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Keller Auditorium’s future: Three options, one choice

The 3,000-seat Keller needs replacing. What's the best choice: a new building at PSU, a new hall at a revamped Lloyd Center, or a full-scale renovation where it is now?

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Architectural rendition of a proposed new auditorium on the Portland Stae University campus.
Architectural rendition of a proposed new auditorium on the Portland State University campus. Courtesy GBD Architects and Portland State University.

Welcome to the University Place Hotel, built in 1969 as a Ramada Inn and now vying to become a cultural savior of sorts for downtown Portland as the potential site of a replacement for Keller Auditorium.

The hotel, purchased by Portland State University in 2004, is located beside an Interstate 405 exit ramp, on Southwest Lincoln Street at downtown Portland’s southern edge. This has never been mistaken for a downtown hot spot, yet University Place can offer room not only for a 3,000-seat auditorium but also for a 150-room boutique hotel, conference space, restaurant and bar, and a flexible outdoor plaza. There’s even a MAX stop right outside.

Visiting the site on an overcast recent day, Leroy E. Bynum, Jr., dean of Portland State University’s College of the Arts, was ready to imagine a sunnier future being built here. “What’s got me really excited is we could do a lot,” Dr. Bynum said. “We can dream big.”

PSU’s University Place Hotel site is one of three finalists that the Portland City Council will consider this spring in determining Keller Auditorium’s fate. Another finalist is the struggling Lloyd Center mall, which means that renovating the circa-1917 Keller (which last happened in 1968) has a one-in-three chance.

Renovation is seemingly the least expensive choice, the most environmentally sustainable, and still offers the best location for a slow-to-recover downtown. Yet closing Keller for a minimum of 19 months  during reconstruction would mean lost revenue from touring Broadway productions, which provides a whopping 50 percent of funds for the quintet of downtown venues under the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts umbrella (and no, that name isn’t a typo).

“There’s nowhere in the region where large theaters needing that 2,500 to 3,000 capacity could go, so these shows would opt to skip Portland,” warned Robyn Williams, the Portland’5 executive director, at a Metro Council work session in February.

Doubling Down on Keller

Architectural conception of a renovated, swept-wing Keller Auditorium in its current location.
Architectural conception of a renovated, swept-wing Keller Auditorium in its current location. Courtesy StuFish Entertainment Architects and the Halprin Landscape Conservancy.

But don’t count out the Keller renovation supporters, officially led by the Halprin Landscape Conservancy but backed by powerful adjacent landowners including Russell Development Company and Melvin Mark, as well as cultural institutions including the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Keller-renovation proponents have also proposed a solution of sorts to the Broadway-revenue conundrum. Because city leaders have admitted no funding has been identified for any of these three options, which would presumably necessitate a bond measure, why not just incorporate the lost Broadway revenue into the bond?

When I wrote about Keller options in 2022 for ArtsWatch, renovation supporters already were shopping renderings of a boldly transformed venue, created by London exhibit-design firm Stufish Entertainment Architects and Portland’s Michael Curry Design, with a new glass façade stretching out over Third Avenue. But that was a rendering without an actual design. Now, the pro-renovation group has gone a step further, hiring Portland’s award-winning Hennebery Eddy Architects (co-designer of the Portland Art Museum’s upcoming expansion) to create a bona fide reconstruction blueprint.

The Keller-renovation group believes the city’s original seismic study (issued in 2020) was “seriously flawed,” as John Russell of Russell Development Company told the Metro Council in February. They commissioned a new seismic analysis that involved testing Keller’s existing foundation and its reinforced-concrete walls, providing information “that was not available when the city commissioned the seismic study that they did,” Hennebery Eddy principal Tim Eddy told the Metro Council. “This report should be considered a reliable guide for redevelopment of the facility and should fully supersede the [City’s] prior structural studies.” Based on this analysis, they believe Keller can be seismically reinforced for less money and in less time than the City of Portland estimated.

