Memorial Coliseum’s 60th Anniversary: How the Bridge Site was Chosen

Michael Orr
Mar 29, 2017 · 11 min read

Ever wonder why Memorial Coliseum, and subsequently the Moda Center, are where they are? It’s not the easiest subject for quick examination. Traditional city and county histories have generally swept past the ordeal, referencing only the damage to Fred Peterson’s term as mayor or vague east side forces wreaking havoc prior to the final site selection. Excellent scholarship has been done on the effects of the construction of the Coliseum, as well as later large-scale projects, on the black community in the Albina neighborhood. But these accounts usually pick up the story after site selection or devote energy to explaining the historical and cultural reasons for the concentration of that community in that neighborhood in the first place. Additionally, several accounts of the history of vice in Portland work around the fringes of this question, though tend to do so in lurid terms and without much reference to the contemporary story of the arena project. So, what of the financing for the Coliseum and the competing interests that defined the dysfunctional process, and indeed why did the City of Portland construct the building where it did?

Sixty years ago today, March 29, 1957, Portland’s Exposition-Recreation Commission announced Resolution no. 49, declaring the east side site between the Broadway and Steel bridges as the location for the long-delayed arena project. The building we now know as Veterans Memorial Coliseum already had a complicated history before the selection of the now-familiar location. Twice prior to March 1957 the Commission had chosen different sites, both of which were rejected and vacated. Indeed, the bridge site also faced legal and electoral challenges before its confirmation as the final and permanent location for the proposed arena. Yet it was the conflicts of the years between 1953–56 that ultimately led to the selection of the bridge site in the spring of 1957. While that story is long and complicated, the highlights show just how close Portland came to locating its Coliseum somewhere other than the bridge site.

After earlier preliminary plans had been shelved by the Korean War, a new enthusiasm emerged in 1953 for building a publicly-owned, multipurpose facility. Under new mayor Fred Peterson, city officials began discussing how best to deal with the problem of Portland’s lack of an adequate home for indoor sports and meeting spaces necessary for conventions. Instrumental in these early meetings was the Pacific International Livestock Exposition (PI), whose officials hoped to take advantage of a city project to refurbish its aging complex in North Portland. Though the PI was considered a civic institution, it was not, in fact, a branch of city government nor a regular recipient of tax dollars. A trade was proposed by the PI, offering all its real estate and buildings at no cost, in exchange for input and involvement in a new facility that could handle livestock shows. As the city was, at that time, actively looking for new areas for industrial development, particularly after the failure of a 1952 ballot measure to create such an area around NW Vaughn Street, the swap appealed to city officials. If the public could be convinced, it seemed everyone would get what they were seeking while providing a real benefit to Portland’s citizenry.

Exposition-Recreation Center Pamphlet. 1954. City of Portland.

Determined to keep their fate in their own hands, the PI funded advertising on radio and in print, extolling the virtues of their plan. The PI assumed their involvement would necessitate a North Portland location for the new facility, allowing for space to grow and easy railroad access, a must for livestock shows. As discussions progressed, the erstwhile East Vanport war housing site (today known as Delta Park) emerged as the ideal location for the combined interests of the PI and the city. The land, purchased by the city in 1950, had been allocated to the Parks Bureau (an important factor later) and could presumably be acquired at no cost. In courting public opinion, city officials promised almost every possible usage of not just the proposed arena but future buildings that could be part of a larger campus, from a new home for Portland Beavers baseball team to a new armory for the National Guard.

A rushed measure drafted for the May 1954 city ballot gave voters a chance to fund the proposed project to the tune of $8 million. Crucially, however, the measure did not specify a site, despite the overwhelming majority of coverage and advertising suggesting East Vanport would be the location. The City Planning Commission requested additional time in order to provide a site-specific recommendation, but City Council ignored their request. On May 21, 1954, Portlanders chose to fund the project with 60,885 voting for and only 48,628 going against the plan. The majority of the opposition came from those who wanted more details about a specific site or veterans groups who were worried that the expected North Portland location would be too far away for most veterans to be reasonably expected to travel.

