Well, 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.