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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Renovation allows for more than soccer, but westside expansion not so easy

COURTESY PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - The new eastside seats at Providence Park have been a big hit with Portland Timbers fans.The weather was superb Sunday night, the result was what the hometown fans wanted — a 1-0 victory for the Portland Timbers over FC Dallas — and it was obvious that the ol' park cleans up pretty darn well.

Providence Park, that is.

Sunday's match was the third since the Timbers' home stadium reopened on June 1 after a privately funded $85 million expansion/renovation project that took 20 months to complete.

The Timbers Army was in its element, and spirits were high throughout the building as newcomer Brian Fernandez knocked home a goal for the fifth time in his five games — an MLS record. Portland hasn't had a rookie make this kind of impact since Sidney Wicks.

This was my first look at the venue since its reboot. And I have to say, the east side — where most of the work was done and 4,000 seats were added — appears to be a smashing success.

Onward, Rose City.

The renovation features three-tiered eastside seating to bring the capacity to 25,218, new locker rooms, new team stores, a state-of-the-art scoreboard/video board, a new sound system and "refreshed" concourses and concession stands throughout the edifice.

"It turned out really well," said Mike Golub, the Timbers' president of business, looking down at the pitch from his suite on the west side of the stadium. "It has a good feel for it. We wanted to enhance the atmosphere and the game experience for our fans, and I think we accomplished it. The reviews have been strong. People are happy with their seats and the building."

The main thing was to increase the capacity to 25,218 and allow some of the 15,000 on a waiting list to purchase season tickets.

"It helped make this decision a lot easier, knowing we were going to invest this money in a city-owned building but the tickets would get gobbled up," Golub said. "We renew at such a high rate, only a couple hundred per year come off the list."

Out of the new seats, 3,200 went to season tickets, the others to group sales. The Timbers gave the option to existing season ticket-holders that they could keep their seats or move.

"A lot of folks switched from the old side to the new side," Golub said.

I can see why.

The three tiers on the east side have different amenities, but all offer a good view of the action.

The seats of Steve and Kathy Stoner are located in the very top row of the highest tier — the Duracell Deck.

"We can see really well," Kathy said. "I'm impressed. There are other stadiums where there are (visual) obstructions. But with plexiglass barriers here, they were very thoughtful in the way they designed it."

The Stoners were fortunate. They put their names on the waiting list for season tickets last year, "and we didn't think we had a chance for this year," Steve said. "But they called us in May and said there were some additional seats that had opened up, and we got in.

"The renovation is beautiful. They did a nice job."

All three tiers have plenty of open space in concession areas on the concourse and views of the city from the back side beyond Southwest 18th Avenue.

"We wanted to give some breathing room," Golub said, "and let people interact."

The upper levels have become popular for renting out for weddings and special events.

"It's like the city's biggest rooftop bar," Golub said.

The premium spot is the first tier, called "Tanner Ridge." There is air conditioning in the concourse, short lines to a wide variety of concessions and the closest views of the action from among the three tiers.

"This area is really posh, a step above," said Kristen St. Marie, who attended with her 11-year-old son, Christian.

St. Marie bought the tickets via SeatGeek, the official venue for season ticket-holders to put their tickets up if they can't get to a game.

St. Marie, who was turned on to the Timbers by a friend last season, hasn't missed a game this season. This was her first visit to the spendier Tanner Ridge section.

"I could be downstairs in a concession line that is about 15 minutes long to get a hard cider right now," she said. "This is always worth it for me from now on.

"It's taking the quality of the experience to another level, if you want it. You don't have to. You can be hardcore still with the (Timbers) Army. You can be in the seats at the 200 level (on the west side) in the bleachers and still enjoy the experience. But this gives you an option to feel a different experience and still love your Timbers."

Lynn and Liz Lashbrook have been season ticket-holders — always on the east side — since the Timbers began MLS play in 2011.

"I absolutely love the renovation," Liz said. "We have a bigger roof, and the place is spectacular. It has the feel of a real, big-time stadium."

The east side does, at least.

The Timbers didn't do a lot on the west side, in part because there's not a lot of room to work with as the building buttresses Southwest 20th Street.

"One of the challenges to this side is, it's just tight," Golub said.

Concessions and "wayfinding" signage on the west side have been updated and improved. Wood from the original bench seats of the stadium was used.

"We've tried to pay homage to the history of this building," Golub said.

The history is extensive. The Multnomah Athletic Club — originally called the "Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club" — opened its doors in 1893. Before that, the area served as a large Chinese vegetable garden, providing produce to much of Portland.

The MAAC installed a small grandstand and used the land for athletic fields until 1926, when it erected Multnomah Stadium as a horseshoe-shaped edifice with capacity at 35,000 at a cost of $500,000. (The original thought, incidentally, was to build it as a two-tiered stadium with a capacity of 100,000. Funding limits kept it to one tier and 35,000).

In 1966, the facility was sold to the city of Portland for $2.1 million. Through the years, it's been known as Civic Stadium, PGE Park and Jeld-Wen Field and, since 2014, Providence Park.

I covered several games for the Oregon Journal in the Timbers' initial season in the North American Soccer League (1975) and was there when they drew 35,503 fans for a league semifinals match against the St. Louis Stars that year. Civic Stadium played host to Soccer Bowl 1977, with Pele playing for the Cosmos, who beat the Seattle Sounders 2-1 in his final professional match.

With the removal of outfield seats and reconfiguration of luxury boxes and office space, stadium capacity was downgraded to 19,566 in the early 2000s, which later grew to about 21,000 after Portland joined MLS.

Now the capacity is larger, and the facility certainly better. But there are still the old bench seats in the higher regions on the west side. And concourses are tight all the way around to the east side, with concession lines blocking traffic 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday night.

Even with a waiting list of 11,000 for season tickets, there are no plans for further expansion of the stadium.

"Any sports venue always has to be evolving, but I don't foresee in the near future anything major happening," Golub said. "Given the constraints of our footprint, it's hard to contemplate (finishing or expanding the west side) ... 25,000 is a good number. We're in a good spot for now."

On the pitch, the Timbers may be, too.

Because of the expansion/renovation project, they played their first 12 MLS games on the road — a league record.

"It was onerous, even though we had no choice," Golub said.

But the Timbers get to play 11 of their last 12 games at home. And though they began Sunday in last place in the Western Conference, they're gathering steam, having gone 6-3-1 in their last 10 MLS games overall. Golub said there is some precedent to suggest that good things are ahead.

"Last year, D.C. United played its first 10 games on the road," he said. "A number of years ago, Kansas City had 10 straight games. Toronto had six games two years in a row. In every case, the teams made the playoffs. If we finish with the kind of home record we've had in the past, we're going to climb the table."

Financially, the Timbers should get good return for their investment.

"These extra 4,000 seats will give us the resources to continue to put the best product on the field," Golub said. "Most fans get it — a successful business makes putting a successful product on the field easier. It's a symbiotic relationship."

The only thing the Timbers missed in their renovation, near as I can tell, is the men's room by the press box.

I'm sure that will get covered next time.

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@kerryeggers


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