Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A little paranoia about the Rose Quarter

The Albina neighborhood before urban renewal. Courtesy/OHS
By Barry Johnson

The Bright Lights forum on the Rose Quarter Monday night was an emotional roller-coaster. And no, I'm not talking the literal roller-coaster that former Blazer executive Harry Glickman wanted to erect in the Rose Quarter to amp up the excitement level in the place during those long stretches between Blazer basketball games.

First, historian Carl Abbott reminded us of the series of planning failures that led us to the current thorny situation -- an area well-served by public transit that sits idle most of the time and happens to be right across the river from downtown to boot.

Then Mayor Sam Adams delivered a wide-ranging address about recent history, during which he articulated the most reasonable description of the problem and what its solution entails that I've heard from him during the past couple of years.

But during the Blazers' segment of the program, which included three different speakers, I started to fill uneasy, even though what they were saying was unexceptional, really. It had to do with J. Isaac and Sarah Mensah's persistent defense of Cordish Companies, the developer the Blazers have enlisted to front the money for the private part of the public-private investment that Adams and the Blazers hope will finally turn the Rose Quarter into all that it can be. Suddenly, as I left the Gerding Theater at the Armory, I had a rush of paranoia about the extent of Blazer and Cordish ambition in the area, just based on putting a few of the things I heard together in a particular way.

Abbott was introduced by emcee Randy Gragg, editor of Portland Monthly and a long-time critic of the Rose Quarter going back to its inception in the early 1990s (full disclosure: I was both Randy's colleague and editor at The Oregonian during his 17 years there), and the eminent Portland historian took us through 100 years of history in 10 years, focused on the little bluff above the Willamette River where the Rose Quarter sits. First he showed us how early and dense the development around the area came -- by the 1880s it was already extensively settled, primarily because it was one of the few areas along that stretch of the river that was significantly above the river line. Then, he had photos and maps that recalled how the area developed along North Williams and Vancouver streets, pointing out that it became a mixed race area after the influx of African Americans to the city's shipyards during World War II. The population of African Americans increased from around 2,000 to 20,000 during those years, and Albina was their home.

The Rose Quarter is the beige area west of I-5.
Then Abbott described the calamities of the 1950s, specifically the decisions to build Memorial Coliseum on the bluff above the river and the siting of Interstate 5 through the neighborhood. Emanuel Hospital was a third blow, but Abbott's talk was about the Rose Quarter specifically, not Albina in general. When the neighborhood was razed to make way for the coliseum, Abbott said, 476 housing units were lost, 46 percent of them occupied by African Americans. Abbott began his remarks by observing how the freeway, its ramps and the coliseum managed to isolate an area that once was deeply integrated into the city's grid.

Now, although the Rose Quarter sits near a major transit center and the intersection of several light rail lines (yellow, blue, red, green), it is hemmed in by those ramps, I-5, a busy railroad and grain elevators along the river and the river itself. It's a dead zone except when events are happening at the Rose Garden or Memorial Coliseum. The process (of which this Bright Lights session was a part) is intended to "fix" that problem.

Two questions immediately arise. The first, which was the subject of the forum: Does the Blazers' plan for the district seem likely to succeed? The second, which was never asked: Is this problem severe enough to warrant a sizable public investment (and we also never heard a price tag for that public participation) when the city faces other sizable challenges and is constrained by a severe recession that shows no signs of abating? A corollary question: Is the return on the investment so potentially juicy, that it would be imprudent to miss out on the opportunity? Both the mayor and the Blazers alluded to the economic impact of a resuscitated Rose Quarter, but no actual numbers were ever floated. Say the public investment has to be in the $100 million range -- how long at what level would it take for the increase in property taxes paid in the district take to pay us off?

We don't know at this point, we being the observant public.

Next, Gragg introduced Mayor Adams, who gave us his perspective on district developments during the past year or so. The proposal to solve the Beaver baseball stadium issue by demolishing the coliseum failed for various reasons (remember: the Beavers are going to be displaced by a Major League Soccer franchise, which requires a soccer-only facility). Then the mayor started a process to determine what the best use of the coliseum should be, given that it was in need of a facility upgrade anyway. That process generated three final proposals, though none ever conclusively proved either that it would succeed financially or, related, that it provided something that either the city or the surrounding neighborhoods were likely to support and use. In this stage of the process, the mayor is hoping to take the best ideas in the three proposals and integrate them into a larger plan for the Rose Quarter, in which the coliseum sits (along with the Rose Garden and a few big parking garages).

