October 14, 2003
By Ben Jacklet
City, developers pursue the premise that preserving river habitat makes financial sense
The rain is back, and so are the fall chinook.
Fat 20-pounders thrashed through the shallows of the Sandy River last weekend, spawning and dying to complete a natural cycle as old as the Northwest. Thousands of fish fans braved soggy weather for the 20th annual Salmon Festival at Oxbow Park. They ate salmon and toasted their return as Native American elders hosted cooking demonstrations and biologists led river tours.
The fall run has been strong this year, but salmon returns are always precarious, and the balancing act between salmon habitat and economic progress is as complicated as ever. A new twist to the old debate is that an increasing number of Portland's top developers, scientists and politicians are arguing that saving fish can be a money-making — as opposed to money-losing — proposition.
That notion has gotten a boost from the launching of Salmon Nation, the latest campaign from Ecotrust, the Portland-based environmental group dedicated to building a "conservation economy."
Real estate developer Homer Williams also has provided an example. Environmental experts are pointing to the first phase of Williams' new South Waterfront development as a case study in how to meet the needs of both the fish and the Portland economy.
Jim Middaugh, manager of the city's Endangered Species Act program, said the creative riverbank work at South Waterfront by Williams and his partners "proves that you can do good things for the fish, without huge costs." Fish experts estimate that about 100,000 salmon will have migrated up the Willamette River through Portland by the end of the year, not to mention the millions of fish that work their way up the Columbia Basin annually.
Because many of the fish are considered threatened species, they require special attention, and so does their habitat. The most recent science shows that young salmon live in the river in Portland year-round, and they tend to hug the shoreline. For anyone building along the waterfront, these facts can translate into huge investments, setbacks from the river that take away large portions of buildable land and scrutiny from a long list of government agencies.
The resulting costs can be serious enough to make developers think twice about building near a Portland area waterway, said Beverly Bookin of the Bookin Group, who represents the Commercial Real Estate Economic Coalition. "It can be a double whammy," Bookin said. "The amount of land that's taken out of production can be huge, and then there's the cost of upgrading and restoring the site. … At what point do you burden developers to the point where they decide to go elsewhere?"
Fish get first nod
Middaugh said the city has been working to tighten the bureaucratic process around waterfront development to encourage creative solutions. That's what happened at South Waterfront, a long-vacant industrial site that's soon to be converted into condominiums, apartments, office towers and green space in the largest private-public partnership in city history.
The first thing built here was for the fish. Instead of piping runoff water into the city's overburdened sewer system, contractors designed a bioswale. There, the water will be treated naturally and filtered before overflowing into the river. The contractors also stabilized the riverbank with root wads and round boulders instead of the usual concrete riprap. These objects should provide food and hiding places for young salmon during the high-water months.
And by avoiding the city's storm-water system and its fees, the developers are bound to save enough money over time to pay for the restoration work. In all, eight federal and state agencies and a handful of city bureaus took an interest in the project. That created a serious risk for project manager James Atkins of Williams & Dame Development Inc."We could have lost eight months," Atkins said, "but they didn't look at us as evil developers. They looked at us as partners trying to improve the riverbank."
The city is full of similar, if smaller scale, examples of developers trying to improve habitat without going broke, Middaugh said. Developer James Winkler is attempting to "daylight" a long-buried stream in Southwest Portland; ODS Health Plans Inc. has done some creative work on the banks of Johnson Creek; and the Port of Portland has an extensive restoration proposal for its Terminal 4 automobile dock in North Portland.
Paul Fishman, a Portland consultant who helped design the Eastbank Esplanade and other riverfront projects, said the listing of urban salmon as endangered species ultimately has led to better building practices along the riverfront."The quality of development in these sensitive areas has really had to improve," Fishman said. "In order to get these permits, you have to go through a lengthy and often expensive process. So you want to make sure you get it right."
Ecotrust leads the way
The notion of merging environmental ideals with economic realities is nothing new to the marketing minds behind Ecotrust's new Salmon Nation campaign. The organization holds a $20 million interest in Shorebank Pacific, which heralds itself as "the first commercial bank in the United States with a commitment to environmentally sustainable community development."
Ecotrust "guerrilla marketer" Sam Beebe says the campaign is all about "helping people understand where they live, so that they'll have a stronger connection to that place. Beebe encouraged salmon consumers to demand wild fish caught in sustainable harvests, rather than farmed fish, which are often pumped full of antibiotics and artificial coloring to give their flesh a healthy appearance. Farmed salmon dominates the marketplace, and salmon fishermen from Astoria to Kodiak Island, Alaska, are selling their catches for about a third of what they used to receive. Still, Beebe said, "we're not going to stop trying."
Ron Klein, a spokesman for Metro, which hosted last weekend's salmon festival, also counts himself as a big supporter of wild over farmed salmon. "The pendulum is swinging our way," he said.
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