Saturday, August 14, 2010

A weird but happy Memorial Coliseum convergence

Walt McCredie, former Beaver owner/manager, in Vaughn Street Park
By Barry Johnson

After more than a year of profound disagreement, Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin and I have reached a similar conclusion about what to do with Memorial Coliseum. Fix it up.  And although she doesn't say what we might actually do with the refurbished "Jetsons"-era architectural marvel, at this point, that's enough for me. Take care of what we have.

That also happens to be Mayor Sam Adams preferred option at this point, and the mayor and I have disagreed profoundly about what to do with the building at various times, too.

This is the beginning of what used to be called "common sense" -- a conclusion (or "sense") that many people of different persuasions have reached in common, whether by power of argument, evidence or compromise. The three of us aren't enough, of course -- we'd need another 300,000 or so of you to agree with us.  But when it emerges, this version of "common sense" is the most powerful force in a democracy (at least one not corrupted by money and the propaganda that money can buy).  From this place, we can go forward, and democracies that work eventually decide on a way forward.

In the past, Griffin has been an adamant supporter of demolishing the coliseum and replacing it with a minor league baseball stadium to house the Portland Beavers. She makes the point again in her column. And she says that trading baseball for soccer (you know about this right? PGE Park, which houses both the Timbers soccer team and the baseball Beavers, is about to undergo a major renovation to prepare it for the Timbers' entry into Major League Soccer and that means the Beavers can no longer play there) "stinks." I'd like to make the other case, just for the record and as someone who watches about as much baseball as soccer and far too much of both.

Not that I hope to or even want to convince Griffin.  "Stinks" is an emotional verb, and I respect the well of feeling it represents. In fact, I have my own nostalgia about the passing of Portland's Pacific Coast League team. The PCL once was considered the "Third Major League," when the West Coast didn't have teams in the other two, before air travel made a continental league possible. It connected us with the other great cities of the West Coast -- Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles -- and that was important company to keep, even just for baseball.

In those days, the Beavers played in the old Vaughn Street Park, and when they left, in 1956, that was the end of the old PCL -- the Dodgers and Giants were soon on their way westward, and baseball was about to lose its sports hegemony in the TV era. What I miss about the Beavers leaving, really, is this older time, which I didn't even experience myself, at least not in Portland, the days when a baseball game could be EVERYTHING.

Who plays in the Pacific Coast League now? Let's see. Reno, Fresno, Tacoma, Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Sacramento (the only other charter member), among others teams in the West, and several eastern teams -- Nashville, Omaha (OK, not SO far east), Memphis and New Orleans among them. Fine cities, all, but not the ones in our league: Of all the country's minor league baseball cities, Portland is the largest.

In Major League Soccer, we will re-join our West Coast peers (or those we like to think of as our peers, anyway) Vancouver and Seattle in the Northwest, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and play in the same league as New York, Boston, Houston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.  OK, Columbus, Ohio, too, but you get the idea. More importantly, we will be playing in the same league with Barcelona and Madrid, London and Munich, Amsterdam and Milan, Tokyo and Beijing. Not exactly the same league, but close enough -- the MLS Timbers allow us to join the world.

Why is this important? Numerous studies have shown that the link between sports teams and economic development is tenuous. Once we have an MLS team, our economy won't suddenly blossom. But a team in MLS will give us a common language, at least, to share with Barcelona or Tokyo. It allows us to think of ourselves as a major league city. I use "major league" here not as a sports metaphor but as a cultural one. In fact, we are starting to have global impact in some areas -- from sustainability and apparel design to indie music and food.  It's time we started acting like it. Weirdly perhaps, it's easier to think you're world class when your sports teams play Milan than when they play Fresno. No offense to Fresno.

And what does that have to do with a potential investment in minor league baseball?  Well, it means that outside of baseball fans, it's hard to make a case, any kind of case, for a public investment in a minor league team.  If the Beavers were truly central to our cultural present and future, we wouldn't be so nonchalant about losing them.  And if neither Lents nor Beaverton project the team as a positive part of their civic identities -- and they both rejected siting proposals for a new minor league stadium -- that says a lot.

This is cultural, not political. If you go to lots of Beavers games, you'll object to their loss -- to Tucson, it seems now.  It does indeed stink that you won't be able to watch a high level of baseball played in the city. If not, it's a matter of small consequence, because the charge of a packed PGE Park for MLS games will quickly become part of our summer life, more than the Beavers have been since the 1950s.

I'm glad that Adams and Griffin and I have converged. I wouldn't have thought it possible even six months ago. Changing positions for columnists, mayors and bloggers can be a difficult thing. You are presumed to be fickle in your opinions or worse, prey to the pressures of powerful interests. I think that's too bad. Of course we change our minds. Politics is about the possible, about better not best. None of us comes to the discussion table with all the information we need, with the perfect description of the situation as it stands or the perfect plan for going forward.  We need each other's help.

My disagreements with Adams and Griffin have taught me a lot, helped me clarify and improve my position, I think.  And I hope our convergence is a small signal that the city as a whole is about to move on -- both to new problems and better solutions in the Rose Quarter.


MightyToyCannon said...