A redesigned Keller Auditorium would tie in more fully with the Keller Fountain.
A redesigned Keller Auditorium would tie in more fully with the Keller Fountain. Courtesy StuFish Entertainment Architects and the Halprin Landscape Conservancy.

The Keller redesign plan expands the arena in front with a larger lobby and would close Third Avenue to automobile traffic, making the iconic Keller Fountain more of a true foreground for the auditorium and providing space for outdoor events. Just as importantly, the design expands the auditorium back-of-the-house, to the east, on Second Avenue, “to accommodate a code compliant and proper loading facility, reconstructed dressing rooms, additional rehearsal space and other backstage program areas requested by the user groups,” Eddy explained.

The strongest arguments for Keller’s renovation may be those based on location and sustainability. A new location would be “depriving our city’s cultural district of reinvestment … when we need it the most,” Eddy told the Metro Council. “Renovating the existing auditorium is the most sustainable option, aligning with Metro’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s massive.”

Keller has one other factor in its favor. The auditorium is a repository of our collective memories, over generations. This week I happened to see a venerable local rock musician, Sean Croghan, post an Instagram video in front of the building lamenting that it could soon be demolished. He went on to describe the acts he’d seen there: R.E.M., the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, comedian Steven Wright. Commenters soon added their own concert recollections: James Brown, Bob Dylan, Coldplay, Sheryl Crow, The Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, The White Stripes, Public Enemy, Natalie Cole. We can’t keep venues solely for the memories they hold, but as with Memorial Coliseum, on some level those memories matter.

This Might Be the Place

Given the lost revenue a Keller renovation would cause, and knowing an already-struggling downtown would suffer from Keller heading east, the University Place Hotel site seems to be a legitimate contender, if not the favorite.

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

PSU and the city have partnered on projects before, most recently the Vanport Building, completed in 2021, which houses the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Portland Community College’s dental program, PSU’s College of Education, and the PSU/OHSU School of Public Health. Even so, PSU’s long-range planning hadn’t previously included a 3,000-seat performance venue.

“We’ve got Lincoln Hall already, which is great,” said Jason Franklin, PSU’s associate vice president for planning, construction and real estate, on the University Place Hotel tour. But when invited by the City of Portland to bid for the Keller commission, “We said, ‘Absolutely,’” Franklin recalled. “This just seems like a really great opportunity both for PSU and for the city and the region, frankly.”

Map of ow a new auditorium might fit into PSU's 3.85-acre building site.
Above and below: How a new auditorium might fit into PSU’s 4.25-acre building site. Courtesy GBD Architects and Portland State University,
Map of ow a new auditorium might fit into PSU's 3.85-acre building site.

The 4.25-acre University Place Hotel site, though still operational, has been what Franklin calls a “land bank,” waiting for the right opportunity to be redeveloped. It’s large enough to make a new auditorium part of an entire complex, with lodging, dining, underground parking and outdoor space. To design the potential Keller replacement PSU has commissioned Portland architecture firm Bora, which has substantial experience with performing arts venues, including the Lincoln Hall renovation and the existing Portland’5 building on Broadway housing the Winningstad, Newmark and Brunish theaters (although another local firm, GBD Architects, produced the renderings seen here).

Dean Bynum, who as an experienced opera singer knows a thing or two about acoustics, believes an all-new venue could bring better sound and more flexibility.   “Today you can tune halls in an incredible way,” he said on the University Place tour. “What I envision also expands what the performance space can do and who all come there. Imagine the 3,000-seat performance space where the Broadway shows, the symphony, a string quartet and a solo recital all sound phenomenal.” And instead of going dark during nonperformance dates and times, students and faculty would keep it active.

Yet the University Place Hotel site is far enough south from the core of downtown that it’s actually no closer to PSU’s Smith Memorial Student Union (more or less the center of campus) than Keller Auditorium is. Why not combine the development partnership that PSU brings with the better location and more sustainable choice of a Keller rehab?

“From a distance standpoint, you look at it and think, ‘Yeah, that might make some sense,’” Franklin says. “But the Keller site where it is now, you’re always going to have a very constrained venue. There isn’t going to be any space left for additional rehearsal space or these kind of interstitial spaces that might kind of create the magic of a new venue. So for us, it really is more of this vision of what could be and what the possibilities are.”

