PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Later this month, the Portland City Council will consider a proposal by Portland State University to replace the aging Keller Auditorium with a new performance and concert hall that’s better suited for Broadway shows and designed to meet modern earthquake resiliency code standards.

PSU is among a list of several public and private entities vying for a contract to replace, refurbish or completely rebuild the Keller after a 2020 seismic analysis performed by the Portland Office of Management and Finance raised serious questions about the 106-year-old theater’s ability to “withstand a major earthquake.” During the September meeting, city commissioners will also review proposals from the Lloyd Center, OMSI and the Halprin Landscape Conservancy — a local organization aiming to preserve the historic theater.

In an Aug. 11 letter to the Board of Trustees obtained by KOIN 6 News, PSU President Ann Cudd outlined the school’s intentions to replace the Keller with a “state-of-the-art performance space” built on the current site of the University Place Hotel & Conference Center in Southwest Portland. The plans would also include a new hotel and conference center and space for “academic programs.”

“I write today to share some very preliminary but potentially exciting information … about a once in a century development opportunity for downtown Portland and Portland State,” the letter reads. “In recognition of our longstanding committed partnership with the city, PSU received a direct invitation from the City of Portland to respond to the request for expression of interest to explore potential sites for a new performing arts venue to replace Keller Auditorium.”

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 Keller Auditorium’s proposed renovations from the Northwest facade and proposed Third Avenue plaza (Credit: Halprin Landscape Conservancy)

While more specific details about PSU’s proposed “world-class entertainment venue” are not mentioned in the letter, the city’s 2020 seismic analysis report estimates that a 2,900-seat theater could be built at a new location in 2.5 years for $245 million, not including demolition costs. Refurbishing the Keller is estimated to cost $215 million and would require the theater to close for approximately two years.

The city expects all of the aforementioned proposals to meet current safety, accessibility and earthquake standards, improve use for showgoers and performers, beautify the city and serve the public for more than 50 years. However, the city said that building a concert hall at a new location is the only presented option that allows shows to continue at the Keller during the construction process.

“A major new facility could be an anchor and catalyst for neighborhood growth and encourage additional public [and] private investment,” the 2020 report reads. “It would also allow the existing Keller to remain in operation during the construction of the new building.”

The Keller Auditorium. (KOIN 6)

In addition to the PSU proposal, other properties considered for the project include an unspecified Oregon Museum of Science and Industry property, the Portland waterfront, the site of the former ESCO steel foundry, Zidell Yards and two locations in the Lloyd District including the Lloyd Center mall.

The city’s Office of Management and Finance lists building a new theater at a new location as the most expensive option for replacing or refurbishing the Keller Auditorium. However, the report shows that the city is also considering other financial factors, like lost theater revenue caused by construction-related closures. In the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the Keller Auditorium generated approximately $4 million in revenue. 

In her letter, Cudd mentions the university’s means to raise additional funding for “large capital projects.” However, the university has not provided any details on how it might contribute to the funding of the proposed theater.

“As you know, PSU is an experienced downtown developer with a proven track record of creating partnerships — with city bureaus, arts organizations and other educational institutions — maximizing financing opportunities for large capital projects including access to state bond programs,” Cudd said. “We are still very much in the early stages of conceptualization and there are many hurdles yet to be cleared.”