business model is having a great idea and creating value and wealth and leveraging that into a business plan. That could be an arguing point here: this is what you leverage off of, this facility that could be used by many different people in this community, and in the region. If you think vertically a little bit there’s enough space here for a lot of action, a lot of urban development around it, including across Broadway."
"We are not developers," Hatfield continued. "It’s not in our business plan to go around and invest in buildings all over the place, other than for our own managerial and office needs. But what we do spend money on is to essentially promote sport and activity and events. We spend millions of dollars all over the world promoting and advocating for people to be involved in activity—just to stay healthy. So we of course are in favor of any kinds of environments that give people an opportunity to engage in sports and fitness, and to engage in the entertainment of watching those things. So we are in favor of Veterans Memorial Coliseum. We are in favor of renovating it. And our role, to be clear, is that if facilities are there we are there to be the promoters, the ones who bring in the athletes. Because that’s what we do. Somebody else builds stadiums and office buildings and housing and parks. We have partnered with the City of Portland and Portland Public Schools to upgrade all the sports facilities in the city. We’ve done the same thing with Portland Parks with new surfaces for basketball and tennis and things like that. We don’t want to own the parks but ensure people have the opportunity to participate. We’d look at a project like this and go, 'Love it, see the value in it being preserved, in renovating it so more events could come to this.' There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Portland is a better city if we have a balanced perspective. You can’t just put in housing and office towers. That doesn’t make it a great city. Tearing down the VMC would make this less of a great city. It’s truly a facility for people in all levels of sport and entertainment at all levels. I love that. Nike loves that."