Oregon Cities

To renovate or rebuild? Portland City Council hears Keller Auditorium proposals

FILE - An undated file photo shows the exterior of Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland, Ore. A seismic study by the city revealed that the historic venue is in dire need of renovation.

FILE – An undated file photo shows the exterior of Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland, Ore. A seismic study by the city revealed that the historic venue is in dire need of renovation.

Steven Tonthat / OPB

Portland City Council is weighing whether to renovate or replace Keller Auditorium, a historic downtown performing arts venue. Officials hope the move will signal the city center can be revived to a bustling economic hub.

The Keller Auditorium is in an aging building at Southwest 2nd Avenue and Clay Street. Recent studies show the building doesn’t have appropriate access for people with disabilities, isn’t energy efficient and is unlikely to survive a major earthquake.

On Wednesday the council heard proposals to either restore the Keller at its existing site or build a new venue to replace it. The council’s final decision is expected in July.

The current facility was built in 1917 and renovated in the late 1960s, according to Karl Lisle, manager of Portland’s spectator venues program. He told councilors earthquake risk was not understood or considered when the auditorium was built or last renovated.

“Since the [1960s] renovation, the building has largely been unchanged,” Lisle said. “Many of the building’s key systems are at or approaching the end of their operational lives and amenities you’d expect to find in a newer facility are sorely lacking.”

A thriving arts and entertainment venue often acts as an anchor for a healthy city, and economists have long considered city centers as a bellwether for the overall economic health of a community. Portland especially has touted its reputation as an arts and culture hub. As office workers are slow to return to downtown after COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, officials have turned instead to event spaces to lure people to the city’s core.

At the same time, the pandemic exacerbated Portland’s homelessness, mental health and addiction crises. Downtown Portland is especially seeing the effects of the city’s lack of affordable housing paired with inadequate resources to address mental health and drug addiction. The compounding issues have deterred some people from visiting the city center.

“We are at a critical juncture in the life of this city,” Greg Phillips, performing arts expert and executive director of Portland Center Stage, told councilors. “Like cities everywhere, we’re attempting to recover [from the pandemic] and ultimately find a way to not just survive, but to thrive.”

City Council heard from three groups vying to design the Keller of the future. Halprin Landscape Conservancy bid to restore the venue at its existing site. Portland State University and developers of the Lloyd District offered proposals to build a new venue on their respective sites.

More than 100 people submitted public comments. The majority were in favor of renovating the Keller at its existing site.

Renovating the existing building isn’t straightforward. The auditorium is still in active use, hosting traveling Broadway shows as well as performances from the Oregon Ballet Theater, the Portland Opera and others. City officials estimate construction shutdowns could cost up to $100 million and put hundreds of jobs in jeopardy.

FILE - The late singer Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform at Keller Auditorium on April 15, 2016, in Portland, Ore. The Keller is still in use, hosting concerts, traveling Broadway shows and more.

FILE – The late singer Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform at Keller Auditorium on April 15, 2016, in Portland, Ore. The Keller is still in use, hosting concerts, traveling Broadway shows and more.

Bryan Vance / OPB

Halprin said it’s considered those things in its proposal. The construction schedule includes working around important performance seasons, such as the winter holidays. The plan for the proposed renovation would also create a plaza connecting the space to the Keller Fountain.

Leaders at Portland State University propose building a new Keller Auditorium on campus. In addition to the 3,000-seat venue, PSU’s proposal includes a boutique hotel, bar and restaurant, and a second smaller venue. Under the university’s proposal, the larger venue would be funded by the city, and PSU would raise funds for the other aspects.

Developers for the Lloyd District in Northeast Portland are pitching a performance venue that would help revitalize an area across the Willamette River from downtown. The auditorium would anchor a mixed-use space that would include retail, housing and open park space.

Phillips told councilors an initial financial analysis shows it would cost nearly $300 million to renovate the Keller at its existing site. The other proposals could cost more than $425 million. A funding source hasn’t been determined.

“History tells us that in every case, the civic, cultural, economic and social impact [of an arts venue] on a town or city and region is extraordinary,” Phillips said. “We’ve also learned, in order to inspire the necessary funding, we simply must create the most exciting project possible, which also ensures the largest return on investment.”

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