BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past six months, it has looked as if the Oregon Sustainability Center would never get built. In March, the three-legged stool of funding from state, city and Portland State University was dealt a seemingly fatal blow when the gridlocked state legislature could not pass its share, some $37 million of the total $62 million price tag.
But as reported by Willamette Week and The Oregonian earlier this week, a private sector partner, Interface Engineering, has proposed locating a new headquarters there, leasing 25,000 to 30,000 square feet of space - about one third of the building. Interface is also reportedly interested in having an option to join in as partial owner.
"We think it will be a fabulous project," the firm's president, Omid Nabipoor, told Beth Slovic of The Oregonian. "It will be a hub for sustainable design in Portland." The company, which has over 100 LEED-rated buildings in its portfolio, also seeks a new name for the building: the Innovation Center.
The building would undergo some changes, both architecturally and economically, under the Interface proposal. It would be a story shorter, with a total closer to 100,000 square feet than the original plan for 130,000. Rent would be at $30 per square foot, not the $40.25 previously projected. The building's budget would be $47.4 million, slashing nearly $15 million from the last cost estimate before the state abandoned the project.
"As a private, for-profit enterprise, we asked them to go back and scale the costs down," Nabipoor told Willamette Week's Aaron Mesh. "I've always understood the concern about the high costs of a big project—that stigma. We're not the type to pay high rates for a type-A, high-class building." But ownership may be attractive, the Interface president added, because "We feel like we need to have skin in the game."
According to Kyle Andersen of GBD Architects, which is co-designing the Oregon Sustainability Center with SERA Architects, there has not yet been any design work done to incorporate Interface's proposal. But, as Andersen explained in an email, "The design team did quickly look at the potential cost savings by reducing the building square footage, and making the building only six levels tall. We quickly explored the use of wood for the structure given the reduced building size. The use of regional building materials, labor and advancing technology could be a nice play with a future re-design. We looked quickly at Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) construction that are more commonly found in Europe, but could not come to any certain conclusions with the little amount of time we had. This project could be a nice catalyst to bring new technology to our region by advancing the use of regional materials and re-tooling existing fabrication facilities."
During its now multi-year gestation, the Sustainability Center has come to represent both Portland's greatest ambitions as a world capital of green design as well as the inherent challenges in a city where a lack of wealth requires a lot of highly orchestrated collaboration and partnering. Intended to be the first multi-tenant office building in the United States to meet rigid Living Building Challenge strictures by generating most all of its own power and water needs, the project could help quell skeptics who argue other cities such as New York and Chicago are leading the sustainability charge today. Yet the use of city funds (let alone state) for such a speculative, expensive venture at a time when budgets are already overstressed has also led to more than a few to express skepticism about the project. In the caustic jungle that is the OregonLive comments section, the Sustainability Center has been called everything from the smoking-gun proof of mayor Sam Adams' inherent corruption to the reason so many of our outer streets remain unpaved.
I too have been critical of the Oregon Sustainability Center in the past, mostly because of the fact that renovating an old building is the truly sustainable move. And given that there are two massive government buildings downtown on Broadway woefully under-occupied and under-utilized, the Solomon Federal Courthouse and the US Customs House, it seemed silly not to make those the source of our efforts.
But if one sets aside the argument for renovating an existing structure elsewhere instead of building the OSC from the ground up on its intended site, this story becomes a testament to Adams and other proponents of the center having the persistence to see it through.
Of course it's true that basic services like schools, roads, police and fire must be funded, but Portland has evolved into a relevant world city precisely because it has invested in progressive urban ventures from mass transit to parks, growth boundaries to trams. It's fashionable on the right of the political fence to argue government should operate more like a business or a family and live within its means. But no successful business would ever stop trying to grow, and few families would call investments on the installment plan like a house or their kid's college education to be inherently wasteful. It's true the Sustainability Center is an expensive investment that comes with risk, but it also has the chance to greatly enhance the already-developing economic future tied to sustainable expertise. This isn't chasing windmills in the Don Quixote sense, but in the Vestas sense: with a knowledge of how the fossil fuel-powered industrial age is transforming.
What's more, bringing on Interface as a major tenant makes sense because the private sector should have been involved substantially all along. One could almost argue that the Oregon Legislature did the OSC a favor, because private-public partnership gives the project more integrity, and insulation from accusations that this is some kind of grand conspiracy between city government and private developers.
Nothing is set in stone just yet, or in glass, metal or wood. But credit Adams for persistently seeking a private-sector savior when everybody else thought the project didn't have a prayer. As the clock on his administration ticks down to his final months, the mayor has the potential in a few ongoing public-private deals to end years of logjam at places like the Rose Quarter, Centennial Mills and the Sustainability Center. In each case, the city and other public agencies can't go it alone, but with the right private-sector kindling there is the chance to set add spark to both the short-term economy and the city's long-term visions.