Wood products ninth-inning comeback
Mass timber, or cross laminated timber, is often cited as the fairy godmother that Oregon has been looking for.
It's a low carbon building material that can be made from the overabundant thin trees east of the Cascades, and has the potential to bring timber and construction jobs back to rural communities.
The 12-story mixed use tower that will soon break ground on the Pearl is one way to capture visibility for CLT, which consists of strong, light beams and panels which can be rapidly assembled by crane.
However, what this wood product needs is a project that really captures the imagination. One that sparks interest from capitalists on the east coast and the Midwest. More than a gimmick — a good gimmick.
As our colleague Kerry Eggers noted in a recent story in the Portland Tribune sports pages, sports marketer Lynn Lashbrook is floating the idea of an all-wood baseball park in a bid to attract some elusive major league sports action to Portland. The latest site is where Esco is in Northwest Portland, near where the old wooden Vaughn Street ballpark stood from 1901 to 1956 at Northwest 24th Ave and Vaughn Street.
Lashbrook, the President and Founder of Sports Management Worldwide, grew up in Kansas and knows baseball. He was left feeling something was amiss after visiting the latest major league stadium to open, SunTrust Park in Atlanta. A public/private partnership totaling $1.1 billion with surrounding entertainment district, the stadium showcased all the latest technology.
When returning from the Cubs new sports district in Chicago it hit him that an all wooden ballpark would not only be so Oregon, it would stir the imagination of prospective teams owners enough that they might relocate here. Oakland and Tampa Bay are potential relocaters. And it would take an almighty inspiration (or show of cash) for a fresh billionaire to build a team in Portland, since the effort has fizzled so many times. (See 2003's Oregon Baseball Campaign to bring the Expos here.)
Having read about mass timber and cross laminated timber, Lashbrook was triggered, so he started asking around people in construction.
Naturally, the road led to Valerie Johnson, a Portland resident who runs DR Johnson Lumber in Riddle, Oregon which makes CLT, and Thomas Robinson, who is already designing for DWJ's products.
Tom Walsh, whose brother runs Walsh Construction, is in the same building at 1100 N.W. Glisan Street in the Pearl District and he and Lashbrook frequently chat.
The Business Tribune sat down with all three of them to see if it's a pipe dream or a plan.
Lashbrook had his ah-ha moment after coming home from Chicago he read about mass timber and realized Portland needed something to make it stand out. An all-wood ballpark would both hearken back to the wooden bats and stadia of old, and reach across the political and urban rural divide to create jobs in rural communities.
"I knew nothing about CLT, but I've known baseball inside out for 20 years," Lashbrook says. "I knew Tom (Walsh) across the hall, and I never would have gotten to first base with the idea but for Tom."
Walsh told him it was doable. "He said 'You're not crazy.' The idea is so much bigger than baseball, but we got the idea across the plate."
Plywood on steroids
Walsh says he grew up in a family that knew nothing about construction. Mom raised kids and dad ran movie theaters.
However he does recall when he was 13 that "A new wood product was introduced, called plywood. Within two or three years plywood had all but completely replaced shiplap: boards that were just sawed out of a log."
He watched these changes (and others, like particleboard and truss joists), and learned two things. One, the only constant is change, and two, the construction people are conservative, but not for long.
"My gut tells me a few years from now we'll look back and say 'Why did we every use solid beams for anything?' This is much stronger product in a smaller dimensions."
Lashbrook chimes in, "Teams brag about the high tech stuff, but baseball is the same rules and nine people, it hasn't changed in 150 years."
Valerie Johnson was at pains to include others in the building trade. "I'd never use the word 'replace,' other materials. It's an alternative." (An alternative to
concrete and steel.) Nor would a ballpark have to be mostly CLT. It could be a combination of wood products. It could even be finished in other materials, so the CLT is not even obvious.
"This (CLT) is just a sound way to build, we're not trying to disparage other companies. There's new markets for both of us."
She adds that architects are curious.
"Architects like it because you can cantilever it out, so you can have tenth floor decks with no supports in the way."
"It would be all Oregon-based though," added Lashbrook, excited by the economic development card which is often played to bring a team to town. "Like the wine industry and the craft beer industry, it's Oregon."
The 25-acre Esco site is where they make the buckets and teeth for giant mining excavators. Production is being wound down now. Prime, close-in industrial land could look good to a developer, and baseball can fit the Industrial zoning.
They could build the ball park on 10 acres, and the rest would be for development Lashbrook sees, aside for local beer and wines retailers, a whole shopping village comprised of greatest hits: Nike, Adidas, Columbia Sportswear...A lot like Portland International Airport.
Putting on her developer hat, Johnson says other landowners in the area might be persuaded to bundle up their properties to add to the holding.
Lashbrook explains, "The more acres, the more the billionaire likes the investment. It gives them the opportunity to grow around it, and include hotels, high rises, affordable housing, retail...."
(His other proposed site, the Portland Public Schools administrative center near the Broadway Bridge, Lashbook describes as obsolete to the school district's needs. "It's just for crayons and tablets," he says.")
Politics and dreams
Part of getting a deal done — especially with an emotional subject such as sports, where men tend to throw their allowance around - is getting the message out. Lashbrook thinks the city has a better chance of getting MLB by getting the story out to baseball fans and the public, before going to owners and investors. He thinks his chances of getting Mayor Ted Wheeler's support come more from the Wheeler family connection to forestry than his love of Big Sports.
"Wood goes back to what baseball is all about. Nothing has grabbed the attention more than the wood stadium, in 20 years of talking to fans — and the wood industry too. This is combining technology with original materials. It's more than just baseball."
Similarly, Lashbrook approached architect Thomas Robinson, who designed Framework, instead of others who are more likely to be naysayers.
Can wood hold 30,000 people?
Johnson reminds us that the University of British Columbia has an 18-story dorm building, and in Paris they are building a 40 story CLT tower, called Baobab.
Height captures the imagination, but she sees it more as a mid rise building material than for skyscrapers. "In England they're building thousands of structures from CLT," she adds.
As much as stamping out wood panels, they all know they have to sell this as an Oregon story. Or at least tell Oregon's part in the story. Johnson credits Oregon State University professor Thomas Maness with galvanizing Oregon around CLT.
"He brought some speakers in to talk to owners and get them jazzed about it. The hook was they needed some sample panels to test them. And the rest is...well, we're still writing it."
Take me out
CLT has been made in three ply, five and seven, and DR Johnson is working on a nine ply. Valerie Johnson says the plant is booked up though next spring making panels, and has ordered another hydraulic press to boost capacity. The presses are made by USNR in Vancouver, Washington.
She and Walsh are confident the industry could supply enough wood to build a stadium, and that workers could learn how to assemble them in place.
How long would it take?
"If you had a (team) owner, you could have your first game in April 2020. This is going to happen," states Walsh.
Johnson says the timber industry is still often family owned in Oregon. She cites Seneca Freres and Frank as being amongst "at least 25 family owned businesses in Oregon," and that even the big corporations such as Weyerhauser and Boise Cascade are "very localized in their corporate attitude. They are not these big behemoths, these only-bottom line companies. Their people live in their communities where their employees live."
Says Walsh: "People would be so proud to work on something and say, 'This is going to end up in the ball field,' and that they could take their grandkids to a game and say 'I made these floor trusses.'"