GREEN BUILDING:

In Oregon, students seek key to a sustainable city

SALEM, Ore. -- In many cities, the rise of a shopping mall forebodes the fall of a downtown.

A Sears trades Main Street for Mall Drive. Shoppers follow in their cars and so do the automobile dealerships and furniture stores.

But Oregon's capital, which saw its downtown deteriorate when Interstate 5 and strip malls rose to the east in the 1960s, went a different direction: It built a mall downtown. A movie theater, Macy's and dozens of other Salem Center retailers continue to draw shoppers to the corner of Center and Liberty streets.

"The mall definitely helps business," said Lari DeLapp, owner of the Coffee House Café, two blocks south of the mall. "Boy, if that went away, downtown would really be hurting."

Business could be better, DeLapp concedes, but these are not ordinary times. The Great Recession manifests itself here in myriad ways: State workers adjust to "Furlough Fridays," shoppers spend less in downtown stores, and developers build fewer homes and offices.

Patrons lounge outside of the Coffee House Café, along a busy stretch of Liberty Street in downtown Salem, Ore. As the city emerges from the economic downturn, Café owner Lari DeLapp wants the municipal government to offer nearby building owners new incentives to fill vacant storefronts. Photo by Michael Burnham.

If Salem's key to economic sustainability in the 20th century was brick-and-mortar buildings such as the mall, then what is the solution for today? Short on tax dollars, this city of 150,000 people is about to be long on ideas -- and perhaps a little paper, glue and elbow grease mixed in.

Roughly 600 University of Oregon students in 25 classes will devote 80,000 hours to Salem during the coming year. The novel program, part of the university's three-year-old Sustainable Cities Initiative, will focus on making Salem more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.

Students in architecture, planning, law, journalism and business classes will explore how Salem could nurture green business clusters, reuse industrial byproducts, connect parks with bicycle paths, redevelop brownfields and design energy-efficient municipal buildings, among other things. Just as important, the students will consider market and regulatory barriers to implementing their ideas.

"If there isn't a lot of economic activity and ability to make these kinds of substantive changes in the built environment today, then it's the perfect time to be laying out the ideas and plans for the future," contended Marc Schlossberg, a planning professor and co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative. "We like to call this tilling the soil."

Till today, reap tomorrow

Students will create a strategy for redeveloping land between Salem's central business district and Riverfront City Park, which lines the eastern edge of the Willamette River. The architecture, law and planning students' work will take into account the city's downtown strategic action plan, the framework for urban renewal investments.

Meanwhile, the Salem City Council is weighing whether to loan $500,000 to a team of developers to finish a high-profile tower with space for residents and retailers. The eight-story Rivers Condominiums building sits adjacent to vacant lots today, but city leaders envision a bustling riverfront neighborhood tomorrow.

"That's a key to keeping downtown vibrant," Salem City Manager Linda Norris said.

In addition to brainstorming ways to spur more downtown development, students will consider how to connect the city's parks with bicycle and pedestrian trails. Potential environmental benefits include less automobile traffic and pollution, city planners contend.

"We have a lot of good data about the number of cars that move through but not much about the bikes," said Courtney Knox, the city's lead staffer on the project.

Students will also be tasked with designing a new home for Salem's police department and redesigning a 1972 civic center as a hub for other municipal workers.

"We're looking for ways to make it more energy efficient, leaving the '70s behind, we hope," Knox explained. "The space is just not configured well for current work habits and culture."

Working on such projects will give students a comprehensive look at how a city really works, said University of Oregon architecture professor and program co-director Nico Larco.

"An architecture student starts to see how important the political process is -- that it's not just about design," Larco added.

The city will chip in about $345,000 for the university collaboration, dubbed the Sustainable City Year. Last year, students put in about 100,000 hours of work for the Portland suburb of Gresham.

Among the students' paper-and-glue models and glossy reports were plans for an energy-efficient city hall and weekday commuter rail parking lot that doubles as an outdoor market and music venue on weekends. Students also explored how this suburb of more than 100,000 people could improve pedestrian activity, redevelop a rock quarry, reduce stormwater runoff and adapt to climate change.