With money in hand, Mayor Peterson quickly appointed a five-man Exposition-Recreation Commission charged with site selection, construction and operation of the newly-funded facility. The Commission was comprised of noteworthy citizens including the president of Portland General Electric, James Polhemus, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Carvel Linden, the club and stadium manager at the Multnomah Athletic Club, Jimmy Richardson, self-made oilman John Carson and the top Teamsters representative in Oregon, Clyde Crosby. They immediately planned trips to observe the operation of facilities in other cities and requested site studies from the Stanford Research Institute and the City Planning Commission.

Exposition-Recreation Center Pamphlet with East Vanport (Delta Park) Site Plan. 1954. City of Portland.

Nearly eighteen months ensued with the Commission learning as much as possible to make an informed and appropriate decision given Portland’s current and expected future needs. Having compared Portland’s situation to that of cities as varied as Raleigh, North Carolina and Los Angeles, the Commission inched toward a decision date. Both major site studies recommended a close-in location, which most took to mean downtown, though Clyde Crosby endlessly advocated for the bridge site as meeting that criterion. And yet, despite months-long studies arguing against, the Commission prepared to announce its site selection decision in favor of Delta Park.

On October 5, 1955, the Commission formally selected the North Portland site for the Exposition-Recreation Center by a 3–2 vote, with Linden and Crosby dissenting. Even though it had been the assumed site for several years, the decision for Delta Park still surprised City Council. Councilman Nate Boody quickly made an off the record oral request of City Attorney Alex Brown to find a loophole that would allow City Council to veto the Expo Commission’s decision, a scenario that was supposed to be unavailable given the Commission’s independent status within city government. Brown ruled on October 13 that the Commission could not condemn property already owned by the city and therefore required the assent of City Council to transfer the property from the Parks Bureau to the Commission. In a vote on October 26, the Council voted 3–2 against the transfer of property, leaving the Commission without a site and the public deprived of the site it long assumed would be the arena’s location.

John Carson resigned the Commission in protest and James Polhemus retired, so Carvel Linden became the Commission’s new chairman. Gale Livingston, a pharmaceutical executive, and Ted Bruno, a well-to-do photographer and political consultant, joined the Commission with a bias for downtown development, much to the dismay of the East Side Commercial Club. Sure enough, on January 4, 1956, the Commission selected the downtown South Auditorium site to replace Delta Park as the location for the proposed arena. Citing both external studies and the fact that most Portlanders were already used to utilizing downtown facilities, the Commission pivoted quickly to move past the controversy surrounding Delta Park.

South Auditorium Site Plan. January 5, 1956. The Oregonian.

However, used car dealer and East Side Commercial Club vice president Joe Dobbins, introduced himself to public life in response to the choice of the South Auditorium site. He sued the city on January 9, charging that the city could not afford to build the proposed arena at the South Auditorium site within the $8 million available and that Ted Bruno, the newest member of the Commission, did not live within the borders of the City of Portland. Though his suit was quickly thrown out, it succeeded in slowing the Commission’s progress toward the downtown site. When Dobbins announced that he would be collecting signatures for a ballot measure meant to challenge the site selection of January 1956, the Commission decided to wait until the election in May to move ahead with its plans, in case the votes went against them.

January 6, 1956. The Oregonian.

And indeed, the votes did go against them, though by a tiny margin requiring a recount in May 1956. The recount was a first in Portland since 1932 but it did confirm a strongly worded rebuke of the selection of the South Auditorium site. By 303 votes out of more than 128,000 cast, Dobbins claimed victory and threw the entire endeavor into legal limbo. While the victory was confirmed, the wording of the measure left many questions as to the authority of the Commission to do anything whatsoever. Dobbins and company had placed a limitation on the Commission, requiring site selection come east of the Willamette River, but the verbiage appeared to strip the Commission of all authority. For the next year-and-a-half, the legal issues introduced by the May 1956 ballot measure prevented any progress on the project.

Meanwhile, Clyde Crosby had been indicted, along with gangsters from Seattle, in trying to profit from the selection of the bridge site through the purchase of property options in the area. He was forced to resign from the Commission and spent several years in federal courtrooms trying to defend his actions both against the legal authority of the Commission and wider-ranging conspiracy charges.

The east side limitation led to two competing measures for the November 1956 ballot, confusingly, both of which were provided by City Council. First, the Council created a measure to specifically overturn the May 1956 measure limiting the site to the east side. Shortly afterward, Nate Boody reversed his vote on the Council and backed another measure to create a so-called split facility, providing $4 million for a livestock-heavy Delta Park plan and the other $4 million for an arena at the South Auditorium site. The City Attorney’s office noted that both could not go into effect, so whichever received the most votes, assuming both passed, would go into effect.

