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News Every Day |

The Keller Decision: The Future of the Arts Downtown

The Keller Decision: The Future of the Arts Downtown

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) --The Keller Auditorium is one of the city's premier performance venues. But it's more than a century old, outdated in several respects and it would not survive a major earthquake.

The City of Portland owns the building and Metro manages it as part of the Portland'5 Centers for the Arts. Currently, there are three proposals city leaders are weighing to either renovate or replace the Keller Auditorium.

Renovating it would close the current facility and take about 19 months. The other proposal would be to build a new venue while the Keller continues to operate.

Portland residents are able to share their thoughts through an online survey until July 7.

This KOIN 6 News special looks at all three proposals to clarify the differences and shed light on each as city leaders may announce their decision later in July.

The venue opened as a public auditorium on July 4, 1917 and was used as a community space, a museum and even a hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic. In 1962, the Keller Auditorium's roof, windows and light fixtures were damaged during the infamous Columbus Day Storm. Then in the late '60s, the space was renovated from a multi-purpose venue into a theater and was renamed the Civic Auditorium. It became the Keller Auditorium in 2000 after Richard Keller donated $1.5 million for renovation. Today, the Keller Auditorium is the largest auditorium in the state of Oregon. Along with Portland's other centers for the arts, it generates more than $60 million in regional spending every year.

Keep in mind, the Keller is an auditorium, not a performing arts center. A performing arts center has multiple spaces to do a variety of things at one time. The Keller is not able to do that.

Metro has done much of the research for the cost of either renovating or replacing the Keller.

"Keller Auditorium is like Portland 5's warhorse," said Robin Williams, the Executive Director for the Portland'5 Center for the Arts. "It generates almost 50% of our total earned revenues. The money is used to subsidize all the non-profit users of our theater, so it's very critical."

Robin Williams, the Executive Director for the Portland 5 Center for the Arts, June 2024 (KOIN)
Robin Williams, the Executive Director for the Portland 5 Center for the Arts, June 2024 (KOIN)

The Metro study found closing the Keller for a nearly 2-year renovation would mean 336 jobs lost, $100 million in lost output, $42.3 million in lost labor income and missing out on $5.1 million in state and local revenues.

Williams said those numbers "definitely" tilt her decision toward building a new facility while the current Keller would keep operating.

"We have a responsibility to support our local arts users and we can't do it with a partial or full closure," she said. "Closing at all is not an option."

A Metro cost analysis shows renovating the current venue would cost $290 million, while building a new venue in the Lloyd District would cost $429 million. A new venue at PSU would cost $447 million.

Greg Phillips of Creative Stage Arts Development, which focuses on arts organizations, said there are "soft costs" on top of the "hard costs" such as construction. The soft costs include architects, designers, theater designers, permitting and planning.

Building a new venue also fits in with their vision for bringing back Portland's central city.

Greg Phillips of Creative Stage Arts Development, June 2024 (KOIN)
Greg Phillips of Creative Stage Arts Development, June 2024 (KOIN)

"It ensures our arts model remains robust. Building new gives us a lot of opportunities to expand," Williams said. "Because the Keller is an auditorium. It is not a performing arts center. …. It gives us more opportunities to provide more content to people and then maybe do something else really fabulous with the Keller."

As leaders make a decision, Phillips -- who is also a former executive director of Portland's Center Stage -- said they will feel "influence from everywhere. There is now a very public outreach program where we're doing surveys and focus groups and let everybody know that this is a critical moment, this is a big decision, an important one for the future of Portland."

He also said each site has advantages.

"I believe each one of them will become something wonderful, regardless of which one gets a performing arts center," Phillips said.

The Halprin Landscape Conservancy is spearheading the effort to renovate the Keller Auditorium at its current location, on SW 3rd between Clay and Market, directly across from Keller Fountain.

  • A rendering of Portland State University's plan for a new Keller Auditorium, 2023 (PSU)
  • A rendering of the Keller Auditorium's proposed renovations from the Northwest facade and proposed Third Avenue plaza (Credit: Halprin Landscape Conservancy)
  • A rendering of the proposed Keller Auditorium renovation from the building's Southwest facade (Credit: Halprin Landscape Conservancy)
  • A rendering of the ground foyer bar of the proposed Keller Auditorium renovation
  • A rendering of the featured stairs in the Keller Auditorium renovation plan
  • A rendering of the reimagined first balcony for the Keller Auditorium renovation plan
  • An exhibit photo of plans to expand and improve the footprint of the Keller Auditorium for the renovation pitch
  • A rendering of the second balcony of the reimagined Keller Auditorium for the renovation plan
  • A rendering of the Keller Fountain being used for visual arts outside of the Keller Auditorium.

They say Keller's historical significance should not be undercounted. It's more beneficial to the city to keep Keller where it is despite an interruption of performances.

