Developing districts

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Articles - June 2012
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

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.

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