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A first look at the new-and-improved Providence Park for Portland Timbers and Thorns

The Timbers have finally unveiled the $85 million transformation: modern upgrades and an intimidating wall of fans.

Three new tiers of seating will increase Providence Park's capacity by more than 4,000. (Photo by Caitlin Murray)

PORTLAND, Ore. – There was a palpable excitement at the intersection of SW Morrison Street and 18th Avenue Tuesday afternoon.

The Portland Timbers were finally about to unveil to outsiders what has been happening behind the walls of Providence Park: a 4,000-seat expansion and slew of upgrades are nearly complete after 20 months of construction. The club isn’t merely calling it a renovation – they see it as a rebirth.

In hard hats, safety goggles and brightly colored vests, members of the media got their first look at the transformational construction project, which changes the look and feel of the home field for the Timbers and Thorns. It still has the character of the historic 93-year-old building it is, but now it feels contemporary and more in line with the stadiums being built today.

The project isn’t quite finished yet, but the three decks of new seats, two new video boards and a modern edge-to-edge roof – the components that change the atmosphere the most – are in place. The rest of the work will be done by the stadium’s reopening June 1, when the Timbers host Los Angeles FC.

“We’re in good shape,” said Timbers head of business Mike Golub. “As you walk around, you’ll see things that still need to get done. That’s not uncommon for where we are, 25 days out. But the key critical milestones we’ve been hitting along the way.”

The main feature of the privately-funded $85 million project is a wall of new seating in three stacks that will bring the total capacity from 21,144 to 25,218. With that, Providence Park will go from one of the smaller stadiums in MLS to one of the larger soccer-specific stadiums in the league.

“The stacked seating trays create a more compressed feeling and, from the field side, it creates this wall of fans,” said Chelsea Grassinger, principal at architect firm Allied Works. “Everyone feels much closer to the field.”

The top level, which includes an open-air concourse that offers views of the city out the back, will offer the most affordable seats. The middle tier will be mid-range in price. But the bottom tier, named Tanner Ridge as a nod to Tanner Creek running under the stadium, will offer something Providence Park had lacked previously: a premium experience at a high cost. The perks include upscale food and beverage options, complimentary wifi, extra leg room and a climate-controlled environment.

The club felt these premium seats and their higher price tags, along with a higher capacity that will generate more per-game revenue, were necessary for the Timbers to stay competitive in a rapidly evolving MLS.

“We knew that for us to continue to be as successful as we had been on and off the field in our first eight years, we needed a stadium that positioned us well for the future,” Golub  said. “That was part of the calculus: designing a stadium that continued to allow us to compete at the highest level on and off the field.”

All the new seats are already reserved. With the Timbers selling out every single game in their MLS history and a season ticket-holder wait list of around 13,000 names, the 4,000 seats only make a small dent in the demand for tickets. Around 80% have been claimed by season ticket-holders and the remaining 20% of the new seats will be made available as single-game sales.

But it’s not just about the seats and the new roof that covers the entire east side, where the new seats sit.

An upgraded video board replaces the old one at the south end – the footprint of the board is the same, but now it’s entirely LED instead of featuring advertising signs, which means a screen double in size, and it has a higher resolution. A new video board on the west side replaces advertising panels as well, giving fans on the north end a clearer view of video replays.

Horizontal LED panels also stretch across various spots in the stadium, and a new vertical video panel will be installed in the northeast corner of the stadium.

New LED lighting throughout the stadium will be more energy efficient and can be turned on and off quickly, allowing the Timbers to do more theatrical presentations, if they want. The old lighting system had a long restrike time, and it took about 20 minutes before the lights could be turned back on after turning off.

“We made a bunch of changes along the way, mostly additions – things like the lights and the sound system,” Golub said. “We really felt that we wanted to do everything now and have this grand reopening without sparing any expense or any work.”

While media visited Tuesday, a new artificial turf field was being installed. For the first time, it will be a turf called Coolplay that will reduce on-field temperatures by around 25%. The Timbers had tested it on their practice fields last year and opted to make the switch for the game surface this year.

The roof was still being finished Tuesday as construction workers made their way on top of the structure.

The small footprint of Providence Park made construction a challenge, said project manager Brian Sabom. The stadium pushes right up against boundaries for major thoroughfares, the MAX red line train and the Multnomah Athletic Club, which meant little room to do all the work necessary on a project that, at its peak, had 225 workers. The roof, which is comprised of 923,000 pounds of steel, had to be brought inside in pieces and soldered together. But the final product, so far, has stayed in line with the blueprints.

“The base plan for the build is pretty consistent with what we did,” Sabom said.

But amid all the upgrades and added seats, the new Providence Park just feels a bit roomier. Beams that supported the old roof are gone, making the east side feel more open. At the top level of the new concourse, open decks with railings offer a place for fans to stand and hang out away from their seats. These observation decks may not stay open mingling spots forever, but for now the club wants to see how fans use them.

“Once we open the doors on June 1, we’ll really know because these buildings are like living organisms,” Golub said. “There will inevitably be some changes and tweaks. We’ll learn a lot when people come through the doors and interact and use the stadium the way we hope and know they will.”

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