The eco-district concept is slow to start with the Lloyd District in Portland out in front.
BY DAN MCMILLAN
Portland’s green elite is putting its muscle behind ambitious eco-district plans, but it is difficult to judge whether the enthusiasm is warranted. That’s not to say eco-districts are failures. Proponents point out that bringing coordinated sustainable practices to an entire district is an inherently difficult and time-consuming process that was never intended to transform an entire area overnight.
It’s also too early to proclaim the eco-district movement a success. Across Portland’s five official eco-districts, only the Lloyd district is close to launching an actual project that could give proponents and critics a chance to evaluate the eco-district concept on actual merits rather than potential.
But it will take more than one successful project to validate the eco-district concept. The ultimate goal of an eco-district is to transform the way a district works by bringing cost-effective, sustainable practices to nearly every aspect of a defined geographic area — from energy-efficiency guidelines for building remodels, to transportation systems that encourage transit and pedestrian use, to district energy systems that save business and residential users money.
The concept is worth exploring, backers say, because it is a way to demonstrate a link between environmental sustainability and economic vitality across a large stage and a way to maintain and enhance the city’s green credentials. It’s also a way to achieve the so-called triple bottom-line — doing good for people and the planet while generating a profit for business.
The current emphasis on eco-districts pushes the sustainable envelope by demonstrating that the same concepts behind a green building can be scaled up and across an entire district, says Sarah Heinicke, executive director of the Lloyd eco-district.
“This is a way for people to manage the future,” says Nicole Isle, director of sustainability and planning for the western region of Brightworks, a Portland sustainability consulting firm.
Jack Bogdanski, a Lewis & Clark law professor who separately writes Jack Bog’s Blog, says he doesn’t understand that kind of language. Bogdanski has questioned the eco-district concept in blog postings and has long cast a critical eye on city development efforts. To him, the eco-district concept is one that’s never been explained to his satisfaction. “I really don’t understand what the heck it is they’re talking about.”
He says eco-districts seem like just another way to use “green” to sell development and to sell concepts, such as energy efficiency, recycling and mass transit, that already are well understood. Most recently, he pointed to language in a recent Oregon Convention Center bond offering that called for $3.6 million for eco-districts and questioned the purpose of the funds.
Heinicke says the money could be used for eco-district projects, but has not yet been designated for any specific projects. In order to access the funds, Lloyd eco-district leaders will need to go before the Portland Development Commission and make specific proposals for project funding. To date, the PDC has committed $70,000 per year to the Lloyd eco-district under a three-year deal that started this year, she says.
Currently there are five official eco-district projects in Portland: the Lloyd District, Foster Green, Gateway, South of Market and South Waterfront. The Hawthorne business district and its associated neighborhoods are also jumping into the fray. Michele Machado, the volunteer coordinator for the Hawthorne eco-district, says the effort started about six months ago when the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association expressed interest in how to take sustainability to the next step. The association received a $6,000 grant from Venture Portland to develop a planning framework. Machado hopes to come up with three to five projects that the association and five nearby neighborhood associations can agree upon in early June and then the projects will be prioritized and launched over the next few years. She hopes to have a formal eco-district process in place early next year.
Beaverton and Hillsboro are working with the Portland Sustainability Institute on their own eco-districts. So far, no Oregon projects are under way outside of the Portland metro area.
Naomi Cole, Portland Sustainability Institute’s eco-districts program director, says the districts follow a five-step template. First the district organizational structure is set, followed by an assessment of needs, project feasibility studies, project implementation and ongoing district monitoring. With the exception of the Lloyd District, the other four districts are in the feasibility study stage. Hawthorne is beginning the assessment stage.
Ideally, says Heinicke, an eco-district will be an ongoing, constantly evolving place where solving one issue leads to another issue needing resolution. “This is probably not something that’s going to be built out and just be done.”
The Lloyd District is home to major business players and eco-district supporters such as the Oregon Convention Center, PacifiCorp, the Lloyd Center Mall, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Rose Quarter sports and entertainment arenas, and major commercial real estate players such as Langley Investment Properties. Heinicke says the strong business community involvement means proposals will be carefully scrutinized to ensure they make good business sense. For example, the district will adopt guidelines for building remodels that call for energy-efficient measures that will save businesses money, not measures that are green at the expense of the bottom line.
