1. Why should the City and others invest in Veterans Memorial Coliseum, especially with so many other priorities?
Economic Development. Because the restoration pays for itself, both economically and culturally. And to tear the building down would cost far more.
Veterans Memorial Coliseum has had inadequate annual maintenance budget and virtually no substantial upgrades (except some seismic bracing) in its 50-year history. It needs modern conveniences like a video scoreboard. Yet investing in the Coliseum will create a one-of-a-kind, nationally prominent centerpiece that can act as a catalyst for a revitalized and vibrant centrally located district while fulfilling a niche as Portland’s only venue in the 3,500-8,000 seat range. The building already host more than 100 events per year even in its decayed state, and even with the open configuration curtained off. It could easily turn a profit with a thoughtful design and a creative approach that embraces the building’s unique assets.
What’s more, investing in the Coliseum won’t take away from other funding needs like education and health care. Urban renewal funds are generated precisely to help under-performing neighborhoods (such as the Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area that the Coliseum belongs to) renew.
2. What parts of the Coliseum are historic and protected?
The entire building is protected in its National Register listing, including the exterior walls, the seating bowl (arena), the concourse, the memorial courtyards, the entrance canopy, and the setting of the building. What’s more, the interior is an irreplaceable part of the exterior, in that viewing the façade from outside means seeing the curving arena bowl through the glass.
3. Can the city demolish the building or gut the inside if it’s on the National Register?
Yes and no. On one hand, it’s entirely possible legally for the city to subvert the National Register listing by demolition or by radically altering the interior. But federal historic tax credits provided by the National Park Service, which can re-imburse as much as 10 to 20 percent of a project’s cost, are contingent upon a National Register-listed building maintaining its architectural integrity. If Portland’s leadership has the will to demolish this building, it can, but it would waste many millions to restore the building without the tax credits, and you can’t gut the Coliseum and get the credits.
4. If Veterans Memorial Coliseum is so great, why has it been neglected?
Although it’s a beautiful work of architecture, this has become harder to see over the years. The seating bowl’s curtain has almost always remained closed. And outside, we keep covering up the building’s jewel-like form: overgrown trees block the view into and out from the building. Subsequent developments such as the One Center Court hybrid of building and parking garage have also been built up to its edge. The right design (for the Coliseum and the broader Rose Quarter) can change this.
5. Every other city has demolished its old NBA arena when the team left. Why not Portland?
The Coliseum has survived this long because it’s a special building and memorial. It should thrive in the future because of the role it can play.
In practical terms, a restored Veterans Memorial Coliseum gives the city a multipurpose venue in a size range it otherwise lacks, in the 3,500 to 8,000-seat range. Restore it and increased bookings will help the renovation pay for itself. And because the VMC is the virtually the only arena in the world that allows visitors to see out from their seats through the façade to the view outside, it offers something no other arena can. Great design has proven economic value. This building can be a destination.
What’s more, going a different path—one of preservation rather than perennial demolition—is what sets Portland apart from other cities. The values of sustainability, historic preservation and world-class design are all expressed in a renovated Coliseum. Let Phoenix and Houston bulldoze their history. We’re proud to be different, and happy to reap the financial benefits that come with creating and celebrating great places.
6. Does the Coliseum sit empty?
No. Veterans Memorial Coliseum has remained busy with well over 100 events a year since its anchor tenant, the NBA’s Trail Blazers, moved out in 1996. But in recent years deferred maintenance has caused a slow decline in bookings.
7. I know it was saved from demolition (to make way for a minor-league baseball park) in 2009. But what’s happening with the Coliseum now?
Portland’s City Council has been working toward a vote on the building’s restoration. Last year, the vote on a $31 million restoration plan was shelved after the Portland WinterHawks minor-league hockey team, the building’s anchor tenant (which had pledged about $10 million toward the restoration), incurred a large financial penalty from their league. City Council is set to be tentatively working toward a vote on a new restoration plan in 2014. But the vote has not yet been scheduled, nor has the scope of such an effort been defined.
8. Is the Coliseum losing money?
Not really, but it’s a common misconception. Critics have contended the Coliseum loses as much as $400,000 annually, yet this figure does not include parking proceeds, one of the primary revenue sources for any arena.