Scott Andrews with Melvin Mark Companies is also a co-chair of the Halprin Landscape Conservancy. He said they estimate a renovation cost of $267 million if they begin in 2027.

Renovation will provide "a 21st Century auditorium, new seating, new lighting, better acoustics, better loading, 20% additional square footage to the building where there will be restaurants, better backstage facilities, bars, restrooms. For the investment, we think it's the best thing for the city to do."

Andrews also said the Keller Auditorium is "a very important asset to the neighborhood. And there are hundreds of hotel rooms, bars, restaurants within walking distance, not to mention over 3000 parking spaces adjacent. It's a great location. It's a part of the downtown arts and culture district and it's an important element to the health and wellbeing of downtown."

Scott Andrews with Melvin Mark Companies is also a co-chair of the Halprin Landscape Conservancy, June 2024 (KOIN)
Scott Andrews with Melvin Mark Companies is also a co-chair of the Halprin Landscape Conservancy, June 2024 (KOIN)

Unions are concerned about the job losses during the lengthy construction period. But Andrews said "the damages caused by the downtime to both organizations who use the Keller and the unions can be mitigated. And we're working with them to do that."

He suggested one way would be to add $25 million to the cost estimate -- which would raise the total renovation cost but still be considerably less money than the other proposals on the table.

Andrews is aware that there aren't any other venues in the city that could bring in Broadway shows during the construction period. "But we have no concern that the audience won't come back once the Keller is renovated."

Portland State University wants to build a new performing arts center on land it already owns on campus. Their $385 million proposal would include a 3000-seat auditorium, a hotel with restaurants, a conference center and an outdoor plaza.

  • Street view of PSU's proposed Portland Arts + Culture Center designed by Bora Architects
  • Lobby view of PSU's proposed Portland Arts + Culture Center designed by Bora Architects
  • Interior theater view of PSU's proposed Portland Arts + Culture Center designed by Bora Architects
  • Side building view of PSU's proposed Portland Arts + Culture Center designed by Bora Architects

"The Number 1 reason why (to build a new facility) is that the show can go on," said PSU Foundation President Sarah Schwarz. "A new space being built in a new location allows the Keller to keep on moving through performances, hiring the folks in the arts ecosystem -- which still hasn't fully recovered from the pandemic -- while a new, bigger, better, modernized ready-for-the-next-100 years arts center can happen at the PSU site."

Sarah Schwarz, president of the PSU Foundation, June 2024 (KOIN)
Sarah Schwarz, president of the PSU Foundation, June 2024 (KOIN)

Jason Franklin, a PSU vice president of planning, construction and real estate, said they are looking to create an arts complex that will be a downtown Portland destination.

But the money would come from different sources.

"The overall cost is $385 million for the 3000-seat venue to replace the Keller," Franklin said. "The remaining program -- the hotel, the PSU 1200-seat auditorium -- that would be paid for by different sources. Hotel would be private investment. The 1200-seat auditorium would be money we would bring from the state legislature for that academic space."

Jason Franklin, a vice president of planning, construction and real estate at PSU, June 2024 (KOIN)
Jason Franklin, a vice president of planning, construction and real estate at PSU, June 2024 (KOIN)

Schwarz added this is a moment for "big philanthropy" in Portland.

"We've been doing a lot of research and in conversation with other national leaders we've learned that these are opportunities for the entire community to uplevel. One person recently said to me, 'Great cities are built by philanthropy,' and we see this as a wonderful opportunity for all of Portland to come together to create a world-class destination."

The proposed PSU facility is planned for SW 1st and Lincoln, a little farther away from the central downtown area. Franklin said concerns it wouldn't revitalize the city are unfounded.

A map showing the location of the proposed new Keller Auditorium on the PSU campus, June 2024 (KOIN)
A map showing the location of the proposed new Keller Auditorium on the PSU campus, June 2024 (KOIN)

"We think it's a great opportunity to revitalize not only the south end of downtown but also reactivate the Keller site itself," he said. "We really see it as kind of a 3-in-1 opportunity for revitalization downtown."

The Urban Renaissance Group, the owners of the Lloyd Center, is behind the effort to build a new performing arts venue in the Lloyd District. Their proposal would anchor a nearly 30-acre redevelopment of the Lloyd Center Mall site.

A rendering of the proposed new Keller Auditorium at the Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland, June 2024 (Urban Renaissance Group)
A rendering of the proposed new Keller Auditorium at the Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland, June 2024 (Urban Renaissance Group)

That development would include housing, open spaces, retail, restaurants and offices in addition to the newly built theater. They emphasize the growth in North and Northeast Portland -- including the $450 million in federal funding that will go to capping a portion of I-5.

It would be the only P5 theater on Portland's east side.

KOIN 6 News invited the Urban Renaissance Group to take part in this discussion, but they declined.

The online survey remains available through July 7.

Portland City Council will consider all three plans and is expected to announce a decision later in the month.

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