Think Out Loud

Portland City Council will soon weigh options for the future of the Keller Auditorium

By Gemma DiCarlo (OPB)
March 22, 2024 10:28 p.m. Updated: April 1, 2024 5:49 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 25

The exterior of Keller Auditorium in Downtown Portland. A recent seismic study by the city revealed that the historic venue is in dire need of renovation.

The exterior of Keller Auditorium in Downtown Portland. A recent seismic study by the city revealed that the historic venue is in dire need of renovation.

Steven Tonthat / OPB


Portland city officials are currently considering what to do with one of downtown’s largest venues. The Keller Auditorium is more than a century old and was last renovated in the 1960s. A 2020 analysis found that the building needs a seismic upgrade and a number of accessibility improvements to bring it up to modern standards. Some are arguing for an extensive renovation of the current space, while others are pushing for a new auditorium to be built on the Portland State University campus or as part of a redeveloped Lloyd Center. The City Council is expected to take up the proposals this spring.

Brian Libby, a freelance architecture and design journalist, recently wrote about all of this for Oregon ArtsWatch. He joins us with more details on the pros and cons of each proposal.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Portland officials are currently considering what to do with one of downtown’s largest venues. The Keller Auditorium is more than a century old and was last renovated in the 1960′s. It hosts big productions, like traveling Broadway shows. A 2020 analysis found that the building needs a seismic upgrade and a number of accessibility improvements. But should it be renovated, or should a whole new theater somewhere else be built? Brian Libby is a freelance architecture and design journalist. He wrote about this issue for Oregon ArtsWatch and he joins us now. Welcome back to the show.

Brian Libby: Thanks for having me.

Miller: What role does Keller Auditorium play right now, both as a part of downtown and in the city’s venue landscape?

Libby: Well, it’s one of two venues that exist in this 2,500 to 3,000 seat range, along with Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. But it’s unique in that Keller is the only one that can host these traveling, touring Broadway productions. And they’re quite important to the city’s overall revenue stream, even though Portland’5 has, as its name indicates, five different venues across three buildings. The Keller Auditorium provides something like 50% of the city’s revenue, so it helps underwrite the whole venue portfolio that the city has.

Miller: And that includes Newmark and the Schnitzer as two of the other big ones, and then there are a couple of smaller or medium sized ones. It’s just because of the amount of money that, say, traveling Broadway shows bring in, in terms of tickets, that it’s 50% of that arts revenue?

Libby: Yeah, I was surprised by that too, but apparently there’s a lot of people going to see “Cats.”

Miller: OK. We’ll leave that there. What can you tell us about the condition of the building right now?

Libby: Well, this all started with the city putting Keller Auditorium on its list of buildings with unreinforced masonry that would be in big trouble if this big earthquake that’s been predicted were to arrive. So the city commissioned a seismic study and found that it would, in their numbers, require the venue to be closed for up to two years or maybe even longer. They felt the revenue that they would lose from these touring Broadway productions and other concerts would create a real problem for, not just Keller, but the whole portfolio that the city has. So they felt like they had to at least explore the idea of building an all new venue on another site, in addition to the possibility of renovating Keller.

And it is true, I think their numbers and the Keller renovation proponents’ numbers, all indicate that it would be, as you would imagine, substantially more expensive to build a new venue on a different site. But I think the city is really driven by the concern over these Broadway shows and the revenue that would be lost. In a Metro Council hearing, Robyn Williams, who leads Portland’5, expressed some concern about even being able to get Broadway to return right away after they’ve had as much as two years away from us.

Miller: In other words, the concern there is, it’s not just, say, 24 months away while the new theater is built, but once it was renovated and they could come back, they would have gotten out of the habit of stopping in Portland? I mean, what’s the concern?

Libby: I don’t know, to be honest. I can’t really tell if that’s an alarmist point of view or just the fact that these other productions would get used to going wherever the case may be: Seattle or Boise, Idaho or Sacramento. And I think she just wanted Metro councilors in a hearing to know that it wasn’t a given that Broadway would be lined up to come back. And maybe that’s a worst case scenario because if it’s bringing all this revenue to the city of Portland and their venue, then it’s obviously been successful for the Broadway productions as well.

Miller: Are there no other venues where, even as a kind of stop gap, where Broadway shows could be staged for two or two-and-a-half years?

Libby: I wondered that myself, and the idea I had would be Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum. Obviously, it’s traditionally a basketball arena, but I – and a lot of other people – have seen a heck of a lot of concerts there, and I wondered if it could be adapted to that use. It’s certainly large enough. The overall arena seats 10,000 people, whereas Keller seats 3,000, and I would have thought that you could build some kind of temporary stage that would allow these Broadway productions to come. Memorial Coliseum, for example, has hosted, in recent years, a version of Cirque Du Soleil, and in my original reporting on this, in 2022, that was the question I had posed. But so far it’s gone unanswered by the city.

Then, also, there’s a larger version of Cirque Du Soleil that comes and builds their own temporary venue, a tent, at different locations in the city. So I was a little bit surprised that the city hasn’t demonstrably done more to investigate some kind of temporary situation.

Miller: Well, let’s turn to what they are talking about, some of the proposals for a whole new building. One of them would be not that far away from the current Keller, at Portland State University. What are the arguments in favor of a PSU location?


