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Citys sloppy process doomed coliseum plan

My View • Project constraints, disingenuous approach tossed aside good ideas
by: Christopher Onstott After years of public debate, the City Council has decided to leave Memorial Coliseum largely unchanged.

A lot of people may be curious about the process to repurpose the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The truth is, besides a name change in early January, nothing has happened to protect or enhance this famous building.

Undergoing a process to solicit and evaluate development proposals was a good idea in theory. However, the competition was bound to be doomed from the start. In the end, those of us who spent more than a year working on the endeavor feel we were used and manipulated by the city of Portland and the Trail Blazers.

We invested countless unpaid hours and thousands of our own dollars in the hopes of enhancing the Rose Quarter and creating a cultural and economic catalyst for Portland. Ultimately, the competition was prematurely suspended for political reasons before any real change could be implemented.

The city would contend that it suspended the request for proposals because none of the concepts was viable. City officials thought the Veterans Memorial Arts and Athletic Center concept altered the exterior of the building too much, thereby affecting the historical significance of the building. They thought the Memorial Athletic and Recreation Center concept altered the interior of the coliseum too much, such as removing the central arena (which is the essence of the building's architectural 'parti.')

This was Mayor Sam Adams' public excuse for suspending the process. He believed that our schemes 'went too far, the Blazers' plan didn't go far enough, and that no one liked the big money and outside consultants the Blazer/Winterhawk team offered.'

The truth is: The city's RFP was an unacceptable non-starter. To our surprise, the document contained terms and conditions that favored the Trail Blazers, such as a noncompete clause with the Rose Garden next door. It required unnecessary and unrealistic requirements, such as costly traffic studies and personal financial disclosures.

It also ignored the fact that the Blazers' contract (to manage the coliseum until the year 2023) was still in effect. The city was never able to renegotiate terms of the contract, which stipulated that any and all spectator events (such as watching a game or concert or show) taking place inside the coliseum was the Blazers' sole right to manage and control.

Also, the team still held the development rights to the Rose Quarter. In essence, this meant that even if one of the other two contenders proceeded with the RFP and won, the Blazers wouldn't be required to allow the winner to take control of the coliseum.

Or, if by some reason they did give up control of the coliseum, the terms of the RFP stated that the new coliseum project couldn't compete with events taking place next door.

This fact alone ruined anybody else's business plan except the Trail Blazers.

Instead of redrafting the RFP and before giving any of us the opportunity to scale back or revise our entries, the city abruptly altered course and asked us to hastily form a compromise between the three plans. Without sufficient terms, guidance or mediation, this effort quickly failed.

The fact is that if the MARC or the VMAAC concepts could have come up with private funding to rebuild and remodel the coliseum, then the city would have likely backed it completely. The main problem was: Who in their right mind would invest up to $200 million in a building they wouldn't own, or at the very least control? Since the city wanted to maintain ownership of the coliseum, and the Blazers' contract stipulated their management for another 12 years, any and all investors were scared away.

Without private funds, the VMAAC was dependent on Build America Bonds that needed to be backed by the city. The MARC proposal counted on a municipal bond that would have had to be approved by voters. Neither of the financing options was viable based on the economy and terms of the competition.

In contrast, with no limit to accessing private funding, the Trail Blazers/Winterhawk presentation to the city and entry to the RFP was a minimalist approach. Given all their resources, many believed renderings for 'Jump Town' were still unrealistic and inaccurate. The drawings conveyed little specific program information and addressed the overall district rather than the coliseum specifically.

Their written descriptions for the coliseum competition were only a delivery device for political correctness and a clever way of saying something without ever saying a thing. Throughout the competition, many felt the Blazers' only concern was return on investment - not the betterment of Portland or a more regular public use of the coliseum.

It is my belief that they simply went through the motions as a way to block any competitors, while at the same time marking their territory and protecting their interests. In essence, the Blazers won by default, all by failing to cooperate with the city and leading the public on.

As with all things, in the end it came down to money and politics, and not whose idea for a new and improved coliseum was the best for Portland. Many of us in the community were disheartened by this process; we wished the city and others had honored their word, and that the redevelopment competition and RFP would be seen through.

Next time, we hope that the stage will be better set before another coliseum redevelopment effort is launched.

In the meantime, given that the Blazers benefit financially from the coliseum, I think it's time we expect more from the organization than simply a great basketball team. Twelve more years is too long to wait for the Veterans Memorial Coliseum to reach its full potential.

Matthew Miller is an architectural designer and director of operations for the Veterans Memorial Arts and Athletic Center.