Touring the Memorial Coliseum and Rose Garden

by Steve, October 12th, 2009
Coliseum viewThe view from the concourse of Memorial Coliseum, the world’s only transparent arena

As a member of the the mayor’s Rose Quarter Stakeholder Advisory Committee, I got the chance to tour the two-arena, 35 acre Rose Quarter with Blazers’ and city staff (and a bunch of media) this morning.

Coliseum concourse
the “saucer in a box” up close

We got a good look at the inner workings of both arenas, starting with the Rose Garden. We were told of its awsomeness and  flexibility, as well as recent upgrades to the club level and suites.

But PSU urban studies prof Will Macht couldn’t hide his disdain for the “very convoluted” design of the 20,000 seat arena.  While the bowl has great sight lines and, yes, flexibility, the concourses, stairways, escalators, elevators and parking ramps convey a jumbled, confusing sense of place. In contrast, Macht praises the Coliseum for the way a very large space was kept so elegant and simple.

After an overview of the lands available for development (a small parcel on the south side, currently a grassy and tree-planted slope, and Broadway frontage the north end) we entered the old glass palace at the concourse level.

In the Bowels of the Coliseum
In the bowels of the Coliseum

Besides antiquated lighting and mechanical systems and a backlog of deferred maintenance, the Coliseum suffers a handful of design shortcomings:

  1. No loading docks… the event floor was designed at street level to accommodate the Rose Festival Parade.
  2. The original ice floor (which is about 30 years beyond its design life) is 15 feet shorter than regulation and a couple feet too narrow.
  3. Because of the design of the free-standing bowl, there is nowhere to route ventilation shafts for concession stands, so food has to be cooked elsewhere and brought in.
Rose Quarter club level
The view from the Rose Garden club level, the one nice open space outside of the bowl itself, echoing the all-around clean lines of the Coliseum

But… The Coliseum booked about 150 events last year, the same as the Rose Garden. 450,000 people attended events at the Coliseum, in the worst economic climate since it was built, and with the prime tenant, the Winterhawks Hockey Club, having the worst attendance in their 30-plus year history.

At the end of the day, it is clear that without the Coliseum as a spectator facility, the city will lose a large number of bookings… the Rose Garden simply can’t accommodate them, especially given the two month blackout on bookings imposed by the NBA for potential playoff scheduling.

J. Isaac
Trailblazers’ V.P. J. Isaac

J. Isaac took questions after the tour, and began to talk about the need for an arena that seats 6-7,000 spectators, a figure rarely exceeded by Coliseum events. He talked vaguely about “shrinking the bowl” of the Coliseum to provide the more intimate environment common in major junior hockey and also to provide more “theatrical” flexibility for mid-sized shows.

My personal vision for the Coliseum has been also to reduce the number of seats, by installing a regulation ice sheet, luxury seating sections, and wider seats throughout. I asked Isaac if these were the kinds of things he had in mind. He told me he’s talking about physically changing the bowl, something that concerns me, and likely will concern preservationists. (The Coliseum’s listing the National Register of Historic Places cites both the glass curtain walls and the arena bowl as historically significant design elements.)

Will Macht
PSU Urban Studies Prof. Will Macht, with Sam Adam’s staffer Amy Ruiz

Isaac told me that Winterhawks management is interested in the concept of a smaller, refurbished arena to call home, with a small number of marquee games played at the Rose Garden.

Despite my concerns for the preservation of the bowl, I am very heartened that the Blazers and Winterhawks both appear to be on board with preserving the Coliseum as a multi-use spectator facility. It’s got fantastic bones and a truly remarkable and unique design — it’s the only fully-transparent arena in the world.

It is difficult to conceive of any “adaptive reuse” for the Coliseum that would serve anything close to half a million visitors a year. Portland has a demonstrated need for a mid-sized spectator venue, and we’ve got the bones of a great one in our hands. The only question remaining in my mind is who will pay for necessary renovations and upgrades, including mechanical systems, the ice floor and refrigeration plant, video system and seating reconfigurations. Isaac told me it won’t be the Blazers, and it is assumed that most money will have to come from private-public partnerships.

Memorial Coliseum
The Coliseum on a bright autumn day

I pointed out to Isaac that the Winterhawks owner, Alberta oilman Bill Gallacher, might have a little bread to throw around, and he could have some incentive to invest in the joint if he could get different terms on his lease, maybe including a share of concessions, luxury seating, etc.

Isaac acknowledged that as a possibility, referencing the end of their lease in 2012.

“The Winterhawks are free agents in 2013,” he said.

8 Responses to “Touring the Memorial Coliseum and Rose Garden”

  1. Comment from Garrett:

    Key phrase you wrote in there,

    “The only question remaining in my mind is who will pay for necessary renovations and upgrades, including mechanical systems, the ice floor and refrigeration plant, video system and seating reconfigurations.”

    You forgot the roof, heating system, and plumbing system. All of which need an overhaul.

    And the answer to your question is simple. You will be paying for it with your tax money. Paul Allen already built the Rose Garden almost entirely on his own dime and I really doubt Bill Gallacher will be that keen to spend tens of millions on a hockey team full of 16 year olds.

  2. Comment from Steve:

    I didn’t forget those things; I should have said “including (but not limited to)….” (I did mention “antiquated lighting and mechanical systems and a backlog of deferred maintenance.”)

    One of my main goals in serving on this committee is to put the brakes on public investment without clear public benefit. Now, one could argue that a spectator venue serving half a million people a year, bringing tens of millions of dollars to the local economy is clear public benefit.

    But I don’t buy that. I am opposed to expanding the Interstate Urban Renewal Area (URA) to include the coliseum, and I will be very vigilant about using Convention Center URA or other public money for arena renovations.