Although Gragg suggested that this approach is "improvisational" toward the end of the evening and the mayor, sensing a dig, disagreed, I think it IS in fact improvisational, and I think that's probably a good thing, as long as the process is genuinely transparent -- which the mayor said is a primary goal. Planning time is always a fluid time because better descriptions and better ideas keep coming up, and the mayor should be free to advance the public good on our behalf, without having to meet artificial deadlines at certain steps along the way. So, improvise away, just keep us in the loop.

But what I liked best about the mayor's little talk is that I think he has a much better grasp of the criteria for success of the district than he had before all of this began. The Rose Quarter is part of several overlapping and intersecting neighborhoods, for example, both on the east side (Eliot, Boise, Irvington, the Lloyd District, and the MLK/Grand Ave. corridor) and west side (River District, Old Town). It should help solve the problems of those neighborhoods, "fill in the gaps" as the mayor said, not just present a development opportunity for the Blazers or attempt to maximize the existing public investment.

Whatever happens in the Rose Quarter, those neighborhoods will be affected by the development and probably will become its likeliest customers. If we want them to come to the Rose Quarter, to use it, which is a good definition of maximizing the public investment, they need to be involved in the discussions and the planning. It may well be that one of the proposed uses of the coliseum, as a gigantic athletic club, for example, would be its best and highest use for those near neighbors, and they would flock there to use it. But we'll never know until they are part of the process, and the process is open enough to listen to them and adjust accordingly. In other words, the Rose Quarter, which now isn't a neighborhood at all, should now be considered part of several neighborhoods. The mayors remarks indicated that he understands that.

That gets us to the Blazers part of the program, which included remarks and slides from J. E. Isaac and Sarah Mensah, plus architect Rick Potestio, whom they have hired to help out on the planning. Their primary message was that they are flexible -- they are willing to develop the Rose Quarter along whatever lines the city wants. They have some preliminary ideas, but they are adjustable. They recanted their advance of an early Cordish Companies sketch of an entertainment strip between the Rose Garden and the coliseum, which was garish even by Las Vegas standards.

Their ideas at this point are to extend the musical heritage of the district (one of the most important jazz clubs of the 1940s was in the building now occupied by the Leftbank development), maintain an arena function in the coliseum, open up the district to the waterfront, connect it to the surrounding neighborhoods better, create public plazas and outdoor space for "pop-retail" and food carts, a farmer's market, a Nike museum (Nike is one of their partners), micro-brewery and wine establishments celebrating the state's skill at concocting both liquids, and just generally use the district in benign ways.

I was fine with all of this, I suppose, but then we reached a bit of overkill. Mensah began to talk about even more things the district needed to do: residential developments, office space, hotels (plural). What? How's that all going to work in the relatively small footprint offered by the district?

They also defended Cordish, as I said. Gragg showed us some of those garish drawings brought to life in Louisville, Kentucky, and then a larger Cordish development in San Francisco, which he said he found more interesting. Which are we going to get, the good Cordish or the bad Cordish, he asked. Which wasn't a real question, now, was it? "The good Cordish," Isaac piped up.

The Cordish Mission Bay plan in San Francisco.
I was alarmed by that San Francisco development. It looked very suburban to me, a world unto itself, outside the fabric of the city or anything we would label "San Francisco." I can't speak definitively about it, because I've only seen the sketches, but it would be inappropriate for the Rose Quarter, because it would render it even more isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods, and neighborhood connectivity is one of the primary goals of the project now, according to Mayor Adams. It was also huge.

The meeting soon ended, though not without going into some depth on the possibility of a high-speed rail terminal in the district. I'm a big fan of high-speed rail, so that was exciting.

But as I left the theater, I had a sudden attack of paranoia.

I was counting on the small size of the district to fend off the worst of the Cordish impulses -- you simply couldn't do all of the things that Mensah said she wanted to do in the Rose Quarter. It is too small. And then I remembered that the city, PDC, Metro and Portland Public Schools (which owns the Blanchard Center north of Broadway from the coliseum) controlled many more blocks near the Rose Quarter, including those they'd hoped to fill with a big convention hotel across from the convention center.

