City Council this morning was flush with excitement over a grand new building that, if built, will clearly be the jewel in Portland's (and Mayor Sam Adams') King of Green crown. Congressman David Wu and representatives of Senator Merkley and Wydens' offices turned up to stump for rolling forward with the plan to build the Oregon Sustainability Center near Portland State University downtown. The project just received a $300,000 earmark from the feds.

The Sustainability Center is a bold and innovative building that boosters use terrible jargon like "triple net zero" and "synergistic" to describe. It will be carbon neutral, use solar energy and generate all the water used in the building by collecting stormwater, plus it will have zero car parking spots and 400 bike parking spots. Supporters say that it is a crucial project to making Portland the hub of green technology companies in coming decades and will create thousands of green jobs. "This is one of the few organic economic strengths that we have," said Mayor Adams. "And shame on us if we let others eclipse us."

The vote today would commit the city to leasing several floors of the imaged center as office space, a deal which would cost the city an estimated $32 million cost over the next ten years.

The building is exciting, but I'm worried that we're so giddy to focus on the "next generation" that we're casting a blind eye toward the current one. When we're cutting budgets so severely across the board, is this really the time to be pouring resources into a gleaming green tower?

The Sustainability Center planners are well-aware that its pricetag asks a lot of strapped public coffers: they downsized the plan from an 11-story, $120 million project to the current eight-or-nine-story $75 million design. But that's far from thrifty. Congressman David Wu noted the "heavy investment" the building will take and asked city council to have the "courage of our forebearers to look over the horizon and do the right thing."

The building is supposed to be a pillar of Portland values, a beacon attracting all things green to settle in the city. So wouldn't it be crass to have this monument to forward-thinking rising from a downtown where bus service has just been slashed, homelessness is on the rise and service cuts threaten to force people with disabilities into institutions. Does it strike anyone else as insane that we can get a $300,000 federal earmark for an as-yet-unbuilt symbol of sustainability, but we can't get money to keep our current public transit system afloat?

Recent reports, on the heels of catastrophic failures of aging public transit systems in DC and New York, found that rehabing our public transit system nationwide would cost $50 billion. That's no where near the $8 billion that the feds allocated to public transit rehab in the stimulus. Sexy projects like the Oregon Sustainability Center are bold and exciting, but, frankly, I would rather have buses that ran on time.

UPDATE: Council voted 5-0 to partner with the Oregon University system to build the sustainability center. That commits the Portland Development Commission and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to coming up with $450,000 for the building's $900,000 water system. The initial design work will be done by well-known local firms GBD Architects (who worked on the Brewery Blocks) and SERA (whose work ranges from homeless shelter Blanchet House to infill in Abu Dhabi).