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Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

“I think too often in Portland, we limit ourselves to ‘Let’s renovate it,’ instead of thinking about a better use that goes there and maybe this use is better someplace else,” Franklin continued. “Seattle, by comparison, is much more willing to say, ‘Let’s blow it up, start over again.’ Certainly we’ve done great things here with renovations: Central Library, City Hall. But when you have a building where its bones just aren’t good, is that the best way to spend $300 million-plus? Or can we really take that $300 million with state and private dollars and really create something fantastic?”

Portland State’s involvement in a relocated Keller may also bolster diversity and accessibility. Walking its campus feels much different than traversing most anywhere else in Portland: not only more youthful but a wider array of cultures and demographics. Partnering with PSU “allows people from southeast to northeast and everywhere and communities to be celebrated and celebrate in a space that is accessible,” Dean Bynum said.

While the Lincoln Street location is not a central-downtown location and doesn’t offer the adjacent amenity of Keller Fountain, the University Place Hotel site is actually just across the street from Lovejoy Fountain, a sister space to Keller Fountain that’s also part of the same Lawrence Halprin-designed Open Space Sequence. Every time I’ve visited the Lovejoy, it has seemed nearly empty, and full of untapped potential. With an auditorium nearby, that could change.

Lloyd Center’s Hail Mary

Map of the projected Lloyd Center site and its proximity to other parts of he city.
Map of the projected Lloyd Center site and its proximity to other parts of he city. Courtesy Urban Renaissance Group.

If this were a football game, you might call Lloyd Center’s proposal to host a new Keller Auditorium a Hail Mary: throwing a long pass to secure a dramatic late-game victory. The mall has been playing from behind in recent years, with anchor tenants leaving and vacancies mounting. And attracting Keller isn’t the only long play its owners, Seattle-based Urban Renaissance Group and Texas-based KKR Real Estate Finance Trust, have tried to make. They also welcomed a proposed stadium at Lloyd Center as part of Portland investors’ uphill climb to attract a Major League Baseball franchise.

Yet the more practical game plan unveiled by the mall’s owners last fall—to turn Lloyd Center inside-out and create a mixed-use neighborhood complete with a restored street grid—is actually a good one: the equivalent of a short-passing game that, like a Patrick Mahomes-led offensive attack, consistently moves the ball toward the goal.

Lloyd Center’s plight and potential rebound recall a design competition in Los Angeles that I reported on for The New York Times just over 20 years ago, called “Dead Malls,” an ideas competition to address what was already a nationwide phenomenon: the decline of the classic American shopping center.

“The mall represents a point in time in the evolution of retailing,” Dead Malls juror Will Fleissig of the nonprofit Congress for the New Urbanism told me. “Now we’re reaching the end of that era and entering something new.” Another juror, Los Angeles architect Julie Eizenberg of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, admitted she retained some fondness for the shopping experience inside malls. “The problem,” she explained, “is with their transition to the outside.”

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

That’s why URG and KKR’s inside-out plan for wholly reimagining Lloyd Center is inspired. It reverses the oppressively fortress-like enclosure that has existed for over a half-century. But reaching for Keller reminds me of the flaw of many Dead Malls entrants: seeking one big use (a museum, a prison) instead of many uses.

That said, a reconstructed Keller Auditorium would make a viable anchor tenant for Lloyd Center with plenty of space left for shops and eateries as well as parking. The total site is 29.3 acres, by far the largest of the three finalists. Lloyd Center also offers robust access to mass transit, with an adjacent MAX station, and is conveniently located where two freeways meet.

The mall’s next chapter is being master-planned by ZGF, the city’s largest and most experienced firm, its portfolio including the highly impressive Portland International Airport terminal under construction as well as the Oregon Convention Center and much more. Their concept partially restores the street grid, including Northeast 10th Avenue and Northeast 14th Avenue to the north, Wasco Street in the middle, and Northeast 11th Avenue and Northeast 13th Avenue to the south, bordering Holladay Park, which could become a foreground to the auditorium.

