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Advocates Tout Potential Of $75 Million Sustainability Center

Portland touts itself as one of the most sustainable cities in North America. But in spite of the light rail lines and the green roofs — environmental advocates contend the Rose City lacks a tangible “center” for its environmental reputation.

Portland city commissioners could take a big step toward changing that Wednesday. Rob Manning previews the council’s vote on whether to move ahead with plans for a $75 million sustainability center.

There’s a fundamental paradox that defines the Oregon Sustainability Center.

The proposed site of the Oregon Sustainability Center in Southwest Portland

Rob Manning / OPB

The plan is for a unique building: the world’s only officially recognized urban high-rise that generates on-site all the energy and water it needs. But the plan is also to create a building that can be duplicated easily.

That unique — but easily duplicated — mission is not the only contrast.

Take the site itself. Right now, it’s an historic building and a parking lot. The Sustainability Center’s managing architect, Lisa Petterson, says the small historic building would stay.

Lisa Petterson: “So we’re essentially going to be taking the area that’s the parking lot and creating our new living building there.”

Rob Manning: “The building itself actually won’t have any parking.”

Lisa Petterson: “No parking at all. 400 bike parking spots, but no car parking spots.”

Supporters say that visitors interested in reaching the site won’t have a problem — as long as they’re taking something other than a car.

Petterson: “Anybody who’s coming from the downtown area, or to the north, can come on the yellow or green lines, which we’re on. We’re right adjacent to the bus mall, which has numerous different bus lines that are coming from Southwest Portland and North Portland. And then it’s right on the bike path, so they can come that way. And then — the street car, will come diagonally through the site.”

The transit options are a selling point for potential tenants. But, the greenhouse gas reductions associated with moving people by bike or transit rather than by car — won’t help the building get its “living building”  designation.

The Green Building Council created the silver, gold and platinum “LEED” standards for eco-friendly construction. But a Northwest branch of the  council is now pressing for an even higher standard with what they’re calling the “Living Building Challenge.” It emphasizes energy and water use on-site.

A few dozen blocks north of the proposed site is the Oregon Environmental Council — a future tenant of the sustainability center. Andrea Durbin is the group’s director.

Andrea Durbin: “We see this as the next frontier for green building standards, and really where Portland needs to position itself in making sure we’re out on that frontier.”

Reaching that frontier, as Durbin calls it, means squeezing as much energy or water out of existing technology as possible. On the energy side, there’d be four kinds of solar panels — on the roof, on awnings, on the walls, and at the site’s streetcar station.

For water, there’d be a high tech “living machine” to clean and recycle water. And there might even be small hydro turbines to generate energy, while the water moves down from the roof.

There are lower tech aspects, too — like a proposed 200,000 gallon water tank to store enough rainwater to last several dry summers.

Architect Lisa Petterson says all that will only get the building so far.

Petterson: “We knew we had to drive the energy use down significantly.”

In the end, to make an efficient building, people need to reduce their energy and water use. For instance, this is a high-rise, so there’s an energy hog of an elevator.

Petterson says potential tenants — folks like university officials and non-profit staffers — offered to avoid using the elevator, to reduce the need for  additional solar panels.

Petterson: “The people in the building would use the stairs, for trips that are three floors or less, instead of using the elevator – and of course, we didn’t assume everyone would do that, but we assumed the majority of people.”

But in the ongoing effort to maximize efficiency, Petterson says there are engineers looking at how to harness the elevator’s so-called “natural energy,” by capturing the energy of its downward path.

Potential tenants were also pressed to think about living with colder temperatures in the winter, and hotter temperatures in the summer. They might also give up hot water in the bathroom sinks. At the same time, the rental costs would be $24 per square foot — a few bucks above the city’s average.

Future tenant, Andrea Durbin says the water and energy conservation measures aren’t a sacrifice, they’re a learning process.

Andrea Durbin: “One aspect of this building is — how do you link those behavioral changes directly to the impact in our world. And so people understand and see the bigger impact, and then those behavioral changes are reinforced and then become habit.”

The down economy has helped slice the project back substantially. Last year the idea called for an 11-story building with a budget of $120 million. Now it’s $75 million, and more like eight or nine floors.

The vast majority of the funds come from state and city bonds, and would be repaid over 30 years by the non-profits and private companies paying rent inside.

The project needs a number of approvals, from the state board of higher education, the Portland Development Commission, and starting with a vote Wednesday, the Portland city council.

Mayor Sam Adams supports the project, but commissioner Dan Saltzman recently told the Portland Business Journal he had concerns about spending millions in urban renewal money on the project.

Supporters are confident the city council will approve spending hundreds of thousands of dollars today to get to the schematic design phase.

At this point, the Sustainability Center is scheduled to break ground next July.