Providence Park is an amazing little stadium. I don't say the word "little" condescendingly - it's physically smaller than most MLS stadia in overall footprint, and its current capacity of just a touch over 21,000 lands it firmly in the bottom half of MLS as far as crowds go.
The Portland Timbers sell out every game, and the atmosphere is second to none in MLS, but the downside of Providence Park is that demand for tickets far outstrips supply - the waiting list for season tickets is currently at approximately 13,000 people. Combine that with a renewal rate of about 98% for current season ticket holders, and it's easy to see why both fans and team have been clamoring for more seats, almost since Portland's MLS debut in 2011.
Merrit Paulson's strong preference has always been to stay at what's now called Providence Park. It has an ideal location, in the middle of a neighborhood and well served by both light rail and bus transit, and it's an older stadium without a bad seat in the house. It's from the same stadium construction era as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. Although Multnomah Stadium, as it was called, was built in 1926, over 10 years after both those parks, it shares their same intimate feel, neighborhood accessibility, and relatively human scale compared to some of the bigger more modern parks.
When Paulson bought the Timbers, he renovated Providence Park into what it is today. That renovation, in 2010, was highly contentious, done as it was with public funding ("only" $31 million, but still), but it turned the stadium into one of the jewels of MLS, a place where the Timbers Army can make their mark and turn this small, urban stadium into one of the most feared venues in the league.
But now, it's time for Providence Park to grow up a little bit. Today, the team unveiled their preliminary plans for an expansion to the east side of the stadium, and they're fantastic.
The existing east side, which is basically the Key Bank Club in the above image, would be capped by a four-tiered, steeply raked grandstand. The lowest tier would essentially be premium seating as an extension of the Key Bank Club, the middle two tiers would be general seating and the tier at the top would be party suites and/or luxury boxes, augmenting the existing boxes available on the northwest corner.
The great thing about this stand is that it's fully modern, but reminiscent of things like Boca Juniors' La Bombonera stadium - Providence is obviously a lot smaller, but the vertical wall in Prov Park will definitely enhance an already loud stadium, deflecting noise from the North End back into the stadium and adding to it.
The plan for the general seating areas is to first offer existing season ticket holders the chance to relocate to those seats, then to dive into that 13,000 strong waiting list to backfill the seats those season ticket holders moved from and to occupy the remaining seats. All told, this expansion would add an additional 4,000 seats to Providence Park, putting its capacity at just over 25,000.
While it could be argued that the Portland market could easily sustain a 30-35,000 seat stadium, it could not do so without relocating the Timbers and building an entirely new venue in a suburb somewhere, something that the team has repeatedly said they don't want to do.
One of the best parts of the expansion plans, though, is behind the scenes - it's going to be privately financed. The 2010 renovation of the Timbers' stadium cost about $31 million and was largely paid for by the city, so the fact that this expansion is more expensive, but is being financed entirely by the ownership group and will require the commitment of no public money. In an era where most stadium construction projects are basically ransomed out of their cities, it's nice to see the Timbers going it alone.
It should be noted that these designs are preliminary - the initial public hearing on the expansion isn't until early May. If everything goes well in the design review process, though, construction could start as early as November of this year, following the Timbers' hopefully deep run into the MLS playoffs, and be ready for the start of the 2019 season.