IF ALL GOES according to the plan city council approved last week, a one-of-a-kind green skyscraper will soon loom eight stories over Portland—setting a global example of sustainable building and cementing our fair city as an international hub of green technology.
The Oregon Sustainability Center would be the crown jewel in Portland's (and Mayor Sam Adams') quest to make Portland the greenest city in America. But the bold building will require a hefty public investment at a time when local budgets have been cut to the bone.
Its designers plan to incorporate innovative water and energy systems, collecting and reusing storm water from the building's roof. Altogether, the office and retail building would boast a zero carbon footprint.
But all that experimental designing brings the cost to $75 million. On Wednesday, August 4, Portland City Council unanimously voted to partner with the Oregon University system to build the center, investing up to $14 million from city urban renewal funds and a bond.
The city also promised to lease office space in the center for an estimated $32 million over 10 years (about the same cost as leasing other top-quality new office space in town). The university system will pitch in $49 million and use the building as office and laboratory space.
Mayor Adams promised that the building would create or lure thousands of green jobs to Portland. "This is one of the few organic economic strengths that we have," he said. "And shame on us if we let others eclipse us."
Though planners and architects in town are generally enthused about the building, urban planning consultant Don Arambula asks a sharp question: "Is it economically sustainable?" He says innovative buildings financed with public dollars can be useful as trend-setting models for private companies, but that when it comes to the economics of sustainability, there's a lot designers can do without breaking the bank.
"When we think about buildings, the best way to get immediate results for sustainability is weatherization. That's not sexy, but it's better bang for the buck," says Arambula.
High-profile architecture critic and PortlandArchitecture.com blogger Brian Libby has a similar reaction to the project: Love the innovation, but the city should consider finding a cheaper option for building a sustainability center, like renovating an existing landmark building rather than pouring funds into a new one.
But Portland Development Commission project manager Eric Jacobson says the sustainability center partners are committed to building a high-tech "living" building, rather than doing a green renovation or other cost-cutting alternatives.
"One of our key economic development strategies is to focus on industries where Portland already has a competitive advantage," says Jacobson.
A final design for the sustainability center will be presented to City Council this winter.