Architecture Magazine

City Council to Vote on Memorial Coliseum Restoration Thursday

By Brianlibby

Memorial Coliseum (photo by Julius Schulman, from Modernism Rediscovered)


It's a vote that has been more than three years in the making, but will demonstrate our city's values for generations to come. This Thursday, City Council will vote on the proposed $31 million deal to restore Memorial Coliseum, the one-of-a-kind arena at the heart of a transforming Rose Quarter district.

The vote had been expected more than a year ago, with City Council already ruling on numerous occasions to go forward with negotiations and designs. But because of the extremely intricate and sensitive deal structure, which involves the Trail Blazers' Portland Arena Management and an extension of that agency's running of both arenas (even though one is privately owned and one public), and which involves urban renewal dollars from numerous sources, the decision by Council is only coming now.

Under the proposed deal, the Portland Development Commission would be responsible for $17.1 million the Coliseum and the Winterhawks hockey team would contribute $10 million. PDC would also loan the city $4.4 million, to be repaid over 20 years from ticket-tax and parking revenues.

In other words, the city is receiving $10 in free renovations, and all we have to do is spend $17 million. It's not to say $17 million isn't a lot of money, but given that the Coliseum is a profitable arena - even hosting more events some years than the Rose Garden next door - that is an investment in making more money. The two-arena configuration also helps the Rose Quarter generate more revenue than it would with one arena.

What's more, there is a huge amount of untapped revenue sitting in the Rose Quarter that can help further renovate the district and the arena. The Coliseum in particular is surrounded by asphalt and concrete, land the city can sell the development rights to without compromising the parking revenue of the two buildings' shared parking garages. Simply build over the parking with high-density, mixed-use buildings and there are millions to be made. That can act as leverage for restoring and maintaining the Coliseum. The Coliseum also is the only arena or auditorium in Portland of that size, about 6,000-8,000 (after the restoration). If we don't restore the Coliseum, we'll eventually need to build a new facility to match that audience size. And it would cost much more than $17.1 million.

And with a new streetcar line along the Rose Quarter's northern edge, the value of this land is starting to rise exponentially. We've already seen this happen in the Pearl District. The city needs to stop worrying about the $17.1 million contribution to the Coliseum and think about the money to be made in enabling development along Broadway.

Bottom line: the Coliseum is a net money maker in the long run, even though its deferred maintenance is a short-term drain.

And when you add the developable riverfront property along the Rose Quarter's western edge, the value of this broader parcel becomes even greater. After all, how can we debate whether to keep a world-renowned, money-making arena when we're using exceptionally valuable riverfront central-city land as a surface parking lot? What are we, Phoenix? Las Vegas?

The Rose Quarter should be Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square moment: a chance to reshape the center of the city with high-density, pedestrian-friendly, sustainable development. We should be dreaming about how this primary east-side transit center can be filled with hotels, offices, retail and residences, a win-win for everyone. Instead, we're like a cat that turns from grooming its coat to eating its fur off. We worry about restoring a great arena with a busy, lucrative schedule at bargain basement prices instead of how that restoration can unleash millions in private development.

Brian Libby's "Why Memorial Coliseum Matters" City Club talk, 2011.


By now I've written countless times about Memorial Coliseum's special architecture. But in case you're reading about this for the first time, keep in mind: this is more or less the only major arena in the world with a 360-degree view to the outside. Stand in the Coliseum's seating bowl and you can see the entire downtown skyline and the Willamette River. But that view has been blocked away with a fabric black curtain for most of the building's history in order to make it like any other arena. As it happens, though, unique design has tremendous economic value. If we open the curtain for good, we can give Memorial Coliseum an all new identity based on the ability to have indoor events that feel like they're outside: something perfect for our rainy climate.

Memorial Coliseum is the equivalent of four city blocks in size, but it's standing on just four columns. It was completed in 1960, embodying the era of JFK, NASA and post-war optimism in America. It was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the great American architecture firms of the 20th century, responsible for icons like the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Burj Kalifa tower in Dubai (currently the world's tallest building), and the new World Trade Center in New York. Throughout the United States and the world, this era of modern architecture has come to be celebrated for its simple fusion of glass, steel and concrete.

Memorial Coliseum gives Portland the kind of architectural history it otherwise largely lacks compared to older cities of the eastern United States and of Europe. Our city once destroyed much of its heritage by tearing down most of its waterfront cast-iron architecture of the early 20th century, something that has cost us economically as well as culturally, as such historic districts have shown their value to succeeding generations. With the City Council's approval of Memorial Coliseum's restoration on Thursday, we can demonstrate that Portland now appreciates and protects its most special places.

In recent decades, Portland has faced an ultimatum for some of its most cherished and architecturally significant buildings, such as City Hall and Central Library. In those cases, the city has restored rather than replaced, a decision no one argues today. Why would we do differently for a building with even more international historic architectural value in Memorial Coliseum? It doesn't have the detailed exterior facade of either of those old buildings because it's from the midcentury-modern era, defined by open space, light, volume and streamlined style. Yet Memorial Coliseum is the most architecturally significant building in Portland. You don't have to be a fan of modernism to recognize that it's now officially historic.

Rose Parade at Memorial Coliseum, 2010 (photo by Jeremy Bitterman)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Institute of Architects, and the US Green Building Council have all sent letters to Mayor Adams and Council expressing support for Memorial Coliseum's restoration.

Memorial Coliseum is also a veterans memorial that the war veterans of Oregon have rallied to protect. (It's now officially called Veterans Memorial Coliseum.) They recognize that it's not just the memorial plaques outside the building that honor veterans: it's the whole building that does so, with the arena's unmatched openness to the outside sunlight symbolizing an inoculation against the terrors of World War II. When I work to support Memorial Coliseum's survival, for example, it's with the support of my 91-year-old grandfather, a WWII vet who landed at Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Of course there are, at first glance, reasons to be skeptical of the Coliseum plan. It's being voted on during a lame-duck City Council session. It devotes scarce city dollars to an arena when we already have a newer one next door. But the more one looks at the blend of economic, historical and cultural factors swirling around the Coliseum and Rose Quarter, the more this restoration seems to pay for itself, many times over.

The Coliseum can be called America's only transparent arena. And whether we keep or discard our historic architecture will make transparent Portland's values about design, the environment, history and the future of place-making in our city.

As a co-founder of the Friends of Memorial Coliseum, I can't pretend any impartiality or objectivity on this vote. Memorial Coliseum is the only issue for which I've ever deliberately abandoned my journalist's role and embraced full-fledged activism. But as someone born and raised in Oregon, who grew up watching concerts and basketball games at Memorial Coliseum, I can't walk away from our responsibility to history. As a journalist who has spent more than a decade writing about design in Portland and the broader world, I can't sit on the sidelines as the future of what I see as the city's greatest building hangs in the balance - or as the centerpiece of our next great central-city district takes shape.



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