In the end, both measures failed, with the split facility idea going down by 123,000 votes. The revocation of the east side limitation was much closer but still decisive in favor of the May 1956 decision, meaning the Commission would need to find a way to choose an east side site that was not Delta Park to fulfill the clarification of the voters’ wishes.

Still, the Commission could not legally act until the Oregon Supreme Court clarified its role. Finally, on February 23, 1957 the court ruled that the limitations enacted in the May 1956 measure referred only to the location of the site, not the authority of the Commission.

Only then did the Commission seriously consider the bridge site as the location for the arena. Though the site had been included in every study over the years, both the Delta Park and South Auditorium locations had always been considered preferable. For Delta Park, it was the space and parking available that made it a top choice, while downtown held the advantage of already being the preferred location for public activity.

Bridge Site and Parking Plan. March 20, 1957. The Oregonian.

Faced with location limitations, an impatient populace, a set amount of money amid rising construction and land acquisition prices, and their own shaky track record, the Exposition-Recreation Commission needed to make a compromised decision, and quickly. So, on March 29, 1957, the Exposition-Recreation Commission eschewed various lesser east side sites, including the University Homes war housing tract, Oaks Park and Buckman Field, in choosing the bridge site as its third selection for the location of the proposed arena. Such a location eliminated the possibility of working with the Pacific International given the severely limited footprint and lack of railroad access. The Commission made a point of noting that public money should not be used to benefit private interests, despite the longstanding association between the PI and the proposed project.

Dobbins threatened yet another ballot measure in the days immediately following the choice of the bridge site, hoping instead to locate it at Delta Park as he felt had been the original intention of the Commission’s mandate. Why he did not include Delta Park as a specific location in his May 1956 measure remains a mystery. Simultaneously, the Commission began a new round of property appraisals and the early stages of purchasing properties in the predominantly black neighborhood now slated for demolition. Several residents and property owners challenged the Commission, either through negotiating better prices for the sale of their property, or in a few cases, in court. Ultimately, though, the Commission’s power of condemnation provided leverage to a degree that individuals found difficult to withstand.

The measure threatened by Dobbins did come to fruition, but was heavily defeated in May 1958, finally confirming the bridge site’s legitimacy as the home of the arena. Having survived that final attempt to derail the project, architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were able to put into practice the plans they had been developing for more than a year. With properties purchased and land cleared, a groundbreaking and actual construction were all that remained in the seemingly endless process to bring Portland an indoor sports facility. The arena finally opened to great fanfare in November 1960 with ice skating shows and minor league hockey’s Portland Buckaroos as the earliest denizens of the Coliseum.

Due to the relative timing and location of the Coliseum, many have mistakenly assumed the project came through the Portland Development Corporation (PDC), Portland’s agent for the implementation of the federal Urban Renewal program. Indeed, once PDC was created, in 1956, city officials tried to tie the Coliseum project to federal funding, usually through the vehicle of downtown public parking, to increase the total dollars available for land acquisition and construction. However, the federal government never granted Urban Renewal status to the bridge site, meaning it also was not officially a so-called slum clearance project. Once the Commission had to move away from the South Auditorium, an area that was eventually granted Urban Renewal site status, the dream of federal money for the Coliseum died. Later, in the 1960s and 70s, PDC and freeway construction significantly impacted the Albina neighborhood that had first been uprooted to make way for the Coliseum.

South Auditorium Urban Renewal Plan, with Assumed Exposition-Recreation Center Inclusion. February 17, 1956. The Oregonian.

None of this is to suggest that the Coliseum was planned or built in a vacuum. Nor is it only a Portland story, as the timing of the project also fits into a fascinating time period in the history of sports and sporting venues on the West Coast and the country at large. However, for a building with such a cultural and physical impact on Portland, precious little has been devoted to the process by which the site we now take for granted came to be chosen. This is an era that is remembered today through broadly applied narratives or through intense examination of specific events. The above is an attempt to find space in between for attention to a series of decisions, miscalculations and appeals to voters that were among the most highly contentious in that era.

Michael Orr

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Portland-based writer of things