    Gallacher has already spent many millions on this team (full of 16-20-year-olds), and he will continue to spend millions on the team before it becomes profitable. With lease renewal coming up, he may have very large incentive to invest in the arena in exchange for more control and more income.

    It is highly unlikely Gallacher can find a better arena deal anyway… He’s in the second largest market in the 22-team WHL (Seattle metro is technically bigger, but the market is split between two teams.) The league considers Portland to be its anchor in the US, and would be unlikely to let them move.

    If Gallacher wants to get somebody to build him a new arena from the ground-up in this market, he should go talk to Merritt Paulson and see how that’s working out for the Beavers. It would be far more expensive, and involve far more public money.

    Renovation of the Coliseum in a public-private partnership is the best deal available for all parties: the Blazers, the city, and the Hawks.

  3. Comment from Garrett:

    “Renovation of the Coliseum in a public-private partnership is the best deal available for all parties: the Blazers, the city, and the Hawks.”

    Understood. I just doubt that a proper renovation could be done for less than $50 million dollars. Fixing the plumbing alone involves digging into the superstructure. I believe when they did their last estimate just to fix the roof and the heat, which took place almost 10 years ago, the cost was estimated to be around $10 million. I doubt they will so we’re probably sitting on a rotten egg and we’ll go through this again in another 10 years.

    Additionally of the 150 “events” that occurred at the Memorial Coliseum how many of them could have occurred at the under utilized convention center? Near as I can tell many of the events occurred there because the facility is junk, everyone knows it, so they can rent it on the cheap.

    I’m not even going to start getting into the acoustics of the building but lets just put it this way. They leave something to be desired and a giant square box is not exactly the best place to see live music of any kind IMHO.

    The MC is bleeding the city to the tune of 500K a year already. I’m not convinced that an upgraded MC will attract enough “events” to justify tens of millions in renovation fees.

    We’ve also got that Blazer coup happening on Wednesday. It’s really genius when I look at it. They’re going to pack people into the MC for a preseason game and it’s going to be a fiasco because the place can’t handle large crowds like that. Every writer, news journalist, and blogger in town is going to be inside and they’re all going to write about how it was fun for nostalgic reasons but the MC is way past it’s prime and needs to either have massive renovations or be knocked down. I doubt the massive renovations option is going to be popular with the public once the price tag is announced.

  4. Comment from Steve:

    Like it or not, demolition is off the table. The options are renovation or “adaptive reuse.”

    “Adaptive reuse” of any kind will be far more expensive than renovation, and will be unlikely to draw anywhere near the number of users.

    The least expensive option still on the table, which will also serve the greatest number of people, is renovation.

  5. Comment from Steve:

    By the way, the 500K “bleeding” is taken from the 6% user fee on tickets at the Rose Quarter. It’s actually a pretty small amount to spend for maintenance on a building that size. No money from the city’s general fund (i.e. property tax money) is spent on the Coliseum’s maintenance.

    This “spectator facilities fund” has been so fat (thanks mostly to the Blazers, but also to Coliseum events), that the city has siphoned considerable amounts off to subsidize improvements at PGE park for Merritt Paulson’s soccer and baseball teams.

    The Blazers have claimed an operating loss in eight of the last ten years at the Coliseum, but that’s entirely on them. The city’s operating agreement with the Blazers insulates them from operating losses and gives the taxpayers 60% of any profit.

  6. Comment from Garrett:

    “Like it or not, demolition is off the table. The options are renovation or “adaptive reuse.””

    For now it is. I highly doubt anyone will be happy with the renovation price tag. I suspect the final result will be that the building has some improvements made to the tune of $20 to $30 million. 10 years from now when Paul Allen’s agreement with the city on the Rose Garden is coming up that very valuable piece of land is going to come into play.

    You still haven’t answered my question. Out of 150 “events” how many of them could have been held at the under utilized Portland Convention Center? Around 36 of those were home dates for the Winterhawks but I’ve seen no list of what these “events” are. I don’t think that a group renting out the conference room in the basement should really qualify as an significant “event” when discussing the use of the building. I doubt the city needs to spend $20 or $30 million so there is another conference room to rent. Especially when we have a really nice convention center that is rarely used.

  7. Comment from Garrett:


    You keep saying it like this, “that the city has siphoned considerable amounts off to subsidize improvements at PGE park for Merritt Paulson’s soccer and baseball teams.”

    You are aware that MP did not negotiate the original deal correct? He is, I believe, the 4th owner if you count the PCL who took over when Abe Alizadah went bankrupt. The name you want to spit out is Marshall Glickman who was able to blind the city in the original PGE Park deal. Although I’m not so sure he should be blamed since I do like having baseball and soccer here and they wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for him.

  8. Comment from Steve:

    Allen’s MC operating agreement with the city is up on June 30, 2023. The city can terminate early if they want to demolish it or adapt it as a “non-spectator facility.”

    I don’t know off the top of my head how many of the events would have been suitable for the Convention Center, but the most were in the arena proper, not in the meeting rooms/exhibit hall. (I will request a full listing at our meeting tonight; but suffice it to say 450,000/150 = an average of 3000 attendees per event.)

    I’m aware that Paulson bought into Marshall Glickman’s mess with the Beavers and PGE Park, and that he’s been covering the city’s nut on the old PFE debacle.

    I don’t want to get too far into that mess here, except to point out that the city isn’t actually losing any money on the Coliseum, and that city revenue from events at the Rose Quarter, including the Coliseum, is actually going across the river to subsidize another, much older spectator facility.

    A couple data points on cost: the city of Everett, WA built a new 10,000 seat arena (8,300 for hockey) in 2003 for $71.5 million. Kent, WA opened a 6,500 seat arena this year, at a cost of $84.5 million. Both of these arenas have WHL teams as anchor tenants.