9. If the building has this great view, how come I’ve been going there for decades and never seen it?
This is a tragedy we hope to rectify. Veterans Memorial Coliseum was designed to act like a convertible car: opened regularly. But through much of its history, the arena has had a black curtain stretching from the top of the seating bowl to the ceiling. That became the default. Entertainment and sports promoters are used to dealing with black-box arena configurations because it’s all they know. The curtain in its curtain form was also broken for many years, and even now it’s flimsy; its operators understandably prefer that the view stay curtained off. But as a result, generations of Oregonians have attended Blazer games, concerts and other events at the VMC without experiencing its signature feature. Yet anyone who has been to events like the Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade, when the curtain is open, has experienced the Coliseum at its most breathtaking.
10. Is there a business case for the two-arena configuration?
Absolutely. Popular events like the Dew Tour have come to Portland precisely because it can offer two arenas filled with activity at once.
In addition, Veterans Memorial Coliseum can occupy a different but complimentary niche. If the Moda Center is where NBA games and concerts by chart toppers happen, the Coliseum is a place for high school sports tournaments, college graduations and political rallies: a grand glass community center next door to the pop-culture circus.
11. Why is the Rose Quarter a dead zone?
We agree that the Rose Quarter development, which includes the Coliseum and the Moda Center, is an urban planning disaster. The problem isn’t the Coliseum but what’s surrounding it.
Two adjacent city-owned parking garages for the arenas would be a natural place to start: they could become high-density development, be they hotels or offices or apartments, with parking buried underground (which could also help fund the Coliseum restoration). A riverfront parcel currently being used as a parking lot for Moda Center employees could become an extension of Portland’s beloved Eastbank Esplanade. And the Blazers’ One Center Court headquarters, a hybrid of building and parking garage, could be transformed into more development by burying the parking, in the process becoming the district’s front door.
12. What about the surrounding neighborhoods?
Times are changing for this district whether we restore the Coliseum or not. A new streetcar line was completed in 2012 along the Coliseum’s northern property edge on Broadway, encouraging future development as it did in the Pearl District. The city is adding a headquarters hotel a few steps away from the Coliseum and Rose Quarter, while the adjacent Lloyd District is seeing an explosion of new housing. These two arenas, like the adjacent Oregon Convention Center, are poised to be the heart of a new high-density east side.
Other cities have built clusters of fake, chain-dominated streetscapes outside their arenas. But what if Portland built a real city around the Rose Quarter, centered on the Coliseum’s beautiful, historic architecture?
13. If it’s modern, how can it be historic?
Although the Coliseum epitomizes mid-century modernist architecture (also known as the International Style), any building 50 years old or more is eligible for addition to the National Register of Historic Places. In certain cases when the building is particularly relevant, it can be added before its 50th birthday, as was the case with Veterans Memorial Coliseum being added at 49. What’s more, societies across the world routinely question the historic value of half-century-old buildings while praising the century-old ones. But if our great buildings can’t survive age 50, they’ll never make it to 100. The National Register exists precisely to bridge this lag time in cultural appreciation. Numerous International Style buildings across America and the world have now been preserved for their matchless architecture.
Completed in 1960, the year of John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency, Veterans Memorial Coliseum is a leading example of the can-do optimism of that generation. Yet its simplicity and symmetry also recalls classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. And in Oregon’s often gray climate, what’s better than having an indoor arena full of natural light?
14. Isn’t designing a rehab of a 1960s building a cinch – can’t any architect do it?
No, most modern buildings are actually more challenging to restore than buildings built before 1930, and require extremely talented, experienced architects who are willing to leave their ego at the door in deference to the buildings original intent. We all know the adage coined by legendary modernist architect Ludwig van der Rohe: “Less Is More.” (Some of his disciples formed Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the Coliseum’s designer.) The design genius behind Memorial Coliseum is rooted in this notion of rigorous simplicity. The building is literally just a bowl in a box. The simpler and more clean-lined a work of architecture is, the more important it becomes to get the details absolutely right. The restoration needs a world-class architect, be it one from Portland or elsewhere, whose vision and understanding of architecture and engineering matches that of its supremely gifted original designers.
15. I’m confused: is it Memorial Coliseum or Veterans Memorial Coliseum?
From the time it was built until just a couple years ago, the building was known as Memorial Coliseum (or sometimes Portland Memorial Coliseum). There were actually venues in other cities such as Phoenix called Veterans Memorial Coliseum; it was a fairly popular name for arenas and stadiums in the decades after World War II. But “Veterans” was added to Memorial Coliseum here in Portland in a 2011 ceremony. Local veterans have been irreplaceable partners with Friends of Memorial Coliseum since the preservation campaign began. We named our organization before the building’s name was changed and will probably stick with it, but have nothing but respect and gratitude to these brave men and women.