Friday, November 26, 2010

Dear Oregonian, The Rose Quarter is not 'jinxed'

By Barry Johnson

I nearly always disagree with The Oregonian's editorials that involve urban planning in some way. Primarily, it's because they have no detectable "theory of the city."  Reading them, it's impossible to tell what ideas and principles of urban planning they embrace beyond "develop at all cost." They don't compare Portland to other cities; they don't explore our own urban history and use it in their deliberations; they don't project a sense of the city's future that makes sense; they don't advocate for more public participation in determining that future.

That makes them generally useless for thoughtful discussion of the Portland metropolitan area and the challenges it faces -- whether its the idea for a convention hotel, the I-5 bridge or demolishing Memorial Coliseum.

The editorial on the Rose Quarter today is a case in point.

The primary assumption of the editorial is that the Rose Quarter should "blossom into an appealing mixed-use district." And their primary "analysis," their sense of the area's urban history? It's simply that "the zone has been jinxed." We'll get back to that -- it's too wonderful to pass by quickly.

The editorial continues by suggesting that the mayor's ideas for the area and the Blazers ideas are finally similar, even their ideas about Memorial Coliseum, which the newspaper advocated demolishing for a minor league baseball stadium, lest we forget. That would have killed the idea of an "appealing  mixed-use development" in the Rose Quarter, of course, but they're depending on our selective amnesia about their previous editorials.

The editorial continues, vaguely, to suggest that it's now time for the city and the Blazers, who just received a six-month extension on their development rights in the Rose Quarter, "to strike a sensible public-private partnership to finance the deal." That might have been a reasonable suggestion if the editorial board had taken a moment to figure out what might define "sensible."  How about $5 million to make sure the transit stops to the Rose Quarter are easily accessible and well-designed, especially for the new trolley across the Broadway Bridge? Does that constitute sensible? How about $25 million, the approximate amount presently available via an existing urban renewal district?  How about $250 million, another number circulating at one point in the discussion? Without at least some modest effort to define "sensible," the entire editorial becomes empty.  Still, without benefit of the wisdom of the editorial board on this absolutely central issue, the editorial urges that the Blazers and the city "show good faith and solid progress" toward reaching an agreement.

And that's it. I haven't left any of the "argument" out, though I did omit the part that starts to align with my thinking on the Rose Quarter: That it's part of a far larger development challenge -- to animate the river north of the Steel Bridge and the districts north of Broadway. (In truth, the editorial only mentions the Blanchard Center, owned by Portland Public Schools, north of Broadway, and the Convention Center to the south, but small steps are appreciated!)

Let's get back to the "jinx" howler, because it actually fits here, in any description of the prospects of the area as a whole.

The Rose Quarter is NOT jinxed. Once the decision was made in the late '50s to place Memorial Coliseum on this small bluff above the Willamette River, next to the then new I-5 freeway, razing a mostly poor and racially mixed neighborhood in the process, the district became almost impossible to develop in other ways. Big arenas are like that. They draw thousands of people for a few hours a day a few days a week. The rest of the time they sit dark. If you live or work near one, those days when the arena is in action are intolerable because of the crowds; and the other days they are dark and gloomy.

We can see this in other cities, most of which don't even try to develop around their arenas. They simply plop them down near a freeway and call it good. But efforts to use them as urban renewal devices have failed. Maybe somewhere a thriving district has developed around an arena (I don't know of one, but maybe you do), but my suspicion that the development occurred in spite of the arena, not because of it.

In Portland, no development occurred around Memorial Coliseum for its first 30 years of existence. It sat there, surrounded by the freeway, an industrial district, the river and rail lines.  Then Paul Allen, the new owner of the Blazers, decided to build a new arena, the Rose Garden, nearby, and his planners assumed that the new arena would be the occasion for other kinds of development -- restaurants, for example. But they didn't realize that some heavy financial lifting might be involved and some deft urban planning. So that didn't work.  As Allen and the Blazers went through various business dramas with the Rose Garden itself, nothing was done in the district, and the city's agreement with the Blazers on the management of Memorial Coliseum meant that the coliseum began to rot in place. Again, no one else saw an opportunity for investment on, around or even near the Rose Quarter.

