Sparing Memorial Coliseum (for now)

Let's start with a confession: I have never been inside Memorial Coliseum.

I had not yet been born when Portland voters approved the $8 million bond to finance its construction in 1954. I wasn't there when the neighborhood was bulldozed and the big glass box began to emerge on the eastside skyline.

I was not quite four years old when the "Glass Palace" was dedicated to the "advancement of cultural opportunities for the community and to the memory of our veterans of all wars who made the supreme sacrifice."

I did not attend either of the two Beatles shows at the Coliseum in 1965 (ticket price $6.00). I did not see Led Zeppelin perform there in either 1970 or 1972. I didn’t witness Evel Knievel jumping his motorcycle over a row of 17 vans and trucks in 1973.

I wasn't there when the Portland Trailblazers won the Championship in 1977. I didn't hear Bruce Springsteen sing an impromptu version of “On Top of Old Smoky” in honor of the Mount St. Helens eruption when he played the Coliseum in 1980. I've never watched floats in the Grand Floral Parade roll out its big doors, which were designed to accommodate that purpose.

I never rolled around the concourse level on rented inline skates (which was a possibility when I arrived in Portland 15 years ago). I've never been to a hockey game in Portland (or anywhere else for that matter). My daughter's graduation from PSU was held in the Rose Garden, not the Coliseum, and I had to explain to her grandparents that the ceremony was not actually at the Rose Garden.

My dirty little secret is that up until a few years ago, I never paid much attention to Memorial Coliseum. It was just a big box in a confusing jumble of streets and parking lots–-a neighborhood of jammed traffic when my cross-town timing was bad.

In 2001, I read an article by Randy Gragg, who was then the Oregonian's architecture critic (and one of the paper's best and most prolific writers). After reading the building described as "a teacup in a glass box," I began to see it anew, and to appreciate its simple beauty. Since then, I've gained more appreciation of its place in Portland's architectural history.

With that more enlightened perspective, I became alarmed (along with many others), when Mayor Sam Adams decreed that Memorial Coliseum must be razed to make room for the new Triple A baseball stadium--all part of a complex development and public/private financing deal tied to bringing Major League Soccer to town. My dismay grew when Commissioner Leonard flatly declared that Memorial Coliseum was "ugly" and a building "only a mother could love." The proponents of tearing the building down repeated the same litany of faults: (1) It's an ugly box; (2) It's never used; (3) It would be impossible to fix; (4) It's a money pit; (5) Only a tiny group of elitists architecture geeks want to save it; and (6) We've been looking for solutions for years and nothing ever happens.

The Coliseum's destruction seemed inevitable. But then a remarkable thing happened: People started to squawk about the plan, and a real grassroots campaign arose, not only with protests but offering alternatives worthy of consideration. It was enough that the Mayor decided that precipitous action was not such a good idea--that it might be worth taking the time to actually think this one through.

As reported by Mark Larabee in this morning's Oregonian, the razing of Memorial Coliseum has been taken off the table for the moment. We're back to considering the Lents neighborhood as a site for the baseball part. That seemed like a sensible plan in the first place, so let's see if it can happen.

Of course, that's not the end of this issue. There is still much work and thinking to be done. What happens to Memorial Coliseum now? The building suffers from a backlog of deferred maintenance and there are legitimate questions about its financial viability in its current use. (There are good explanations about how the Rose Quarter's management structure creates incentives for the Blazers to minimize capital investments in the building, along with disincentives to book events there instead of the Rose Garden).

Do you remember the brilliant plan floating about in 2003? The city's star developers, Gerding/Edlen, had the idea of turning Memorial Coliseum into a big box retail outlet that would attract 4 million people a year. With the stadium bowl torn out, there would be plenty of room for a Costco or Home Depot store stuffed in the space, with parking on the middle floor. Of course, big box stores don't have much need for big windows and city views, and proximity to light rail isn't helpful when you're hauling building materials home. That was one solution I'm glad we didn't pursue, though there were some that were convinced it was brilliant thinking.

Now the Blazers are talking about creating an "entertainment district" in the Rose Quarter. It's a plan that may cost upwards of $100 million and will certainly require no small amount of public financing. Keep an eye on this one folks! It's going to get ugly ... I mean that literally.

If you're late to this game, lots of smart people have been covering it over the past six weeks:

One of the most vocal and smartest leaders of the movement to save Memorial Coliseum was Brian Libby, who pressed the argument with fervor on his Portland Architecture site. Brian was also kept busy responding doggedly to Memorial Coliseum critics on various blog comment strings, which must have been wearing. Congratulations Brian, and keep up the good fight.

Barry Johnson has done a great job covering the story at Portland Art Watch--both reporting and posing good questions. Tim DuRoche's commentary on his Burnside Blog was also insightful. The Portland Mercury's coverage of the proposed entertainment district has been especially good.


cynseattle said...

The Coliseum is really a thing of beauty at night when there is a proper event inside, so the light really allows you to see the circle in the square. But we've not seen it featured like that consistently for years, which is probably part of why many people don't see it as a valuable or beautiful building. Sad...

I was only there once, years ago, for a Joni Mitchell concert (early 80s?). I drove up from Ashland just for that event, and it would be my first time seeing her live, so to me the Coliseum that night was a Palace! sigh...

MightyToyCannon said...

I lied. I think we went to a cat show there a few years ago. I would love to sit it lit up and with the curtains down more often. In some of the pro-Memorial Coliseum blogging recently, I've read descriptions of it being open for public ice skating at night with the curtains open -- that's the kind of activity that connects the building with people and transforms it from being a neglected box.

Brian Libby said...

Thanks for the kind words, and for sharing your own thought and memories about the Coliseum!