|The Albina neighborhood before urban renewal. Courtesy/OHS|
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.|
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.|
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.