So, no, not a "jinx." Just a series of bad decisions that no one else wanted any part of. And not an "underperforming district," as the editorial calls it, because it performs the only function it was designed to perform: Getting people to events at the Rose Garden and Memorial Coliseum. The city made that very easy by siting a transit center at the quarter, where Max and bus lines intersect, and it works quite nicely on game day. Compared to other cities Portland's size, I'm betting that more fans arrive by mass transit (at least part of the way) here than Sacramento, say, and many downtown restaurants have shuttles to games, meaning that there's a lot of ancillary business done at local businesses on game night.

The main problem with the Rose Quarter? It makes development harder to accomplish around it. The solution I proposed (and others have had the same idea) attempts to make Memorial Coliseum, specifically, a big community space -- for concerts and sporting events, sure, but really almost anything that goes on in Pioneer Courthouse Square. And then attempt to connect it, by patterns of use, to the neighborhoods around it, from the River District on the West Side to the close-in North and Northeast neighborhoods that will be able to get there easily by trolley or bus or Max. This would involve finding out what sort of attractions the coliseum can afford them -- ice skating, an indoor track, kids' basketball tournaments, craft fairs, food cart Sunday, anything that they say they want. More consistent use will make the area around the coliseum more valuable to private developers.

At this point, though, the pieces of a successful large-scale development around and in the Rose Quarter are NOT in place. The school district hasn't indicated that it's ready to sell the Blanchard Center, for example. Are they ready to sell or develop their property in a way that fits into a major scheme? The idea that the companies that make up Portland's apparel and shoe "cluster" are available to relocate to the Rose Quarter sounds more like "fantasy city planning" than anything real, unless the city is ready to subsidize their move with a very major financial gift. And frankly, the problem of the black hole in the district, the Rose Garden itself, hasn't been solved -- who would want to live or work or shop or eat near it?

Now, if things WERE in place, then a modest financial investment by the public as a catalyst to development might make sense.  And if the Blazers themselves are prepared to finance that appealing mixed-use development that The Oregonian talked about, I'd say be my guest, though their partner, Cordish, has a track record of building very suburban-like developments unconnected to the urban environment at hand.  Hey, we'll fix up the trolley stops and keep those Max and bus lines flowing to make sure people can get to your development via mass transit.

But no, despite what The Oregonian says, this is not the Rose Quarters "moment of truth." A great practical idea hasn't emerged. Developers aren't lining up to hook onto the idea. The neighborhoods around the quarter haven't been prepared for changes. Most important, no compelling public benefit has been identified. Why should the public encourage development in this spot instead of areas of the city that could use it more, where the benefit would be clearer, where small investments might lead to big improvements -- in livability, in neighborhood sustainability, in significant additions to the tax rolls? That's the argument I want to hear -- from the mayor and The Oregonian.

Some links

I've written about Memorial Coliseum and the Rose Quarter many times, most recently, here. Here's my argument against a previous Blazer (and Cordish) idea for the quarter.

A good place to read various opinions and news connected to the Rose Quarter is here.


Bob said...

Since I moved to Portland, in 1974, I've lived mostly in close-in NE PDX and have spent a lot of time traveling through the Rose Quarter area. From the beginning it struck me as a great area for what it had, in fact, been before Memorial Coliseum was built: a residential neighborhood. Close to the city center, near the river, by the bridges -- not an area for single-family homes, probably, but ideal for condos, apartments, lofts, mixed-use: in other words, what in fact occurred in the Pearl District. Could a more east side, jeans-and-sweatshirt version of such a thing work there? It would certainly be an urban as opposed to a suburban or leafy-district style neighborhood. People who chose to live there would be embracing the busy-ness of the place -- the games, the conventions, the freeway, the bridges, the river. But that sort of neighborhood, done right, can be mighty attractive. It might also encourage the sort of small-scale, locally owned businesses that so help give Portland its character: no need for Cucina! Cucina!, thank you very much, Mr. Allen.