That was enough to get me going. Suddenly I had visions of giant hotels and condo and office towers playing peekaboo around the freeway ramps, sprouting along the river and fanning out north of Broadway. You could put together enough land around the Rose Quarter to give Cordish a very large canvas on which to do its worst -- the sterility of the Lloyd District extended all the way to the river. The carrot would be all the tax receipts the city would eventually collect from all of this development, which is actually smaller than Paul Allen's Lower Lake Union development in Seattle, and, in short, very doable for pockets as deep as Allen's (he owns the Blazers, for those coming to the party late) and Cordish's.

This is a Conspiracy Theory. Or rather, a Conspiracy Conjecture. I have no evidence that it has even been considered by anyone, let alone put into an actual blueprint for east side domination. And I want to re-iterate: This is just one way of putting together the pieces of last night's forum, one at which, as I said, I was heartened by the mayor's commitments -- to the neighborhoods, to transparency, to the public good, to protecting the public pocketbook.

But maybe a purpose is served by allowing our nightmares to surface during daylight hours -- we can put them to the test and find them wanting.


jerryketel said...


I live on the inner East side: Graham and MLK to be exact, one block north of the Nike Outlet store. I don't need history to show me that the Rose Quarter is a blight of urban planning. Yes, that stretch of town is a dead zone for much of the time. When it is not, it is impossible to traverse due to the glut of traffic from a Blazer game. Yet, I don't feel cut off from downtown, Mississippi Avenue or the Alberta district. While it is unfortunate that the Rose Quarter is a zombie zone, I frankly cannot see how to give it life outside of an artificial lightning bolt from the heavens—and even then it will still be a Frankenstein of urban planning. That is, unless we tear down the Memorial Coliseum. I know this is heresy from the view of historical conservation but perhaps a bit of creative destruction is in order here. Why does architectural conservation have to trump bad urban planning? It should not. The area should be reimagined and the Coliseum should be on the table.

I know this is a contrarian thought. But it is worthy of consideration.



Barry Johnson said...

Jerry, thanks for commenting. I opposed tearing down Memorial Coliseum in favor of a minor league baseball park, but I can imagine other, higher uses for that space. Now, it's a historic landmark, though, and harder to re-use (to speak euphemistically). Some urban planning mistakes (the siting of the coliseum plus I-5) are destined to last for decades, if not centuries, I'm afraid. At this point, I'm hypothesizing that the best option is to create a sort of alt.arena out of Memorial Coliseum -- find a set of uses and tenants that help make the city more alive, a little like an indoor Pioneer
Courthouse Square. I'd love to have you on the imaginary committee that seeks the next life for the coliseum!

Anonymous said...

We have lived in the Eliot neighborhood for the past 30 years, just several blocks from the Coliseum/Rose Quarter, and have watched the neighborhood continue to evolve, mostly for the better. From neighborhood meetings, our greatest concerns are centered around the parking and traffic problems that we have when big events are happening.

But where are our city's priorities?

We can't do everything we want to all at once.

One of the most progressive and effective means of creating a viable addition to our inner NE neighborhoods is to extend the Eastside Esplanande past the Steele Bridge at least to the Broadway Bridge to get people out and about and moving through the various communities by foot, bicycle or non-motorized transport, To do so would mean razing the real blight in the Rose Quarter which is that mammoth grain elevator that blots out the sky in both directions...then turning the old Red Lion riverside property into a green park + playground would go a long way to making the Rose Quarter more user-friendly...letting the citizens of NE neighborhoods have access to the rest of Portland with these waterfront actions are the first thing we should be concerned about.

The removal of the grain elevator and extension of the Esplanade is essential before any discussion about the Memorial Coliseum's design plan begins. Let's make it possible for people to enjoy what is already there on the waterfront but inaccessible.

Barry Johnson said...

I think that's right,long-time Eliot neighbor. Why would an expensive development in the Rose Quarter trump smaller neighborhood improvements? Somehow, the Big Deals always jump to the front of the line, don't they...

Interestingly, historian Carl Abbott referred to the grain elevators, but he was eager to preserve the last vestiges of a working waterfront in the downtown stretch of the Willamette. There was also talk of burying the railroad tracks along the bank, which would be a great idea, especially if the railroad paid for it!

Access to the river, more parks and non-motorized transportation corridors -- we could make good arguments that all should be higher priorities than developing the Rose Quarter.