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The Ghost Quarter

Back Story: A long-shot proposal could enliven desolate arena area
by: JIM CLARK, Consultant Peter Finley Fry works for a developer who’s considering building a condominium tower to help spur more vitality around the Rose Quarter. Currently the vision of the area as an entertainment hub only seems to ring true when there’s an event at the Rose Garden or Memorial Coliseum. Any other time, it’s a lonely place.

Peter Finley Fry stands at the corner of Benton Avenue and Broadway in Northeast Portland, across the street from what a dozen years ago was going to be a thriving Portland hub of activity - Paul Allen's sports-and-entertainment-related version of New Orleans' French Quarter.

Today it is the concrete-laden, most-of-the-day abandoned ghost town known as Portland's Rose Quarter.

'Who would put in a parking structure there,' Fry says, pointing to the two-story parking garages that front Northeast Broadway and appear like concrete bodyguards for the partially obscured Rose Garden arena behind them. 'What a horribly stupid thing to do.'

From here, you could be looking at a public plaza above unseen underground garages, says Fry, a Portland planning consultant. You could be enjoying an unobscured view toward the arena and, off to the right, the Willamette River and downtown.

'This is one of Portland's most important spaces,' Fry says of the riverfront neighborhood that is a Broadway Bridge away from Portland's downtown and the Pearl District.

But it wasn't - and isn't - treated like that, Fry says. 'This is absolutely insanely stupid planning.'

Fry wouldn't get much disagreement from many Portlanders.

When Portland Trail Blazer owner Allen spent more than $260 million to build the Rose Garden in 1995 for his basketball team - and got help from the city in transforming the area around it to make the Rose Quarter - the visions were grand. There would be bars, restaurants, a beehive of activity around the arena.

It never happened.

In the 11 years since, there have been city-sponsored studies to consider possible redevelopment. There have been proposals here and there. But nothing has come of any of them.

Tower could tip the balance

Today, except for the periodic crush of 10,000 people coming to a Blazers game or rock concert, the Rose Quarter is as desolate as it's ever been. And Allen's loss of ownership of the Rose Garden last year to the creditors who helped him build it seems to have done little to change the situation.

On this blustery December afternoon, Fry is standing across from the Rose Quarter not so much to criticize as to offer a glimmer of hope.

The man he works for - longtime Portland developer Joe Weston - wants to build a 20- to 30-story condominium 'skinny' tower directly across the street from the Rose Quarter, on land Weston owns.

It's a project that Weston and Fry believe could be part of the reinvigoration of this area - which could put people into the Rose Quarter even when there are no games or events at the arena.

Fry says Weston's tower and other condo towers that might follow, along with a possible extension of the Portland streetcar across the Broadway Bridge, could provide the critical mass of people and the development momentum to finally bring the area to life.

'It's an area that could be viable,' Weston says. 'The city has done everything they could to make it not viable.'

Developer spurs optimism

Weston's tower is hardly imminent.

It would require changes in city regulations that limit the height of buildings in the area. And Weston himself says the building is not at the top of his priority list.

He has two projects to finish on the west side of the river and another potential high-rise condominium tower a few blocks east of the Rose Quarter on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

And without a lot of accompaniment, Weston's plans alone would mean little for the moribund district.

But the fact that some city officials and others are talking enthusiastically about Weston's interest in a project says something about the hunger for progress in the area, which has changed little since the fairly immediate realization that the Rose Quarter was not going to be anything like what was envisioned.

'There hasn't really been any private investor until Weston came along that wanted to take this on,' city Commissioner Erik Sten says.

No little plans made

It's easy to forget these days how much buzz there was surrounding Allen's new arena and its environs in 1994 and 1995.

Blazer officials talked about a future entertainment and nightlife complex. There would be a 'commons' area between the arena and Memorial Coliseum - a 125,000-square-foot concrete plaza that the Allen executives once talked about as a sort of Pioneer Courthouse Square East.

(Early on, the Commons at the Rose Quarter hosted midsize outdoor concerts; the Dave Matthews Band played to about 3,000 people there in August 1995.)

Then there was the unique fire-and-water fountain in the middle of the commons area, designed by some of the same people who created water features for Disney. Estimates were that Allen spent at least $2 million on the fountain.

'We think this will become one of the five major attractions in the city,' then-Blazer President Marshall Glickman said of the fountain during a tour of the Rose Quarter for reporters in early 1995, before the arena was finished.

It didn't happen. Nor did much of anything else.

The outdoor concerts were short-lived. The three restaurants that opened in the Rose Quarter immediately struggled and, over the years, winnowed to one.

One of Allen's companies took over management of the remaining restaurant - Cucina Cucina - in 2004 when its previous owners stopped paying rent. Allen's company closed down Cucina Cucina last year.

The large space directly across from a Rose Garden entrance now sits empty.

People needed to make place

Some of the Rose Quarter's problems were built into it from Day One, say its critics.