If such a thing were indeed the goal, maybe the best thing to do would be to simply let the area lie fallow until the market is ready for that sort of transformation (as it proved NOT to be in the South Waterfront, which might have followed too closely on the heels of the Pearl). An aim like this would also make a decision on what to do with Memorial Coliseum less important (although not UNimportant), because MC wouldn't be the lynchpin of the area, it'd be just one piece. It might also suggest, though, that the idea of an MC as a recreational center would get a step up, because it would have a ready-made neighborhood to provide a base of users for what would also be a regional facility.

Barry, your point is well-taken: can a stadium area also be a neighborhood area? To a certain extent Seattle's two-stadium district is, and it even has a train depot to add a third behemoth. But it's spread out: You don't really have much right across the street from the stadiums (which are larger than MC/Rose Garden combined). The area around San Francisco's baseball park seems to thrive. What about Wrigley Field in Chicago? It seems to have a neighborhood around it. I know the situation's different in the Bronx where Yankee Stadium is: pretty much a dead zone, as I understand it, although I've never been there.

At any rate: should the conversation shift from "development" (which seems to mean attractor businesses to bring in more visitors) to "neighborhood," which means a place where people live and amenities naturally follow? Might that help move the Rose Quarter off of its eternal Square One?

One thing left out of this scenario, of course, is money. And as we all know, money usually wins.

MightyToyCannon said...

The O's argument that something needs to be decided in the next six months or else nothing will be done for another 17 years struck me as histrionic. Really? It's now or never? I suppose that analysis is tied to expiration of the convention center urban renewal district in 2013. Mostly I suspect they are trying to set this issue up in a way that makes it easy to slam Sam Adams if nothing happens.

Barry Johnson said...

Bob and MTC, thanks for joining in. Bob, I think you're right -- by letting the area around the RQ evolve, the role of Memorial Coliseum evolve, the needs of the city evolve, a clearer role for the RQ may emerge. I disagree that the Seattle stadium district has attracted much development, not even in nearby Pioneer Square, which (like our Old Town) has been difficult to figure out. I think the jury is still out on SF's baseball development, and in any case, it's isolated from the rest of the city in ways the RQ isn't.

MTC, histrionic is exactly the right word. Do or die? Moment of truth? These are most often cliches that mask the need for more thinking and/or investigation. Histrionic is another word for bad theater, and it makes for bad "analysis," too. Thanks!

Bob said...

Maybe in Seattle a better example would be Key Arena, where the Sonics used to play until their game of chicken with the city, and on the edge of the major attractor that is Seattle Center. Not a perfect comparison because the surrounding Queen Anne area is a long-established neighborhood, not one that would have to be constructed. But it's about as close to downtown Seattle as the Rose Quarter is to downtown Portland, and it's definitely a thriving neighborhood. (When I was younger it was also cheap, but that's another story.) No slam dunk here -- ha ha -- but it seems to me that the geography of the Rose Quarter might override its big-box tenants to make it a viable and eventually highly desirable residential/mixed use neighborhood. And maybe waiting for that to evolve naturally as the economy and population pressures create a demand for it might be better than trying to force an artificial use on it now, when there's no real public pressure (as opposed to billionaire private money aided by let's-do-something public money) for anything to be done there at all.

Anonymous said...

I know everyone has good intentions, but I don't see a Cordish-style development working out at the Rose Quarter.

I've been to KC's Light & Power District which is a Cordish project and it works very well... Across the street from the Arena - smack in the middle of a business district, theatres and theaters, near the arts district, the College Basketball Hall of Fame (or whatever).

It just works because of all the synergy.. and if you don't like what's happening, just walk across the street or down the block. Kind of like Old Town-Downtown Portland.

The problem with the Rose Quarter is that it'll always be "over there" on the other side of the river. It would take some pretty hot attractions and a lot more MAX/shuttle service to make it work.