Memorial Coliseum: The empire strikes back

portlandmemorialcolWell, damn those architects’ pointy little heads. What right do they have to protest the demolition of a historically important building when a billionaire’s profits are on the line?

Astonishingly, that seems to be the subtext of this morning’s banner story in The Oregonian, under the reductionist headline, Save the coliseum, but for what? Unlike the paper’s previous reporting on the issue of razing or saving Memorial Coliseum, which has been solid, this piece feels like it belongs on the op-ed page. Even then, it’s poorly thought out — mainly, in its thrust, a repetition of the Portland Trail Blazer/City of Portland talking points and a flicking-away of the several legitimate counterproposals that have been made for use of the building. Now that Mayor Sam Adams has given the Coliseum at least a temporary reprieve, this morning’s story reads like the first strike in a counter-campaign to get it torn down, after all. That’s a legitimate goal for an opinion-page story, even though I happen to think it’s the wrong choice. But why am I reading it on the front page, in the guise of a news story?

I won’t get into the arguments in favor of preserving the Coliseum, which have been made well and often in several places (among them Portland Arts Watch, Burnside Blog, Portland Architecture and Culture Shock), except to say this: For all of Portland’s vaunted reputation as a well-planned city, it’s hardly overloaded with buildings of real architectural distinction, and that makes the potential loss of any excellent work of architecture a matter for deep public concern. I’m not an architect, and the International Style is hardly my favorite — indeed, I have a lot of issues with it — but you save what you have, and in the case of Memorial Coliseum, what Portland has is an elegant, almost startlingly pure expression of the International ethos. We’re not talking about an abandoned Home Depot here, in spite of City Commissioner Randy Leonard’s unfortunate stab at architecture criticism.

After establishing the impracticality of the architectural trade in general (why, you’d almost think they were college professors!), The Oregonian’s story gets down to business: The Coliseum is a money-loser. An accompanying bar chart reveals that, yes, for the past three years it’s lost money, mainly because the city’s spent close to $2 million in that time period on needed upkeep (the bill’s been $3.2 million since 2000). And it could cost another $13 million or more to make up for years of neglect and get the place in really good shape again.

Fair enough, although the chart also reveals that in the three immediately preceding years the Coliseum stacked up profits of $243,000, $338,000 and $275,000 — even though the Blazers, who have the sole right to manage and book the building even though it’s city-owned, haven’t had a lot of incentive to push the Coliseum to the detriment of their own Rose Garden a quick jog away.

So, a few more questions:

Why did the city drag its heels on alternative proposals for the Coliseum in the early 2000s and just let them die? Could it be that the city and its partner, the Blazers’ Portland Arena Management, preferred to let the Coliseum slowly starve until the only “rational” response would be to put it out of its misery?

Where’s the REAL financial analysis? The Oregonian’s story gives the form of financial analysis, but not the reality. So let’s bring up some tougher money questions. Why haven’t the Blazers been actively pushing rentals? (The answer seems evident.) What is the cost comparison between carrying a modest deficit on the Coliseum versus razing it and building a new minor-league baseball park in its place? What are the costs for making PGE Park suitable for Merritt Paulson’s new major-league soccer franchise AND his minor-league baseball team — a pairing that would make a new baseball park unnecessary? What are the costs of upgrading the Coliseum versus the anticipated extra traffic it would bring into the Rose Quarter, especially under an active-participatory plan such as the proposed sports and recreation complex?

Why does the city allow the Blazers the right to manage a publicly owned property? Can this possibly be in the taxpayers’ best interest? It’s not as if any of this is a surprise: All of today’s problems were anticipated when the city handed over management to the Blazers. The deal was struck, anyway.

Why, come down to it, is the Coliseum, as a city-owned (though not city-operated, and that’s a real issue) property, EXPECTED to turn a profit? Not that it couldn’t, if given a fighting chance. But do we expect our parks system to make money? Shall we charge parents every time their kids climb on a publicly owned swing? Hasn’t the albatross around the neck of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts been its failure from the get-go to receive a rational operating budget from its governmental overseers? Might that penny-wise, pound-foolish approach offer a cautionary lesson for the Coliseum?

Come down to it: Is this what public ownership means?
The public pays the bills but private enterprise makes the decisions and reaps the rewards? Is the Coliseum debacle a microcosm of what’s happening with the Wall Street bailouts? I have no animus toward Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen, who seems a decent sort of billionaire (and I say that unironically). But his interests and the Portland public’s interest aren’t necessarily the same. So, please, let’s not act as if they were.


Our close associate, Laura Grimes, addressing the general question and not this morning’s news story, has framed some of the issues with admirable clarity (and a good deal more brevity):

The issues swirling around the fate of Memorial Coliseum make it tough to sort the wheat from the shaft (misspelling intended).

Shaft: Only architects are interesting in saving the Coliseum.
Wheat: Plenty of people are voicing opinions who aren’t architects, which is why the uproar has been loud and furious.

Shaft: The Coliseum has been neglected and is in disrepair and has been little noticed in recent years.
Wheat: Blazers management has no incentive to keep it up and compete with booking the Rose Garden and conflict with their plans to create an entertainment district.

Shaft: The Rose Garden area is a wasteland.
Wheat: Why have the Blazers sat on it all these years and not developed it? An entertainment district sounds promising, but not if it’s filled with big-name companies and corporate profits sail out of town, generating only low-wage service jobs and sucking customers from other area businesses.

Shaft: The Coliseum has lost money in the last three years.
Wheat: The city finally kicked in some capital improvements ($3.2 million since 2000), skewing the profit/loss figures.

Shaft: It’s more expensive to keep it and rehab it.
Wheat: How does that compare to the costs of razing it and building a new minor-league park, here or in the Lents neighborhood, which will be used only during a much shorter part of the year?