Debate Over Future of Keller Auditorium Heats Up as Downtown Developer Goes on Offense

Three competing proposals for the Keller will come in front of the Portland City Council this spring. Sweetening the pot for the winner: clean energy tax dollars.

A crowd saw Iggy Pop at the Keller Auditorium in 2016. (Colin McLaughlin)

Keller Auditorium, the 105-year-old arts venue that hosts Broadway shows in downtown Portland, finds itself at the center of an increasingly heated debate over its future, fueled by a downtown real estate mogul who has aggressively lobbied city leaders to support his passion project to redevelop it.

City officials have warned for years that the Keller will collapse—as would many other old buildings that aren’t seismically reinforced—in the event of the “Big One,” the 8.0-magnitude Cascadian subduction zone earthquake that’s expected to hit Oregon within the next 100 years. So city officials last year began exploring how to ensure the Keller wouldn’t collapse. It’s exploring two concepts: renovate the existing Keller or build a new Keller elsewhere in the city.

The city sought proposals in earnest last year. It is currently considering three.

One is a long-standing plan by downtown real estate developer John Russell to renovate the Keller and turn it into a state-of-the-art performance venue. For years Russell has pitched the plan to the city, but the city never committed. (Russell’s downtown holdings include 200 Market, the retail and office tower that stands across Southwest Market Street from the Keller.)

If the auditorium is renovated, the Keller’s operations would be put on hold for at least 18 months, leaving no place for Broadway shows in the city during that time.

Two other proposals made the final cut as well, after the city last fall whittled the pool down from eight proposals. The first is a plan by Portland State University to build a sprawling performing arts center in the South Park Blocks, outfitted with a 3,000-seat auditorium, a high-end hotel, classrooms and a plaza. The second is a plan by the co-owners of the beleaguered Lloyd Center, the Seattle-based Urban Renaissance Group and New York lender KKR Real Estate Finance Trust, to incorporate a new Keller into a full-fledged redevelopment in the Lloyd District that would include housing, retail and entertainment.

Urban Renaissance and PSU received $50,000 grants from the city this year to bring fully fledged plans back to the Portland City Council this spring—proposals that the City Council will mull alongside Russell’s.

What could sweeten the pot for whichever plan is chosen: City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the city’s clean energy tax that’s brought in hundreds of millions more in revenue than projected when passed in 2020, has pitched using $28 million from those coffers toward the redevelopment of the Keller. (Rubio’s handling of the clean energy fund, as WW and others have reported, has recently come under scrutiny as she’s proposed using excess revenue to backfill climate-adjacent city programs facing budget cuts, and to renovate some city facilities.)

In the meantime, Russell is taking no chances. As the two other proposals get fully baked for presentation this spring, Russell has been going on offense to cut the legs out from under the other two competing proposals.

At a Feb. 7 meeting of the Metro Council, which manages Keller Auditorium for the city, Russell sharply criticized his competitors’ proposals.

Russell characterized KKR as a lending firm that capitalizes on failing properties, like Lloyd Center, only to sell them at a profit and skip town: “They would tell you they’re mercenaries, but their MO is to buy low, make changes, sell high and move on.”

About Portland State University’s proposal, Russell said: “The site is basically isolated and has none of the hotels, the parking spaces, the restaurants, the public spaces that are necessary to make an exciting and successful performance center.” He went on: “Two of its four sides are a freeway off-ramp. The third side is a light rail line. The fourth side faces a condominium tower whose owners have endorsed our project.”

Christina Williams, a spokeswoman for PSU, says its proposal “offers significantly better load in/out capabilities that would accommodate large shows with ease in a way the current Keller cannot.” Urban Renaissance managing director Tom Kilbane tells WW, “It’s clear that John has not been shopping at Lloyd Center recently or he would know it’s alive and well, with almost 100 local and national tenants.”

Russell, whose supporters for the project include former Melvin Mark principal Scott Andrews and developer heir Bob Naito, says he and his partners could raise up to $100 million privately to help fund the renovation.

“We are confident,” Russell tells WW of the City Council’s choosing his renovation plan, “because we deserve it.” Russell says he spoke with Rubio recently and got the impression that the $28 million in clean energy funds would only go toward his plan.

Rubio’s chief of staff, Jillian Schoene, tells WW that the commissioner, right now, is “most interested in the renovation of the existing building but will, of course, review the other proposals that come forward.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that PSU and Lloyd received $25,000 grants from the city. That’s incorrect. They each received a $50,000 grant from the city to bring back a full proposal.

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