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Build It and They Will Come: The Future of Providence Park

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Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes when news breaks it is actually a precursor of what could end up being much larger news.

Just before the New Year, Willamette Week's Nigel Jaquiss reported the Timbers have approached the Multnomah Athletic Club and the City of Portland about an expansion of the south side of Providence Park that would increase the stadium's seating capacity by an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 seats by, at the earliest, the 2018 season. Although, as Jamie Goldberg of The Oregonian reported, the Timbers remain in the design phase of the south end expansion, the additional seating could very well make Providence Park a more attractive option for luring international competition to the stadium.

This is, of course, good news, as the south-end expansion would likely enclose the south side of the park and bring with it a material increase in seating capacity. But what was revealed from the Twitter conversation involving Timbers owner Merritt Paulson that spun off of Jaquiss's report may in the long term end up being much, much more significant news.

Here is what we know today that we didn't previously:  The Timbers have investigated a significant expansion of the east side of Providence Park, concluded that it is architecturally feasible, and determined that any such expansion would take the form of an upper deck added on top of the current east-side stand.

In the end it seems likely that such an expansion of the east side of Providence Park could allow the Timbers to expand the capacity of the stadium to over 30,000, certainly making the Timbers' home ground one of the largest soccer-specific stadiums in the United States.

Any east side expansion, of course, is a much longer-term project than the south end development currently in the works. And there are still significant challenges that face any east side expansion, including financing, stadium infrastructure expansion, and a design-review process that prevented the Timbers from building above the 18th Street-level in 2010.

But on Wednesday we found out such a project is possible, even if the odds of seeing it completed in the first half of the 2020s would only arouse optimism in Lloyd Christmas.

So what would an expanded Providence Park look like? Let's stretch out the imagination.

To start with, as Portland history nerd and Stumptown Footy contributor emeritus Michael Orr pointed out on Twitter, the idea of a two-tiered Providence Park is nothing new.

Since the west and north sides of the stadium took their modern form, various Portlanders have drawn up plans to complete the horseshoe and build an upper deck. And, as the pictures Orr shared demonstrate, it could also be done while preserving the overall architectural affect of the historic stadium, something that should be a priority for any expansion of the Park.

Although expanded capacity would be a primary purpose of the expansion, the opportunity for the club to install additional lucrative premium seating would be just as important.  Accordingly, any expansion on the east side would almost certainly include significant additional suite-quality seating, likely at the top of the existing east grandstand as part of a building that would provide part of the anchor for the new stand.

As for the second deck of the east stand, it would very likely have its own concourse, restrooms, and concessions on the upper evel. Concourse space is famously limited at Providence Park (although this is a bigger problem on the north and west sides than it is on the east side), so any additional capacity would require additional concourse space. Ingress and egress to the east-side upper deck would be an architectural challenge, but probably a surmountable one.

The expanded capacity, however, may also allow the Timbers to alleviate concourse congestion on the west side. As currently configured, some of the seating on the west side is covered by tarps to mitigate the concourse limitations. With added capacity in the east end (and perhaps as soon as the apparently nearer-term south end expansion), the Timbers could take out these tarped rows of benches as well as several hundred seats worth of additional bleachers to be replaced by open-air, secondary premium seating similar to what the Portland TrailBlazers have installed in the 300-level of the Moda Center.

The secondary premium seating would kill two veritable birds with one stone; it would reduce the number of people in the west concourse (and because food and drink would be hosted in this seating also reduce the number of people using the west-end concessions), and add more high-margin seating for the Timbers.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing an expansion of Providence Park would be accommodating parking for an additional 10,000 fans. Although the stadium's presence in the city center has significantly mitigated Providence Park's parking problems with easy access to transit, the notion of a 30,000-plus-capacity stadium without any significant dedicated parking seems farfetched.

Difficult as this problem may be, though, it also seems solvable with several lightly utilized blocks east of Providence Park including the soon-to-be-vacant Oregonian printing facility. Moreover, with increased development starting to take place on the west side of I-405 near Providence Park but little parking in that neighborhood, it seems very possible that partners for a parking project near the stadium could be out there for the Timbers to team up with.

And, finally, there are the political hurdles. The design-review process around Portland can be tedious, as the city can be (often for good reason) very protective of neighborhood interests and accommodating to those who want their voices heard. Without question, many would have input -- and not all of it positive -- to provide regarding an expansion of Providence Park and any serious parking project in the neighborhood. So the political process would undoubtedly be long and difficult.

But so was the political process to bring MLS to Portland in the first place. And the Timbers have never had more muscle than they do right now coming off of a championship season. The time to dream, therefore, is now.

So, while a major expansion of Providence Park is undeniably difficult, we now know that it’s possible. And with plausibility comes the ability to dream about what the Timbers’ home ground could become in the near and distant future.