MLB in Portland: Wood stadium may be game changer

'It's been 100 years since a wooden stadium has been built in this country'

Portland's Lynn Lashbrook has been working for years on ideas to bring major league baseball to the city. (Courtesy of Lynn Lashbrook)
Portland's Lynn Lashbrook has been working for years on ideas to bring major league baseball to the city. (Courtesy of Lynn Lashbrook)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Lynn Lashbrook has been at it a long time — for more than 20 years, since he moved to Portland from Kansas City in 1996.

Lashbrook, founder and president of Sports Management Worldwide, has relentlessly pushed the idea of bringing major league baseball to the City of Roses. I’ve written about his crusade several times, the last time in 2015, when he was advocating for the move of a franchise — probably Oakland or Tampa Bay — to Portland.

Tim Raines, Montreal Expos outfielder, checks his swing, 1983. (AP Photo)
Tim Raines, Montreal Expos outfielder, checks his swing, 1983. (AP Photo)

In 2003, Lashbrook was one of the drivers of the Oregon Baseball Campaign, which sought relocation of the Montreal Expos to Portland. The group spearheaded passage of House Bill 3606, which would allocate $150 million in funds tied to MLB players’ income tax revenue for construction of a new stadium. Those funds, still available, weren’t used for the Expos, who wound up moving to Washington, D.C., in 2005.

That was the only relocation of a major league franchise in the past 45 years. Lashbrook thinks the climate is ripe now for either Oakland or Tampa Bay to move, though ownership of both teams has promised to announce locations of proposed new stadiums in their current cities by the end of the year. The A’s rank 29th in home attendance this season with an average of 18,498. The Rays are 30th and last at 15,680.

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Miami Marlins’ Wei-Yin Chen pitches to Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, April 18, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Miami Marlins, meanwhile, are up for sale. Three potential ownership groups, one led by Jeb Bush and another featuring Derek Jeter, are trying to buy the team for about $1.3 billion.

Lashbrook doesn’t have access to that kind of money. He does have a fresh idea, though, that he believes would provide a ballpark perfectly fitting both for the history and the economy of our state.

As reported last week in the Portland Tribune, Framework Project LLC has received approval for a building permit allowing construction of the first wooden high-rise structure in the United States.

The permit was awarded by the city of Portland and the state of Oregon, the state taking particular interest due to the potential for the building to stimulate the state’s downtrodden timber industry.

Framework is set to construct a 12-story building, for use in affordable housing along with retail offices, this fall in the Pearl District. The material is “cross-laminated timber” (CLT), much of which will be sourced from D.R. Johnson Lumber Co. in Douglas County.

A rendering of the wooden high rise that will be built in NW Portland. (Lever Architecture)
A rendering of the wooden high rise that will be built in NW Portland. (Lever Architecture)

CLT panels are constructed from small wooden planks bound to one another by a polyurethane adhesive, giving them the strength of traditional construction materials such as concrete and steel.

The wood is tied together with major steel bolts, making it a wood structure with steel connectors.

The materials passed state seismic and fire tests required of buildings made from conventional concrete, steel and lumber.

The location of Framework’s upcoming building project is a block from Lashbrook’s office in the Pearl District, which piqued his interest. Working the project is Portland’s Walsh Construction Co., whose chairman is Bob Walsh. His brother is Tom Walsh — Lashbrook’s landlord, who founded the company with his brother in 1961. Tom is no longer with Walsh Construction, but now runs Tom Walsh & Co., Construction.

Lashbrook went to Tom Walsh with the idea of constructing a ballpark entirely of CLT. His response?

“Did Lynn pass on his vow to stop drinking?” Walsh jokes.

Truth be told, Walsh says, “My reaction was, ‘Hmm. Walk me through this.”

After some thought, he became convinced it was a credible plan.

“I never would have come up with it, but it’s clearly an idea worth pursuing,” says Walsh, 77, a former football player at Lincoln High and Stanford. “My gut instinct, it’s absolutely doable.

“Conservatives would say it’s not very likely to happen. The engineering is all too new. The construction business has always been conservative. People don’t get paid for taking risks. I’m not a radical at all, but I’m coming from a slightly different perspective.