You can count me among the choir singing Kumbayah on this topic, though my singing is a little strained due to whiplash. You see, I had just finished reading the letter the mayor wrote to the Rose Quarter Stakeholders Committee just last week--a letter in which he explains why he is adopting a planning approach that will cherry-pick ideas from the variety of schemes that have been floated already. While that might have looked wishy-washy to casual observers (and naysayers), I was ready to defend it as a reasonable, thoughtful approach to a difficult challenge. A few days later, that approach is dropped, presumably out of pragmatism. By repairing and upgrading the MC, we'll do what should have been done years ago, holding the line for a grander vision for the Rose Quarter that may emerge down the line. In other words, let's hold our ground while we catch our breaths and think of something else. Perhaps the Rose Quarter is destined to "beguile" yet another mayor.

Barry Johnson said...

It has been a circuitous and fractious road that has led us to a reasonable outcome for now, which is better than I anticipated a year ago. We might also add the adjective "wasteful," but is the time spent reaching a reasonable outcome really wasted?

Gary Powell said...

I think it would be great to “fix up” the Memorial Coliseum and create something along the lines of the former Disney Institute in Orlando. It was a vacation experience that was more about hands-on learning, personal development and interactivity. The institute included 28 program studios, a 225-seat performance center, a 1,150-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 400-seat cinema, a closed-circuit TV station, a radio station and a sports and fitness center with a full service spa.

Guests could choose to participate in an array of over 80 programs under the following categories:

The Great Outdoors

Barry Johnson said...

Gary, That's a list that almost could have been compiled in Portland. Personally, I especially like the idea of housing a permanent cartooning/animation component at the coliseum. Not the whole thing, mostly in the large exhibition halls below decks. I like thinking of the bowl itself as an indoor Pioneer Courthouse Square, where almost anything could happen, from aerial dance to Food Cart Saturday.

PDXsays said...

Nothing like brushing away the dirt to find the gems hidden under your feet. International sports. Multiple and diverse interests with permanent use of unutilized space.

We learn how to release the abundance we have routinely locked away in such publicly accessed spaces, and we may be able to conceive or and build a sustainable equitable new space when the opportunity arises.

jerryketel said...


I really wish I could agree on the two major underlying issues of this article. 1. That Portland needs to retain the Memorial Coliseum based on architectural integrity. 2. That Portland needs more minor or major league teams.

First, I personally love the Memorial Coliseum. I saw the Blazers of yore there. I watched the Shriner's circus when I was a youngster. I have many fine memories of that building. However, more recently, I witnessed my son's High School graduation there and what I saw was a building that has outlived its usefulness. And at the end of the day, that is what architecture is all about, utility. Yes, I agree that the elements of architecture should also inspire, yet the grounds that the MC are planted are an abomination of urban planning. And so this is what the Coliseum is: an aesthetically pleasing building in a zombie zone that is not connected to NE Portland. And let's face it, Memorial Coliseum is one of hundreds of examples of modernist architecture, it simply isn't that unique. In short, I would argue to tear down the MC to build a better neighborhood for the city that connects to the rest of NE Portland.

Second, I honestly don't believe that having another major or minor league team in Portland fits our culture. I'm sad to see the Beavers go, I really am. But frankly, I don't want to be held hostage to another owner like Merritt Paulson or Paul Allen. Look at the way other cities bow down to owners to keep the teams they have in their district. That is not the Portland way. We are hikers, and beer makers, and cyclists, that is part of our DNA, not McFranchises that can be found in any city in America. Besides, who wants another suck-ass team like the Mariners or the Seahawks? I would argue that Northwesterners don't really care enough to support a team, really support a team to get it to the top of whatever league they are playing in. And the owners, so far have shown that they don't have the balls to put together really great teams because the market can't sustain that level of excellence. At the end of the day, I really don't believe Portlanders give a damn.

Best regards,

Jerry Ketel

Barry Johnson said...


With all due respect, we can't continue to destroy everything without attempting to adapt it first. It's just not the right way to survive on the planet, I'm sure you agree. And we can't reset the clock to 1958, as much as I wish we could. (So we wouldn't destroy the east bank with I-5 for starters...)

For the bona fides on Memorial Coliseum, I suggest you read Brian Libby's Portland Architecture. He's actually studied it!

You're going to see how much energy soccer injects into the city next summer. Go to a Timbers game this year to see how much enthusiasm there already is. Compared to Allen and the Blazers, I feel pretty inoculated against the worst possibilities of the Timbers -- not least of all, because that deal is based on a re-use of an existing building. Oh, and it's not all about winning, it's about playing the game!

jerryketel said...

OK, Barry, thanks for the schooling on the Coliseum business. I see that it's wise to keep the building. For those who care, go to Brian Libby's Portland Architecture blog for good reporting on the Rose Quarter process.

Barry Johnson said...

Jerry, Thanks for sharing the link. I quite enjoy your happy combat!

PDXsays said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PDXsays said...

Dear Mighty Toy Cannon,

How do you get two boys, who are really good with light sabers and vanquishing enemies before they can draw theirs, to put them away and get to work?

MightyToyCannon said...

Dear PDXsays:

I’m all for putting aside the weapons to work together on a real solution. I have a sense that little light saber battles have been taking place behind the scenes, without the full participation and knowledge of us Ewoks. Plus, I wonder when Darth Vader (Randy Leonard) will rise again, bent on destroying the Rebel Base (Memorial Coliseum).

If you think that’s a labored metaphor, you should see my draft that involved a light saber slicing open a Tauntaun to create a warm shelter from the storm on the snow plains of Hoth. At least we can agree that Barry Johnson is the Obi Wan Kenobi we need.

Brian Libby said...

Barry, among yourself, Anna Griffin and Sam Adams, you're the one who was right all along. The consensus was clear at that fateful community gathering with the mayor last April at Leftbank.