Greening the ivory tower

The Sustainable Cities Initiative is perhaps the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. university to infuse sustainability into its curricula and community outreach. In recent years, green chemistry, business and design classes have sprouted alongside organic gardens and recycling centers at the Univerity of Oregon's campus in Eugene and at other colleges and universities.

In Annville, Pa., for example, farmers feed their pigs food scraps from Lebanon Valley College's dining and catering services. At Meredith College, in Raleigh, N.C., students and employees buy shares in a farm and receive organic produce.

Higher-education officials contend that the sustainability movement is a new twist on an age-old mission.

"We're putting the public back in public university," said Robert Young, a University of Oregon planning professor and Sustainable Cities Initiative co-director.

"By very definition, sustainability is looking at environmental-, economic- and equity-based public interests," Young explained. "It's the historical role of the public university."

Karen Arabas, a professor of environmental science at Willamette University in downtown Salem, said private schools such as hers share that mission. She points to the 168-year-old institution's motto: "Not unto ourselves alone are we born."

"We have a strong sense of service on campus, and sustainability transcends every field," Arabas added. "When students graduate, these are some of the skills and knowledge they'll need in the world, whether they go into law, business or medicine."

Willamette -- which topped a 2008 National Wildlife Federation ranking of U.S. schools that engage in sustainability activities -- uses its Center for Sustainable Communities to foster campus-community collaboration. The 2,600-student university began hosting regular sustainability retreats for students, faculty and administrators in 2005 and is now working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore habitat in a 300-acre research forest west of Salem.

The school looks at everything from how much locally harvested, organic food it serves to how many tons of greenhouse gases it emits.

Having a small environmental footprint is a big bragging right in these parts.

The Princeton Review and U.S. Green Building Council ranked Willamette, the University of Oregon and four other Oregon universities among the top 286 "green" colleges for 2011, based on the schools' practices, policies and curricula. The mere existence of such a list is evidence that universities, students and prospective employers are paying increasing attention to sustainability issues, said David Soto, the Princeton Review's director of college ratings.

The publisher surveyed 12,000 college applicants and parents earlier this year, and 64 percent of respondents said they would value having information about a school's environmental commitment. Almost a fifth of those respondents said such information would "very much" influence which school they choose.

"A lot of schools are starting to give guidance on green jobs -- what a green job is and how to secure one," Soto added.

'One coffee cup at a time'

Jobs are on just about everyone's mind in Salem, where the unemployment rate hovers stubbornly above 10 percent. People here are quick to note that a city that works, must be a city that works.

Coffee House Café owner DeLapp suggested that the municipal government could generate downtown jobs and foot traffic by offering building owners incentives to fill vacant street-level retail spaces. At the same time, existing businesses should buy locally when possible.

"One coffee cup at a time, hopefully we can change things," quipped DeLapp, who sells organic coffee roasted in a nearby town.

Christopher Marley, owner of a downtown art gallery called Pheromone, said Salem needs a more effective business-led effort to persuade new companies to move to the city. Salem could improve its prospects of attracting and retaining employers by improving its arts and entertainment options downtown.

"I really do think that if you build it they will come, as clichéd as that sounds," added Marley, who opened his gallery three months ago. "Businesses have to be wooed."

Government is far and away Salem's largest employment sector, so the municipal government is trying to lure clean-technology companies to its new Salem Renewable Energy and Technology Center near the municipal airport and I-5. Among the 80-acre business park's first tenants is Sanyo Electric Co., which opened a factory last fall that produces solar ingots and wafers for photovoltaic cells.

"We're working hard at attracting companies that are good for the environment and related to sustainability," City Manager Norris promised.

In the coming year, Oregon students will explore how Salem could foster such business clusters.

"Sustainability is something we have to pay attention to," said architecture professor Larco. "We're starting to see 'green' translate not only into environmental and human health but into business and dollars."