“Does this innovative idea have my support? Absolutely. It has timber, and it’s good land use, good technology.”

Buoyed by Walsh’s support, Lashbrook sought a new location for a potential ballpark. He has long focused on the Portland Public Schools site north of Northeast Broadway near Moda Center. Several weeks ago, a consultant advised him to come up with a second site. Lashbrook believes he has the spot — a parcel of land in Northwest Portland near Montgomery Park where fabled Vaughn Street Park once sat.

Vaughn Street Park was a wooden structure built in 1901, near where the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition World’s Fair was held in 1905. It was home to Portland’s Pacific Coast League franchise from 1903 until the park’s demolition after the 1955 season.

Charles Swigert was one of two original financiers of Vaughn Street Park. His descendants have owned Esco Corp., a heavy manufacturing equipment maker, in the area surrounding Vaughn Street since the company’s inception in 1913.

Esco now is in the final phase of shutting down its plant. The area has been zoned for industrial and industrial-related use, which would include the possibile construction of a ballpark there.

The Swigerts haven’t placed the land for sale yet, and Lashbrook hasn’t contacted them about a potential purchase. But he thinks it would make a fitting home for a major league park.

A rendering of the wooden high rise. (Lever Architecture)

Tom Walsh figures a new park would need a 10-acre footprint. The PPS plot covers 13 acres. The Esco plot would be at least 25 acres. Construction of an all-wood facility at the Esco site would make a lot of sense, Walsh says.

“CLT is a natural outgrowth of what the timber industry has been to the state for many years,” he says. “It’s going to work. It’s revolutionary. I liken it to a product introduced when I was a kid starting in the construction world — which today we call plywood. It emerged in the ’50s, and initially it was laughed at.

“There is still a significant amount of support for the timber industry in this state. Supporters of the concept would be one-third sports enthusiasts and two-thirds industrialists.”

Walsh says Walsh Construction would not be equipped to build the ballpark.

“Their forte is housing,” he says. “But there would be a half-dozen logical construction candidates nationwide. Each of those would salivate at the possibility of taking on this project.”

Lashbrook thinks the logical step is to forge ahead with the idea of an all-wooden stadium, however heretical it may seem.

“It’s been 100 years since a wooden stadium has been built in this country,” he says. “The more I talk about it with people, eyes light up about the cross-pollination between industry and baseball. You talk about economy and a poster child for a new technology that might give rebirth to the timber industry.

“Over the years, that phrase you always hear — ‘Keep Portland weird’ — and to bring major league baseball here always seemed like a conflict to me. Not anymore. You have to make the ballpark unique, and a wood stadium makes sense. It makes more sense than anything else out there. There is timber money that would love to showcase the new product that could change the industry forever.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, May 1, 2017 (KOIN)
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, May 1, 2017 (KOIN)

Lashbrook says he has met twice with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler since he has taken office, though he has not yet floated the idea of a wooden park.

“We’ve talked about major league baseball,” Lashbrook says. “He’s not against it. He wants something bold. This is it. We’ve had communication with the commissioner’s office four times in recent years, and we’ve been encouraged every time.”

A new ballpark would be costly. The latest major league stadium, SunTrust Park in Atlanta, opened this year at a cost of $622 million under a public/private partnership. Including a surrounding entertainment district, the price tag was $1.1 billion. A prospective owner would have to be able to provide a huge amount of financing.

“But I’ve never worried about ownership,” Lashbrook says. “There are groups out there that want to buy a major league team. Oakland and Tampa Bay are both in deep trouble. Baseball would like to expand.

“You have to have a city large enough. We’re there. You have to have a site. We have two. A wooden stadium in a wooden resource state hits all the boxes. The mayor is trying to run the city as a business. You can’t tell me a baseball stadium in that part of the city wouldn’t grow the city that way.”

It’s an idea, Lashbrook’s latest, and it’s worth exploring.

“This city is begging for another major pro team,” he says. “It’s going to take an owner and a team, but you have to have a site. We have two possibilities. There are teams that are going to be moving. We’re going to be in the conversation. We’re further ahead with this than we’ve ever been.

“This is bigger than baseball. It gets me more excited than ever, and I’ve never lost enthusiasm for the idea of putting major league baseball in Portland.”