BY BRIAN LIBBY
This Thursday, Mayor Sam Adams will present to Portland's City Council the plan to restore historic Memorial Coliseum. The price tag for the project is currently projected to be $30.5 million, which includes more than $17 million in public funds via the city's Oregon Convention Center urban renewal district. The Portland Winterhawks would kick in $10 million and historic tax credits would cover $3.4 million. These are non-binding numbers, and negotiations are expected to continue.
But let's be clear: it's time to restore this building, both as a cultural treasure and as a catalyst for high-density development in the city's most important east-side urban core. This isn't just about Memorial Coliseum, but about revitalizing the entire Rose Quarter development with a world-renowned midcentury modern arena as its epicenter.
Given the economy's continuing sluggishness and the reduced funding available for numerous government programs from schools to transit, one can understand skepticism about a large public investment. Yet, as Adams knows, it takes stimulus to jump-start an economy, not austerity measures. What's more, the city's investment is just that: a use of urban renewal funds to, well, renew a key urban place in the city - just as the fund was set up to do by the Portland Development Commission several decades ago.
Adams has taken some heat for the Coliseum restoration plan from people outside of the architecture, sustainability, business and development communities who question why Portland needs two arenas next door to each other, or from people who preferred the Coliseum be torn down for a Portland Beavers baseball stadium.
The Beavers and their approximately 1,800 season ticket holders (in 2009) would not have comprised a sound economic development strategy for the Rose Quarter, especially during the majority of the year that isn't baseball season. It's truly unfortunate the team wasn't able to find a way to build a stadium elsewhere in the metro area - Beaverton, Clackamas, Lents and Vancouver all rejected overtures - yet a busy multipurpose arena like the Coliseum is much more of a continuous revenue stream for the city. It hosts over 150 events per year, as much as the Rose Garden - only with smaller crowds.
Because the two arenas are differently sized - the Rose Garden at approximately 20,000 and the Coliseum being downsized to about 8,000 - they each fill a different economic niche. Portland doesn't have another arena of the Coliseum's size, so we'd eventually have to build a new one. And a from-the-ground-up arena would cost far, far more than this $30 million restoration - only $17 million of which is coming from city money anyway - not to mention all the carbon and embodied energy that would be lost if the Coliseum were torn down.
Then, of course, there is the fact that Memorial Coliseum is both a major landmark of 20th century modern architecture and a veterans memorial. As its listing on the National Register of Historic Places indicates, the Coliseum is architecturally unique: the only major arena in the world with a 360-degree view to the outside. The Coliseum is the equivalent of four city blocks in size, but stands on just four columns. Although its boxy class form is beautiful to some and banal to others, what's really special about the design - like much contemporary architecture - is the volume of space it creates.
Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between the Coliseum's greatest attribute and the public that has visited the building for generations. Instead of celebrating the uniqueness of a major interior arena with a matchless view to the outside - a Roman Coliseum encased in a modernist glass box - the Memorial Coliseum operators have for decades closed off the incredible view of the Willamette and downtown Portland with a fabric curtain. As a result, thousands of Oregonians grew up with the same experience (or lack thereof) I did: going to countless concerts and Blazer games over the 1970s, 80s and 90s without ever experiencing the building as it was intended.
When I talk about the open-curtain setting of the Coliseum with its view through the glass, it isn't just a case of an art-and-architecture writer getting misty eyed over some obscure design move the public can't appreciate or that goes against prudent budget consciousness.
The open curtain gives Memorial Coliseum the chance to transcend ordinary arenas and become the kind of truly unique public gathering place that defines and empowers a city. How many other cities have a giant indoor arena that makes you feel like you're outdoors? Zero.
That uniqueness has economic value as well as social value. A building that can attract people not just because of what's booked there but as an experience in itself is a building that can be routinely booked, bringing a revenue stream to this city-owned structure.
What's more, saving and restoring Memorial Coliseum is the ultimate demonstration of how Portland does things differently. No other city has saved a large arena next door to the one that replaced it. But no other city in the 1980s was throwing itself into a light rail system. No other city in the 1970s was ripping out freeways and passing bottle bills. Just as it has done with sustainability and urban planning, not to mention the Portlandia-celebrated culture being cultivated here, Portland makes up for its lack of wealth and size with pioneering initiatives that often become the new normal in the rest of the United States. And in a time of both environmental disaster and economic gloom, Memorial Coliseum can represent a commitment to progressive values: of investing ecomically in new projects to bring jobs, and protecting our region's greatest cultural assets.
Of course there are questions that remain with regard to the deal. Council members may be concerned with how the $17 million from the Oregon Convention Center urban renewal area might take away from funds meant to improve Martin Luther King Boulevard. And urban renewal dollars must legally include about 30 percent set aside from affordable housing. Can we fit this into the Rose Quarter mix along with the arenas?
That said, the Coliseum can act as a catalyst that will allow high-density housing as part of its mix and prompt private development. It will act as a sister venue to the Convention Center that will help attract larger bookings. The Coliseum will catalyze the Rose Quarter: a gem that lends energy to surrounding developments.
City Council is expected to begin discussion of the Memorial Coliseum restoration at approximately 2PM this Thursday (November 17). If you feel as I do about this masterful building, please consider coming to City Hall and making your voice heard. Or if you can't make it to provide testimony in person, please consider writing today to Mayor Adams (MayorSam@portlandoregon.gov) and his fellow City Council members (Amanda Fritz, email@example.com; Nick Fish, Nick@portlandoregon.gov; Dan Saltzman, firstname.lastname@example.org; Randy Leonard, email@example.com.