The answer for most cities during this time period was to build a large, multipurpose stadium on the fringes of the metropolis, surrounded by acres of parking and accessible by freeway. On April 15, 1964, Oakland broke ground on the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (now O.co Coliseum), while on December 18, 1965, San Diego began construction of San Diego Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium). Both cities have an MLB and NFL franchise, and San Diego has even hosted a few Super Bowls. Portland, of course, chose not to follow this path, and is the largest city without an MLB franchise in the U.S., and the second-largest (behind L.A.) not to have an NFL franchise.
What most people don’t know is that Portland had a plan to keep up its California competitors. And while upgrading Multnomah/Civic Stadium was on the table, a much more ambitious plan was put forward: the Delta Dome.
In 1964, a proposal was on the ballot for building a 45,000 seat multipurpose dome in Delta Park in North Portland. If built, Portland would almost certainly have been awarded an MLB franchise, and likely an NFL franchise, before Seattle (who would finally get their first major-league team in 1969). For better or worse, the proposal was defeated by 9,000 votes, and Portland would remain the biggest small town in the U.S. when it came to sports.
It’s hard to underestimate how different things might have been if the stadium proposal had passed. This article in Vancouver’s Columbian briefly touches on the issue, with the interesting hypothetical that the I-5 bridge would have been replaced 20 years ago. More importantly, it brings up the idea that Portland would have shed its “small-town mentality”, and by extension its burgeoning inferiority complex to Seattle.
No doubt, a lot of good would have come from the stadium, not least of which would be NFL and MLB teams in our beloved Portlandia. But, the downsides can’t be ignored. By abandoning Multnomah/Civic Stadium, the city could have set a dangerous precedent, and derailed the growing anti-freeway and anti-sprawl movements. Both movements were vital in creating the Portland that is envied by most other cities and loved by its residents. It’s entirely possible (and I would say pretty likely) that embracing the “Big City” mindset would have, in fact, destroyed what makes Portland…well, Portland.
In the intervening 58 years since the Delta Dome proposal was voted down, not much has changed Portland’s outdoor sports landscape. If the untimely demise of the latest incarnation of the Portland Beavers AAA franchise is any indication, the Rose City is still a long way from getting its act together when it comes to attracting an MLB or NFL franchise. Portland’s venerable downtown stadium, now unfortunately named Jeld-Wen Field, hosts a Major League Soccer franchise, the Portland Timbers. This is a small success for downtown Portland and soccer fans in Soccer City U.S.A., but it hardly satisfies the needs of the average sports fan still waiting to buy season tickets to their very own MLB or NFL team. Among the masses, Portland’s only major-league team is still the Trailblazers, but a lone NBA franchise can’t really carry a metropolis the size of Greater Portland.
In 2012, even without even a single A baseball team or arena football franchise, it still seems like the right decision was made back in 1964. It was more important to fight the growing trend to flatten neighborhoods and build freeways, to abandon the inner core and build on the fringes. It created a dense, vibrant city that draws thousands of new residents every year. The challenge now is how to embrace the fact that Portland is the heart of a metropolis with over 2 and a half million residents. How can the city deliver everything you expect of a city that size, without compromising the ideals that make the city what it is?