Map of how streets might be realigned in a project redesign of the Lloyd Mall area.
How streets might be realigned in a project redesign of the Lloyd Mall area. Courtesy Urban Renaissance Group.

“Our vision for the Lloyd Center site imagines an energized, welcoming and inclusive neighborhood with housing, restaurants, retail, open space and entertainment offerings,” said Thomas Kilbane of Urban Renaissance Group in a recent email. “Locating the new Keller Auditorium in the Lloyd District – and making it the only one of the Portland’5 on the east side – would bring rich cultural and entertainment experiences closer to more diverse communities and help catalyze the Lloyd Center redevelopment.”

He added that the Lloyd District is “uniquely positioned to welcome one of the city’s major performing arts venues to the east side. The district lies at almost the exact geographic center of our city, and, because of its proximity to MAX, streetcar, multiple bus lines and major freeways, there will be easy access for all Portlanders, regardless of where they reside.”

While it is true that none of the Portland’5 venues are on the east side of the Willamette, bringing downtown’s only large, 3,000-plus-seat venue to the Lloyd District could actually create its own imbalance. We already have Moda Center, Memorial Coliseum and the Oregon Convention Center clustered here. From an urban design perspective, what this neighborhood arguably needs is not more mountains but more foothills: smaller mixed-use buildings that don’t swallow the existing street grid.

Though Lloyd Center is big enough to have both—a large auditorium, parking garages, and a few surrounding shops and restaurants—attracting a huge spectator venue for performing arts or baseball could be construed as a bet against their own well-conceived game plan. Maybe they don’t need a Hail Mary. Yet it’s true that a new Keller here would be a game-changer for the Lloyd District.

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Arts and Identity

Keller Auditorium as it looks now, seen from the Keller Fountain. Photo: Jason Quigley/courtesy Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.
Keller Auditorium as it looks now, seen from the Keller Fountain. Photo: Jason Quigley/courtesy Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.

Over nearly a half-century, Portland was rising, beginning in the 1970s with its transformation into a pioneeringly pedestrian and mass-transit-oriented place, and culminating in the 2010s with the Portlandia TV show that simultaneously celebrated and mocked the Rose City’s favoring quality of life over standard economic measuring sticks.

However, it would be an understatement to say the past four years have been rough.

All major American cities faced a pandemic-induced crisis and subsequent hangover, with office workers slow to return after the Pandora’s Box of telecommuting opened. Portland, like San Francisco, has been slower to recover than most, with lower rates of returning workers. For better or worse, the 2020 protests and unrest went on longer here. And coupled with Measure 110’s decriminalization of drugs like fentanyl without corresponding investments in treatment necessary for success, Portland is yet to fully make it back.

Even so, consensus has emerged about the ingredients. As Portland Art Museum Director Brian Ferriso said in his testimony to the Metro Council supporting Keller’s renovation, “Cities that are diversified in office space, housing, education and cultural institutions are returning to pre-pandemic foot traffic levels or exceeding them.”

Downtown Portland already has more than enough office space. We have education covered with PSU. We clearly need a lot more housing. And it’s incumbent upon arts and entertainment infrastructure to bring people in, and all the more so as daytime office-worker populations have been slow to rebound.

Renovating Keller Auditorium, therefore, isn’t just about providing a stage for touring Broadway shows to underwrite the rest of Portland’5 venues and the performances they enable. It’s about investing in downtown’s future when we need it the most.

That can be done with new construction on a new site, and the synergy of a partnership with PSU makes a lot of sense. Its student body and related performing arts programs make a natural marriage, and if city leaders seek a divorce from Keller’s century-plus site, this is the finger likeliest to wear the new ring.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Even so, there’s little denying that the University Place Hotel site, at the far edge of downtown nestled against freeway ramps, is an inferior location to Keller Auditorium and its iconic fountain, right there on Third Avenue within a short walk of City Hall, Waterfront Park, Pioneer Place and Pioneer Courthouse Square. It’s a good potential stepmother, but just that.