Its design did not encourage pedestrian use, the critics say. That crippled the chances of success for any bars or restaurants or other businesses that might want and need customers during non-Rose Garden event hours.

The parking garages - which these days might be built underground, even though that is much more expensive - rob the area of public plaza space that could be more inviting.

And navigating the confusing tangle of streets around the Rose Garden is even difficult by car.

'As Vera said, There's no 'there' there,' says David Knowles, the city planning director when the Rose Garden was built, referring to what former Mayor Vera Katz eventually would say about the Rose Quarter. 'You need to have a place. It's a place to go but not a place to be.

'The lesson really is that you need people … the lesson is that you can't create something disconnected from any neighborhood at all and expect there to be vitality.

'People aren't going to come to a place that's not a neighborhood. They're not going to linger unless it's a neighborhood.'

J.E. Isaac, a longtime executive for Allen's companies and a current senior vice president for the Allen company that still owns land in the Rose Quarter, said some of the criticism of the Rose Quarter design is unfair.

He rejects, for instance, that the area isn't pedestrian-friendly. 'There are wonderful pedestrian opportunities over here,' he says, referring to areas between the Rose Garden and coliseum and in the commons area.

And the parking garages, with 2,600 spaces, replaced a sea of parking lots that surrounded the coliseum before the Rose Quarter was built, he says.

'If anything, the Rose Garden plan urbanized what was a more suburban' site, Isaac says.

But the location of the large buildings on the site, as well as the parking garages near Broadway, all mean that the area seems closed off from its outside environment, Isaac says.

'The one criticism that I think is valid about the design … to a certain extent, there is a walled-city kind of a problem,' Isaac says. 'The inner part of the campus is not physically open to the rest of the city … It isn't really open and inviting to someone coming into the area.'

'In any kind of design, you have to deal with the cards you've been dealt,' he says, 'and I think this enclosed type of problem that we have was just a function of we had to build (the Rose Quarter) on a fairly tight footprint.'

Big tracts of land locked up

Isaac says he does agree with the Rose Quarter's design critics about the bottom-line result - how the Rose Quarter is used, or not used.

The difficulty the restaurants had in attracting customers during nonevent hours 'proved that people saw this area as an event-destination only,' Isaac says. 'They didn't think of it as a place to come when there wasn't an event.'

The Rose Quarter's problems spilled over into the surrounding neighborhood, leading to significant underdevelopment considering the area's location, according to planners and developers.

Another part of the development issue is the large parcels of land in the area - land under the coliseum and the Portland school district's headquarters and warehouse, for example - that would be much more valuable to developers if the aging buildings weren't there.

While city officials have in recent years considered razing the city-owned 46-year-old coliseum, it now appears the building may be around for a while.

School district officials, meanwhile, have periodically considered selling their land, but have yet to figure out how to produce the tens of thousands of school lunches that now are made at the building if the site were sold.

'It is an area where there are several large chunks of land that could be developed, but the problem is leveraging those landowners to allow that to happen,' says Mike Warwick, land-use chairman for the Eliot Neighborhood Association. The Eliot neighborhood is just north of the Rose Quarter.

Warwick says he believes Allen and his companies also are to blame for a large part of the development inaction. Allen's companies have owned land and development rights for several parcels in the Rose Quarter.

'It's been such a huge question mark hanging over everything - the lack of any kind of vision having been articulated by Paul Allen,' Warwick says.

As a private consultant after his stint as planning director, Knowles managed a 2001 study by the Portland Development Commission on ways to revitalize the district.

The study proposed, among other things, creating housing and a retail area in the district by re-establishing a traditional street grid in most of the area around the arena. The study's 'preferred vision' also assumed Memorial Coliseum would be gone.

Knowles said Allen's executives at first 'were very aggressively involved in the planning process and then they kind of disappeared.'

No one wants to be the first

In the end, Knowles says, Allen and his companies 'never clearly articulated for themselves or for anybody else exactly what they wanted to do … and there was no follow-through. And when you think of (criticisms) of Paul Allen, lack of follow-through seems to be his MO.'

But Isaac says they did follow through - by trying to talk to officials with restaurant chains or other companies that might be interested in developing in the area.

'Pretty much the universal response was, 'We'd be very interested, but we're not going to come in alone at first,' ' Isaac says.

'I think there's going to have to be a plan and approach that involves more than one parcel to really get this thing off the ground,' he says.

Fry and Weston seem not to disagree. Still, as they press the city to adjust the height limits in the area - the city planning department will look at it as part of an overall study on height limits in the central city - Fry says Weston is willing to move forward on his one building -with the hope that others may follow.

But while Fry walks the pedestrian-bare Broadway and talks about the busy and pedestrian-friendly housing and retail area it could become, the 70-year-old Weston seems more reserved in his near-term hopes.

'I haven't thrown up my hands,' he says, but then adds: 'I'll never see anything in my lifetime down there, I don't think.'

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