Friday, November 26, 2010
Dear Oregonian, The Rose Quarter is not 'jinxed'
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.
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.