City of Portland administrators are not wrong to consider other sites given the conundrum of lost Broadway cash. Yet if they choose a new location over renovation, it will be a kind of backwards-logic, where short-term concerns outweigh long-term goals: economic impact, place-making, and sustainability.

Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in what PSU’s Jason Franklin said about Seattle being quicker to demolish and rebuild, and that mentality can be tied to the city’s identity compared to ours: bolder, richer, yet also lacking a certain comfort in its own skin. Portland, as Franklin conceded, has more often renovated its landmarks, which is often the less-sexy choice, and less salivating to speculative real-estate developers looking to turn a dollar. So while the lost-Broadway-revenue issue complicates this problem, let’s face it: otherwise we wouldn’t even be having this conversation about what to do.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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15 Responses

  1. If Keller isn’t renovated won’t that leave a big dead space? What does PSU’s plan say about the future of the Keller site?

  2. I am not seeing much emphasis on the Keller modification plan relating to the interior and especially the acoustics and seating for the audience members. Since moving to Portland from San Francisco 15 years ago, I have been thoroughly disgusted by the terrible acoustic and seating situations in the Keller auditorium (which I regard as nothing more than a large airplane hanger) as well as the Schnitzer – two of the worst performing arts venues I have ever en countered in a major metropolitan city. I hope whatever decision comes down here, the emphasis is placed on the quality of experience for performing arts patrons and performers alike. Someone should take some design clues from the fabulous Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in this regard – which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best performing arts venue in the United States. I steadfastly refuse to go to the Keller for any performance until it is replaced.

  3. I was born in Oregon and have lived here most of my life, but entered school in Seattle, and recently stayed there for AWP. I am frankly horrified by what’s been done to that once-lovely city. Huge monstrous buildings seem part of some perverse plan to block every view of water, every ray of sunlight. I used to be proud of it as an “overgrown village” but now the downtown is dystopian. Please don’t let this happen to Portland—and while none of the plans seems to drive in that direction, we should keep in mind that this city has earned its beauty.

  4. A renovated arts center auditorium with attention to previously mentioned acoustics would be a less intrusive traffic issue, in addition to maintaining location near the landmark fountain. The other options create an unused “hole” near said landmark.

  5. Having the Keller still functional while a new one is built seems the best to me. Could take years to renovate the old one and those acts will have to pass us by. Don’t really like the Loyd center idea

  6. Being a fifth generation native Oregonian who grew up in Portland during the 50s and 60s, I find it beyond sad to see what’s happened there. As teenagers we spent hot summer nights wading the Halprin/Danadjieva fountains near Keller Auditorium, and later enjoyed hiking the award winning Open Space Sequence where Manuel Izquierdo’s monumental The Dreamer is thoughtfully sited. I saw Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond at the Keller and often drove by just to look at the striking juxtaposition of the reflective windows and cascading waterfalls inspired by hikes in the wilderness. Times change and we’d probably all like to see a Frank Gehry building in downtown Portland. But I don’t appreciate the sophisticates who move here from San Francisco or New York and tell us we should tear down our outdated facilities to build new ones that look and sound like the hallowed venues they left behind. When my girlfriend and I saw the late Tony Bennett at the Schnitzer he made a point of telling the audience how fortunate we were to have such a rare and magnificent space to host performing artists. So maybe there is something to be said for a mindful and measured approach. Maybe we can have the best of both worlds. And lets hope there is a path that recognizes, appreciates, and preserves significant aspects of artistic history, while allowing a new generation of creatives to leave their own mark. Such links should not be taken lightly.

  7. I forgot to mention, terrific job of reporting, Brian. Thanks for providing a good overview of the three primary options. Excellent work!

