After all the big ideas, stalled negotiations and failed development deals, the future of Portlands dilapidated Veterans Memorial Coliseum has returned to the same fundamental question of yesteryear:
Keep it or tear it down?
On Wednesday, the Portland City Council will informally approve a broad plan to study development and closure options for the 54-year-old coliseum. Then, armed with new financial information and alternatives, officials want to return March 31 to outline the slow path toward an eventual decision for the city-owned facility.
At the end of the day, we have to look at the costs and ask the hard questions, said Susan Hartnett, who manages the citys sports venues.
But while a clear answer could emerge next year, some vocal members of Portlands architecture community are troubled that Portland officials are even reconsidering demolition options.
I do feel betrayed, said Stuart Emmons, an architect and co-chairman of Friends of Memorial Coliseum. I think were going over old turf again.
Many options, no progress
The coliseum became a lightning rod of controversy in 2009 as then-Mayor Sam Adams negotiated a stadium deal with sports owner Merritt Paulson. At the time, Paulson wanted to land a Major League Soccer franchise by renovating the downtown stadium now called Providence Park but any renovation meant Paulsons Minor League Baseball team would need to find a new home.
Adams and Paulson consideredtearing down the coliseum so the city could build a new baseball stadium next to the Trail Blazers basketball arena, now called the Moda Center. But the proposal was widely panned, Portland lost its baseball team and subsequent redevelopment efforts have gone nowhere.
In the past five years, officials have pursueddeals with the Trail Blazers and entertainment-themed developers. They placedthe coliseum on the National Register of Historic Places andauthorized spending more than $20 million of public money to restore the building. Improving the coliseum, Adams and city redevelopment officials said in 2011, would catalyze development in the rest of the Rose Quarter.
In 2012, Adamsaggressively pushed a $31.5 million renovation deal involving the coliseums main tenant, the Portland Winterhawks hockey team, but he couldnt close it before leaving office.
Doug Piper, the teams president, said concerns about league sanctions against the Winterhawks complicated the deal. Piper said it would have been foolhardy to make a $10 million financial commitment when there were concerns that the team might not survive.
When that hit us, you can imagine that could have been devastating, he said. Now it didnt turn out that way, but we didnt know that.
In the end, Piper said, the team was fined $200,000, it lost draft picks and the coach/general manager was suspended for a year.
Asked whether the Winterhawks pulled out of the deal, he said: I dont think its accurate to say we pulled out of the deal.
Theres a lot of factors that made the deal not right at the time, he added. I think thats fair to say on all sides.
Enter Mayor Charlie Hales, who replaced Adams in 2013.
Sam was out and Charlie was in, and Charlie put the thing on the shelf because he had other priorities, it wasnt his project, Piper said.
Behind the scenes, officials in Hales office considered a proposal from developer Doug Obletz to transform the coliseum into an indoor track facility to open in advance of the 2016 World Indoor Track amp; Field Championships, which will be held in Portland.
Officials postponed doing a broader study of options while the city dug into Obletzs renovation proposal, Hartnett said. But the estimated price tag was about $80 million, she said, too hefty to go forward without looking at alternatives.
The renovation choices
Now, Portland officials will hire three outside firms to study redevelopment and closure options, with associated cost estimates.
The consultants will study five redevelopment scenarios:
- A basic overhaul that would address deferred maintenance.
- Enhancing the coliseum as a sports venue, replacing seats, adding a new scoreboard and improving concessions.
- A broader renovation plan to lure more concerts or events, with improvements to the sound system, staging and loading areas.
- Obletzs indoor track proposal, although it could not be completed in advance of the world championships.
- An amphitheater concept, first floated a decade ago, that would retain the coliseums roof but remove its distinctive glass and part of the seating bowl.
Additionally, consultants will consider maintaining the status-quo arrangement with the Winterhawks.
Harnett said the coliseum hosts about 115 events a year, including Winterhawk games, netting the city an operating profit of about $73,000. But that is more than wiped out by an annual obligation to spend at least $500,000 to improve the building.
Hartnett said the Winterhawks remain interested in striking a deal.
Thats still available, she said.
Piper said the Winterhawks would be happy to remain in the coliseum if the building receives upgrades, such as a new scoreboard and better seats.
While the team previously was willing to kick in $10 million toward a renovation, Piper said the citys assessment will drive any future conversation about whats practical and affordable.
Were interested to see what they come up with, he said. If it makes sense, wed like to participate.
Asset or money pit?
Consultants will also study options to close the coliseum or tear it down for future redevelopment. Under either scenario, the city has already committed to keeping the coliseum open through June 2016, with some events tentatively scheduled into 2018, Hartnett said.
Although the Adams-led City Council supported keeping the coliseum open, Hartnett said its appropriate to look at all the options with new leaders elected to office. Despite the historic designation, demolition remains a potential option, she said, although it could prove expensive.
Its not like we could just load it up with dynamite and implode it, she said.
Emmons, who helped lead coliseum preservation efforts five years ago, said the building is a mid-century architectural masterpiece. He said the city should invest money into the building so it can attract more events.
Emmons complained that the city has been opaque about its latest study plans, and the coliseum needs to be spared from talk of demolition once and for all.
The bottom line is, as we see it, the building could be a real asset to the city, he said.
Hartnett said that might still be true, provided the city can craft a financially solvent plan for its operation.
We have shown a propensity to kick the can down the road on VMC, she said, because its a hard decision.
-- Brad Schmidt
UPDATE: This story was updated to include the actual net operating revenue -- $73,000 -- for the city from Veterans Memorial Coliseum, under an operating agreement with Paul Allens Portland Arena Management. An earlier version included an estimate of $60,000.