We don’t need the Oregon Sustainability Center
(The Oregonian, January 1, 2012)
By Richard H. Carson
At $62 million, the proposed Oregon Sustainability Center is one the most expensive environmental mistakes that Oregon has seen to date. And that is saying a lot considering the city of Portland is already the land of some of the most stunningly anti-business, environmental policies in America.
The Oregonian editorialized and endorsed the project as “anything but a no-brainer.” They also noted that in the past the Oregon Legislature didn’t support the project because “the crew from Portland didn’t quite have things quite lined up.” That’s a nice way of saying they don’t know what the hell they are doing.
Where else would anyone decide, that in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression, that banning plastic bags and recycling food waste is more important than jobs? The downtown core is already suffering from high vacancy rates. So the solution is to build more government subsidized Class A office space? It is bad enough that we are subsidizing housing in Multnomah Village for the affluent. The Oregonian goes on to explain that the new tenants will be “architecture firms and green-building contractors or non-profit and nongovernment organizations.” You have to realize these same folks will abandon their existing downtown office spaces and those property owners will lose money.
The Oregonian also says that “It is expected, too, to be a fine field-trip destination for Oregon public school students.” I think the Portland Public School system is in bad enough shape without adding another “fine field-trip.”
The project is also over-priced and will cost $434 per square foot to build. Even the Sustainable Business Oregon website has an article that says, “Any extra money, from corporate partners and grants, could help mitigate the building’s anticipated high rent. Critics note that building operators would need to charge about $40 per square foot in rent. Portland’s Class A office spaces command roughly $25 per square foot.” Apparently, in Portland what is sustained must by subsidized.
Then there is issue of sustainability itself. The city of Portland was not satisfied with driving business out of the city with outlandish land use policies like over-priced system development charges. Since they always want to be on the cutting edge of urban innovation, they decided to create a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. In fact, they fired the previous planning director because he was only interested in planning. Of course it took the city council a while to figure out what sustainability was and how to justify it.
Sustainability is such a broad concept that is defies definition. I actually know something about it and wrote an essay for architecture magazine back in 2009. Sustainability, as a concept, was born in 1983 by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development. The basic concept is that there is something called “sustainable development” and that it will save humanity from destroying itself through sustainable practices.
Sustainability comes in two flavors. There is individualistic sustainability and socialistic sustainability. The former are folks who have a garden and can their own food. In the old days these people were called pioneers. The latter are folks how want to create collective programs like recycling food waste. In modern times these people are called sheep.
I do agree with The Oregonian on one point. They note that “Portland Sam Adam’s advocacy for the project probably plays in Pilot Rock as well as a heavy metal [band] would in King City.” It is embarrassing to be associated with a city where the public policies are so ridiculous that it resulted in a sit-com called Portlandia. And the irony is that if you watch Portlandia, it is more like a documentary.
Richard Carson is the former planning director for METRO, a former economic development senior policy analyst during the administrations of governors Victor Atiyeh and Neil Goldschmidt, managed Clark County, Washington’s planning program and met monthly with former Mayor Vera Katz on planning issues for 10 years. He is currently a doctorate student in organizational development.