  8. LIBBY SHOULD BE CONGRATUALTED …WELL INVESTIGATED AND REPORTED…HOWEVER, IT WOULD BE WISE TO EXAMINE ADDITIONAL ATTENDENT SCENARIOS THAT RELATE TO THE KELLER. NAMELY AUTO TRAFFIC ISSUES BOTH CURRENT & IN THE NOT SO DISTANT FUTURE. IT IS PROJECTED BY 2040 THAT THE PORTLAND METRO AREA POPULATION WILL HAVE INCREASED BY 400,000. CRITICAL MASS? ALSO, CONSIDERING HOW SO MANY SURROUNDING SUBURBS HAVE DEVELOPED VITAL CENTERS MORE ATTRACTIVE TO BUSINESS OFFICES AND RETAILING…THAT THE OLD DOWNTOWN CORE WILL NEVER AGAIN RETURN TO ITS EARLIER STATURE. PERHAPS MORE FEASIBLE WOULD BE RENOVATION/REMODELING OF DOWNTOWN PORTLAND OFFICE BUILDINGS/CONVERSION TO APARTMENTS?

    PORTLAND’S EAST SIDE, NAMELY LLOYD CENTER, POSSIBLY IS A BETTER LOCATION FOR A CIVIC AUDITORIUM…LLOYD CENTER IS ALREADY ESTABLISHED AS AN IMPORTANT TRANSIT HUB. . AS FOR THE KELLER…PERHAPS THE OUTER SHELL OF THE BUILDING COULD BE STRENGTHENED? THE INTERIOR GUTTED, THE CEILING GLASSED AND THE RESULTANT ATRIUM DEPLOYED AS A PUB LIC MARKET?

  9. Thanks everyone for the great feedback. I’ve enjoyed reading comments and am glad the article resonated. It will be interesting to see what city leaders decide.

  10. While I appreciate your high level overview of the urban impacts of these different options Brian, what is missing is any understanding of the complexity of the operations of a sophisticated performing arts venue and the impact that an extended closure would mean for the arts organizations in Portland as well as the economic loss for our downtown at a critical moment for our city. The operation of the Keller in downtown Portland generates $30 million dollars of economic activity each year for downtown. Suspending that for two to three years while the Keller is renovated would be challenging at any time, but particularly right now. Arts organizations are eco-systems and suspending operations has impacts beyond financial. Artists won’t remain with an organization if they can’t perform and audiences are not like a faucet you can turn on and off. Without performances for two to three seasons both the Ballet and the Opera may cease to exist. Finally, however much nostalgia we have for the Keller, it is a 1960’s renovation of a 1918 auditorium. The proposal is not much of a renovation as the building will mostly get taken down to the floor slab and rebuilt. Even then the available site is simply too small to adequately hold a state of the art performance space that can host the large scale touring Broadway productions that travel these days. This is something a renovation cannot solve. Why not give Portland a venue that matches up to what other cities even smaller than Portland have? Why can’t we dream a bit bigger and build a new venue while we imagine an amazing cultural amenity for the site of the Keller that brings people downtown during the day, every day of the week. A showcase for Portland’s culinary scene, a location for the James Beard market, a place to showcase the breadth of Portland’s design and creative community? There are so many possibilities! This could be a win/win for our City if we are just willing to think a bit larger and look beyond our reverence for the past.

  11. No offense to Mr. Franklin, but many folks in the building industry and local architecture scene would disagree with the statement that the Keller Auditorium’s “bones just aren’t good.” It is promising to read about the new analysis by Henneberry Eddy. “Blowing up” the Keller Auditorium for a shiny new building instead of keeping it would be a travesty. Demolishing buildings is the easy way out. Even longer-term thinking should be considered for our buildings, not just for the organization, but for other potential uses and reuse. This is the best route. If the organization needs to relocate, then those things happen frequently. It is a contributing building to the local urban context and the plaza. Creative minds and determination need to be applied here.

  12. “A good potential stepmother”….I appreciated your article but not this metaphor that perpetuates gender stereotypes and the notion that “step” parents may be good but never as worthy as a bio parent. Unfortunately that is false. As to the choice of venue…I am firmly in the camp of letting the city planners/architects/ and arts professionals advise our decision makers about this one. In a perfect world, I would have Frank Gehry design something startling to propel our beloved Portland into its future.

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