Libby: Well, for starters, the city is already an experienced partner with Portland State University. They have a building that opened just a couple of years ago called the Vanport Building, on the PSU campus. And I believe they’ve partnered together on other buildings before. And then, of course, doing a venue at Portland State University would keep Keller – or whatever you would call it next – downtown. And obviously, this has been a time where downtown Portland has been struggling, and when people talk about solutions for how to rebound downtown amidst the kind of perhaps, somewhat permanent loss of some office spaces or office workers, there are really two things that are identified as potential solutions.

One is housing itself, but then the other is doubling down on the Arts.  I think the city understands that it would be a gut punch to downtown Portland when it’s already struggling, to move Keller Auditorium out of downtown completely. This would allow them to stay downtown and have an experienced partner, but be able to build a new venue at Portland State and never lose that Broadway revenue in the first place. They could keep Broadway productions going right up until the old Keller was done and the new one was complete.

Miller: What about the Lloyd Center on the other side of the river? What are the arguments in favor of putting up a new performing arts venue in a different part of town?

Libby: Well, Lloyd Center offers by far the largest site. I think the overall mall property is something like 29 acres. And so there would be quite a big canvas to do things there. And it happens to come in a time when Lloyd Center is already trying to reinvent itself. They have a plan to turn the mall inside out and restore some of the street grid. So you could pair a new auditorium there with lots of other functions, restaurants and hotels. Granted some of that would exist at the Portland State site as well, it’s something like just under four acres.

But the Lloyd Center proponents also talk about the fact that it’s a really good transit nexus there. You have two freeways coming together, you have a Max line right outside of the mall, so it would be the biggest  piece of land to work with. And the developers have also pointed out that there isn’t a performance venue of this sort on the east side. All of the other Portland’5 venues are downtown, although some people seem to have a little bit of concern about the traffic that could occur if there was a perfect storm of something happening at the Moda Center, like a Blazers game, something at the Oregon Convention Center, that could create a fair amount of traffic if there were an audience of 3,000 seeing a Broadway production, as well.

Miller: One of the most iconic features of the Keller Auditorium is actually not the auditorium, but the fountain out front. What would the end of the Keller Auditorium mean for the fountain?

Libby: That’s a really good question. And it’s funny, today, people don’t necessarily talk about the Keller Fountain that much, but it is arguable that the Keller Fountain is the most acclaimed work of architecture and design in all of downtown Portland. It’s been called a masterpiece, and it was a game changer in the history of landscape architecture, the way it was in a modern language that drew from nature. It’s inspired by Cascade Mountain waterfalls. And it’s really an open question because we don’t know what would happen on the Keller Auditorium site. It’s possible that it could become a smaller venue that was private and not owned by the city, or it could become something like a condo for all we know.

I think the design of Keller Fountain is great enough that it can be considered both the foreground to the auditorium, and that’s what it was intended as, but it would probably also work as a kind of stand alone entity. But at the same time, even though it’s a very central location, it’s not necessarily a part of Portland that has a lot of foot traffic without Keller Auditorium. So I do think in some way, the Keller Fountain would be hurt by the loss of the public building that it serves as the front yard for.

Miller: This larger debate – whether or not to renovate a cultural landmark or just tear it down and start fresh – how does this fit into this long standing issue for city leaders or planners?

Libby: Well, it depends on how you come at it. One thing that the Keller Auditorium renovation proponents have pointed out is, the city has ambitious goals with regard to sustainability and reducing carbon and addressing climate change. And no matter how sustainable a new building is, it’s always going to be less sustainable and more carbon intensive than the building that you renovate, so that’s one of the arguments for renovating it.

And when you’re building a new arena, a new auditorium, you’re also, in most cases, building a lot of parking, a new parking garage. So it’s a bit ironic to me that the city is worried about revenue and money on one hand as a driver for exploring the renovation, and yet it seems they would be, in so doing, if they went to a new site, spending a great deal more to build new. It’s not a small amount of change, not a small amount of money that even a renovation would cost, and yet a renovation is by far the more cost effective answer here, I think.

Miller: What’s the time frame for reviewing these proposals and making a decision?

Libby: As far as I know, the city council is going to be voting on this in late spring or early summer. It’s gonna be coming up pretty fast, and it’s really anybody’s guess as to what they’re going to decide. If I were betting on this, I would think that the Portland State University site is more likely than Lloyd Center in my mind, just because of the downtown factor, but it really is an open question.

And I think when I’ve heard city leaders talk about this at the Office of Management and Finance, or at Portland’5, I think they’re really concerned about this loss of revenue coming in. So I might actually bet for Portland State as being the odds-on favorite, but it’s really anybody’s guess.

Miller: And just briefly, in the 30 seconds we have left, what would you do if you were a city leader right now?

Libby: I would renovate it. Maybe I’m biased. I love old buildings and I love mid-century modern. Nobody would argue that the Keller Auditorium is necessarily a gorgeous masterpiece, but the renovation is pretty compelling the way they would close Third Avenue and stretch over with a big glass frontage. And I think it’s still the best location downtown, compared to Portland State. I think I began my article by saying something with just a hint of sarcasm, like, “Welcome to this former Ramada Inn on the southern edge of downtown that has never been confused for a hot spot.”

And even the proposed Portland State site is no closer to the center of Portland State campus than Keller Auditorium is. You could almost call Keller Auditorium part of the greater Portland State University campus as it is.

Miller:  Brian Libby, thanks very much.

Libby: Thank you.

Miller: Brian Libby is a freelance architecture and design journalist.

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