The Rose Quarter lies roughly halfway between my home and my office, and every time I roll past I wonder how such a prime piece of urban property can manage to be so very lame, in so many ways. Where are the quirky cafes, the funky breweries, the dance halls and the music clubs, the bike shops and the pool halls? Nothing but chain restaurants and endless parking lots: visionary urban planning circa 1975. This is not the Portland I know and love. It makes sense for the city and the Blazers to redevelop the quarter into something that reflects the soul of the city, because there’s really nowhere to go but up. The neighborhood just hasn’t been the same since it got bulldozed.
J.E. Isaac, the Blazers’ senior VP of Business Affairs, has a name for the neighborhood to come: JumpTown, a “green, vibrant and economically viable Rose Quarter.”
Can’t argue with that. But how to get there?
Let’s start with green. Bury the parking lots, daylight the creek, plant gardens and trees, build bioswales and eco-roofs and install solar panels and mini-wind turbines. Use recycled wood and steel. Generate more electricity than you use. Build it up tight and compact and connect it with the greater city with an expanded streetcar line linked with a regional light rail system, plus miles of new bike paths. Set up a parking lot specifically for bicycles and electric vehicles, complete with solar-powered charging stations. Make the place a showcase for creative sustainable design, Portland-style. Work with Gerding & Edlen, SERA Architects and Fortis Construction to identify the most innovative approach imaginable, and go for it. This is the city’s competitive advantage. Build on it.
OK, now for vibrant. Why is it that there are no music halls or supper clubs or juke joints in this neighborhood? Well, at one time there were. This was the epicenter of the city’s independent jazz scene before it got flattened to make way for I-5. It’s time to acknowledge that historic wrong and correct it. Encourage restaurateurs and club owners who can’t afford the Pearl District to reconsider the Rose Quarter. Support independent icons and encourage them to expand. How about a new Widmer brewpub? A Powell’s shop for sports books. Another Clever Cycles shop. A Niketown with batting cages, Wii games and hoop shoots for the kids. Reach out to the indy-music scenesters as well as the developers, the bicyclists as well as the car dealers. Don’t make the mistakes that were made in San Antonio’s pathetic River Walk, for example, where the highlight of local cuisine is a Hooter’s club. Consult with Ziba Design to develop a strategy based on the concept of authenticity. Then hire Wieden+Kennedy to get out the word.
I am of the opinion that if you meet the first two criteria — green and vibrant — the third goal of economic viability will follow naturally. As for funding, start with quirky billionaires. Say what you will about Paul Allen, he definitely has the ability to think big. My hunch is that he would be more willing to embrace (and underwrite) something wildly ambitious and even futuristic in the tradition of the Experience Museum Project and SpaceShipOne than yet another humdrum attempt at mixed use.
Besides, a bold strategy could pay off in the end. Blazer fans proved last season that even in the middle of the worst economy since the great Depression, people still want to go out and have fun. Demand for sports and entertainment will never go away, especially with a team as exciting to watch as the Blazers. The market is huge, and the current version of the Rose Quarter is only tapping part of it. I was at the Memorial Coliseum a few years ago when the U.S. Davis Cup team beat Russia for the championship, and not one seat was open. It was amazing. So-called second-tier sports can bring in huge crowds with the right promotion and the right event. Lacrosse didn’t make it but hockey has done OK. Bicycle racing could do even better. And then there’s that other sport – baseball.
That’s right, I said it. Baseball. The logical place for a new Beavers stadium is Memorial Coliseum. Whatever you may think of Merritt Paulson and his father, you have to admit that a baseball stadium in the Rose Quarter makes sense. OK, actually you don’t have to admit that, and maybe you never will. But it makes sense to me. Back when I lived in Seattle, I fought the redevelopment of the Kingdome into two stadiums next to each other for baseball and football. It really bothered me that the taxpayers should subsidize a deal to benefit a bunch of overpaid athletes and their billionaire owner. I even ridiculed that billionaire owner when he took center stage at the victory party to play “Purple Haze” on his electric guitar. But a decade has passed, and I have to admit I whiffed on that one. Seattle’s new stadiums are so much better than the Kingdome was with its nuclear reactor ambience. The neighborhood south of Seattle’s Pioneer Square has been transformed.
That’s what could happen in the Rose Quarter with the right strategy. In fact, Portland’s version could turn out much better since Portland is better connected to public transportation to help people avoid those horrendous post-game traffic jams that plague Seattle. Furthermore, while Seattle’s stadiums are a huge improvement, the neighborhood around them never went through a systematically planned redevelopment with the dual goals of sustainability and vibrancy at its core.
The ball’s up in the air. Now somebody has to leap up there and slam-dunk it.