Sustainability’ is the key

The buzzword in urban planning these days is sustainability.

Sustainability became the focus of a forum last week on urbandesign in the Pearl and South Waterfront districts, presented byPortland State in the Urban Center.

But even the word sustainability has its problems, as outlinedby one of the forum speakers, Paul Brown of GBD architects.

“Are we talking about economic sustainability, environmentalsustainability, sociological sustainability, or all three?” heasked. In his view, all three remain crucial, although he concededthere is no total agreement on exactly what constitutessustainability.

Brown spoke as one of two main presenters at the forum. Theother was Arun Jain of the Portland Planning Bureau. Guestcommentators were Alan Scott of PGE green building services andJohn Reynolds, professor of architecture at University ofOregon.

For now, the level of sustainability of any urban buildingdesign seems to hinge on a rating given a design by LEED, theacronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Theorganization, devoted to “green building,” gives approval ratingsof silver, gold or the highest and most difficult to attain,platinum. New buildings at Portland State, including the recentlycompleted Epler Hall, the Native American Community Center and theBroadway building, qualify for sustainability ratings.

But what specifically is sustainability? Speakers implied thatit generally consists of three elements. One is green building,which usually means adding more live plants to the environment. Thesecond is urban design and a third is district planning. Browncautioned about something sustainability is not. It is not thecheapest way to develop a building or a neighborhood.

“In sustainable design, you have to play all the angles,” hesaid.

In many current designs, the projects pencil out financiallyonly through various kinds of assistance. These may come in theforms of tax credits, foundation grants or industry contributions.Frequently, Brown implied, a specific project may need to depend onall three.

The overall philosophy was seen as a movement to increasepopulation density in the Portland urban area while retaining andimproving livability and commercial opportunity.

A sustainable building design involves another current buzzword,the eco-roof. The eco-roof is a roof that is planted in cactus andother water-retaining vegetation. This roof is considerably moreexpensive than a standard flat roof, yet it performs such functionsas retaining storm water which would otherwise flow into stormgutters, conserving irrigation water generally and even providesome cooling effects.

The speakers appeared on this program as the second in a seriesof forums on sustainability and the environment in Portland. It issponsored through a grant from the Port of Portland and organizedby the PSU Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies.

Both main speakers emphasized the differences between the Pearland the South Waterfront. The Pearl is already a developed area,with much of the work there involving redevelopment. The SouthWaterfront resembles more a brown, empty wasteland, a largely blankarea waiting to be built upon.

In considering the Pearl, Brown concentrated on the master planfor the five blocks known as the brewery blocks, space formerlyoccupied primarily by the Blitz-Weinhard brewery. Three of thehistoric buildings in the blocks are being salvaged, including theoriginal brewery building and the former National Guard armory.

“We have a great opportunity to anchor the Pearl ridge to therest of downtown,” he said. The goal is “to use the brewery blocksas a large-scale development with a green bent.” He conceded thatindividual elements may not work economically but they wouldcontribute to an overall fit that would work. The developers areemploying economies of scale in the blocks through buying for thewhole development in one process. All the elevators, all thelighting fixtures, are bought at one time, he said as anexample.

“We would maximize energy efficiency through an integrateddesign approach,” he added. “The eco-roof is becoming standard. Itis expensive but its water management adds to the value.” Thebrewery blocks development will add substantial housing to theneighborhood, as well as underground parking and considerableretail space. Some of the historical appearance of the armory willbe revitalized as it is prepared for occupancy by Portland CenterStage, a performing arts organization.

Development of the South Waterfront is concentrating on 20blocks centrally located and adjacent to the what will eventuallybe the lower terminal of the tram leading to OHSU. Brown saw 3,000new residential units, along with retail and OHSU research andoffice space. The residential units will house as many people intwo acres as would require 42 acres of suburban real estate.

There will be centralized auto parking in a large two-blockparking structure, but automobile use will be de-emphasized. Therewill be no surface parking lots. Some streets will be pedestrianonly, some will have limited auto access and some will have fullauto access.

“We want to enhance the pedestrian experience and reduce autodependency,” Brown said. Public transit on both the MAX train andthe Portland streetcar will help reduce dependence on autotransportation. Green plantings will be emphasized throughout theblocks.

Jain saw sustainability as consideration of the human presenceand needs as part of a total set of considerations in developing anarea.

“We need to minimize how much we consume and generate waste,” hesaid. He pointed out that even with all these goals, neither thePearl nor the South Waterfront has any coordinated districtplanning. He described planning in both neighborhoods as”piecemeal.”

He discussed the concept of some permeable streets in the SouthWaterfront. These would have a soil subsurface that would absorband retain storm water, helping in storm water management. Brownhad already explained a feature that would channel storm water intolily ponds and swales for ground irrigation. The goal will be tohave no potable (drinkable) water used for irrigation. However, notall streets could have permeable sub-surfaces. Those located aboveunderground parking would face the hazard of leaking water into theparking areas.

Reynolds complimented the present South Waterfront high risebuilding designs for their orientation, which would present broadwindow walls north and south and narrow walls east and west. Thiswould give every occupant a good view, he pointed out.

The fate of retail in the South Waterfront may evolve to thedetriment of the small operator. Brown saw the early shops as beingthe neighborhood essentials, such as barbershops and cleaningestablishments. As population density increases, values of groundretail space will tend to escalate, forcing out the smallneighborhood type shopkeeper in favor of larger retailers.