Look to the rooftops
Across America, Columbia Green is building a new generation of parks atop roofs. When will Portland get into the act?
From the City of Portland's failed downtown post office redevelopment agreement to the Lloyd Center mall's foreclosure, Vanessa Keitges can't help but wonder if what these projects needed was to reconsider their roofs.
After all, the company Keitges heads, Portland-based Columbia Green Technologies, is booming like never before by providing a new generation of rooftop parks to just these kinds of buildings.
"They could have enlivened them by bringing in nature and creating another plane," she says of the mall and the to-be-demolished midcentury post office. "Because people are going to come there. It draws people in."
When Keitges and a group of investors bought Columbia Green in 2010, the sustainable building movement was in its first big wave of growth, with the US Green Building Council's LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rating system providing a framework for owners and architects to increase energy efficiency and reduce utility bills.
Green roofs were a key cog in those early LEED-centric days, helping to insulate buildings and reduce stormwater runoff. Business from a mix of institutional and commercial clients was enough to bring Columbia Green 25% annual growth. But the rooftop plantings themselves were usually minimal, comprised of thin layers of sedum, grass and other vegetation that didn't need deep roots.
However, in the past two years, the pandemic and a new era of intensely stormy weather have helped Columbia Green's business to nearly double.
As climate change has accelerated, "Flooding is becoming massive," Keitges says, "but in and most of our cities, the storm drains were designed 100 years ago. There's nowhere for the stormwater to go. So now cities are requiring every new development to have a stormwater plan. You have to manage water on-site now and be responsible for your own infrastructure."
At the same time, COVID has accelerated a pre-pandemic trend, especially in commercial real estate: the demand for outdoor spaces, often rooftops, where employees can meet, take a break or bring their laptops. The pandemic proved that millions could be happy working from home, and while employers can order them back to the premises, enticing them works better.
"How do you get people to get back into the office? We're seeing existing buildings saying, 'Let's put in a rooftop park, a green deck or a courtyard and tell people they can eat outside, they can do yoga, or they can work there," she says. Just as green roofs can help offset the limits of municipal storm drains, so too can they augment our greenspace. "They're the next generation of urban parks."
In Chicago, Columbia Green helped create a green park atop the city's historic but heretofore long-vacant post office, leading to a highly popular commercial redevelopment. In Virginia, the company was part of the Capital One Center, which combines corporate headquarters, shops, a concert hall and a more than three-acre rooftop park called The Perch.
"This is just an amazing opportunity for developers," Keitges says, "because they can bring people back."
Instead of Prosper Portland's string of broken development agreements and demolitions at the post office site, a redeveloped building would have been a far more sustainable choice and, with a rooftop park, could have acted as an unofficial extension of the North Park Blocks. Instead of Lloyd Center's owners grasping desperately to make this emptying eyesore relevant again with more windowless shops, a park on top could have created a "there" there.
But it's never too late to learn. The city's planned renovation of Veterans Memorial Coliseum could benefit from a crown of greenery too.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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