“It has to be the right thing to do and it has to make financial sense,” Heinicke says. “These are the lenses through which we evaluate what we do and don’t do.”
Eco-district watchers credit the Lloyd District with being the furthest along the eco-district path. The district is preparing guidelines for a building retrofit program to ensure that existing buildings take advantage of energy, water and waste conservation techniques. Heinicke expects to deliver the guidelines to district businesses in July. Guidelines for a proposed districtwide food-waste-to-compost program also will be delivered to district partners in July, she says.
The Lloyd eco-district also is looking at a “green streets” master plan to handle storm-water runoff. That initiative is not under way yet, but likely will build on the work the Portland Development Commission has done on Northeast Holladay Street. Heinicke says she expects to see a more definitive plan emerge in the fall. Another element is a transportation program that builds off the work being done by the district transportation management association. There is not a specific timeline, but the goal is to ensure that the eco-district, transportation management association and city bureau of transportation coordinate projects in the Lloyd eco-district.
One of the most-enthusiastic Lloyd eco-district supporters is Justin Zeulner, director of sustainability and planning for the Portland Trail Blazers and Rose Quarter. He also is the point man on the proposed Lloyd eco-district energy system, which supporters point to as evidence the eco-district is progressing. The system is being developed by Corix Infrastructure, a Vancouver, B.C., company selected by the Portland Development Commission to lead the project. Zeulner hopes to see actual work on the project begin this summer, but Corix and the PDC are still assessing the viability of the plan. Zeulner says financial details are not available.
A district energy system is seen as a way to efficiently and cost-effectively deliver power throughout a district. The idea may very well prove itself, but as currently envisioned the proposed energy system will simply connect the Rose Garden and Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum; both are operated by Paul Allen’s Portland Arena Management, but the coliseum is owned by the city. The Oregon Convention Center is expected to come on-line a year after the Rose Quarter work is completed.
The eco-district idea has captured the attention of Portland’s green-minded leaders, government agencies and businesses. Now those backers will be working to prove eco-districts are more than an interesting concept.
Zeulner says it only makes sense for an organization that built the world’s first LEED gold-certified sports arena to take a leadership role in the development of an eco-district in its own back yard. “We know our impacts and have made some large and exciting goals,” he says. “There is a business case to everything we’ve done, and we feel it is the right thing for our community. We need to look outside the four walls of our building.”
Defining an eco-district
An eco-district is more a way of thinking about environmentally sustainable practices than a physically transformed space.
At first blush, the term seems to suggest a defined area filled with green spaces, hybrid vehicles, state-of-the-art mass transit systems and green buildings sprouting solar arrays and green roofs. Those could all be elements of an eco-district, but Portland eco-district leaders say the concept is more a way to get businesses, government agencies and residents to agree on a shared set of values centered around sustainability and environmental awareness.
“Eco-districts are a framework,” says Nicole Isle, director of sustainability and planning for green consultant Brightworks’ western region.
In other words, a visitor might not notice much difference between a shopping excursion in an eco-district versus a non-eco-district. But the shopper doesn’t see the food-waste-to-compost initiative undertaken by the area restaurants, or the energy efficient upgrades building owners agreed to implement, or the highly efficient district-wide energy system. The visitor might not even notice that existing park and open spaces now have many more trees busy sequestering carbon.
Most eco-district proposals center around energy efficient buildings and water systems, storm water and run-off improvements, transportation, green spaces, incentives for residents and employees to use mass transit, and food-waste composting.
An eco-district is a neighborhood or other distinct district with a broad commitment to accelerating district scale sustainability, according to the Portland Sustainability Institute. The idea is to create a triple-bottom-line community with the lowest environmental impact and the highest long-term economic and community returns.
At its heart, the eco-district movement is a way to get all the parties in a defined district to agree on measures that lead to the coveted triple bottom line: good for people, the planet and business profits. For more information, visit the eco-district section at pdxinstitute.org.