New BES facility: Outrageous or valuable?

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Sometime this spring, Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services will hold a grand opening for its new $11.4 million, Gold LEED certified facility. It replaces musty, cramped modular buildings that were hardly a professional environment.

It’s also $8 million more than was originally budgeted.

The Portland Bureau of Environmental Service's Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, March 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
The Portland Bureau of Environmental Service’s Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, March 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

The building, with its seven angled eco-roofs, solar panels and its own storm water runoff system, is causing a buzz in the architectural world.

It’s wired with the latest communication technology and equipment for engineers to do critical design work to keep Portland’s $12 billion sewer system up to date.

For the 38 people who will work at the new offices at the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, the cost equals about $300,000 per employee.

Dean Marriott, the director of the Environmental Services Bureau, told KOIN 6 News, “We’re very proud of this.”

But Kent Craford, the leader of Portlanders for Water Reform, said “I think it’s outrageous.” Craford’s group is the main opposition voice leading the charge to take control of water and sewer away from the City of Portland.

“The building is really cool,” Craford said, “but when people around Portland are struggling to pay their bills and don’t have enough money for food and utilities and they’re on a fixed income, they can’t afford cool.”

Marriott disagrees and takes the longer view.

“You keep using the term cheaper. I keep talking about value,” Marriott told KOIN 6 News. “They’re getting the most value for this.”

He pointed out some of the features, short-term and long-term, he said add the value.

Inside the Portland Bureau of Environmental Service's Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, March 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
Inside the Portland Bureau of Environmental Service’s Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, March 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

“All the work stations can be ergonomically adjusted to prevent workplace injuries. … The windows open for ventilation to save energy. It’s oriented to take advantage of the natural light to cut down on energy use, to cut down on artificial lighting.”

The Gold LEED certification meets the requirement the city placed on itself for new construction in 2005 under former Mayor Tom Potter. Over 40 years, Marriott said the building will save $2.5 million in energy costs.

But the cost overruns on the building, originally budgeted for $3.4 million, is prime material for opponents like Craford’s group to accuse the bureau of mismanagement.

The former building where BES engineers worked in North Portland, March 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
The former building where BES engineers worked in North Portland, March 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

Marriott said it isn’t always easy to communicate to the public that a government bureau is being a good steward of taxpayer money.

“It’s always a challenge for public agencies. We get criticized if we toot our own horn, we get criticized for spending ratepayers money for bragging, and then we get criticized because we don’t tell people where the money is spent.”

The City says, if this building is compared to the cost-per-square-foot to other new buildings in Oregon, Washington and California, the price of Portland’s building is not out of line.

“It’s not lavish,” Marriott told KOIN 6 News. “It gets the job done in the most cost-effective way for the ratepayers and that’s what we’re proud of.”

The building was approved by the Portland City Council in 2010 and in 2012. It was finally approved without ever discussing in public whether this is a wise use of public funds.

Pam Arden, who is a neighbor and serves on the Citizen Advisory Committee for the Waste Water Treatment plant supports the building.

“This is not the Taj Mahal. It’s a very basic building. It’s concrete,” she said.  “What building isn’t expensive? I think they’ve done the best they could and everything costs money and you can’t avoid it.”

“We’re proud to say we’re cleaning up the Willamette, we’re cleaning up the Columbia and this is where the design work is done to do that,” Marriott said.

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