The Register-Guard
March 12, 2006


Original headline: Whole Foods' downtown plan at heart of debate on
land use principles

[Rachel's introduction: Here's an example of how the precautionary principle is spreading, almost by osmosis. San Francisco's example gets discovered in Eugene, Oregon and a new debate begins.]

By Matt Cooper


The word's enough to put you to sleep, right? Don't doze off just yet.

Sustainability is a promise you make to your children.

It's the top issue pushed by Eugene's mayor.

And critics say she isn't pushing it hard enough.

Mayor Kitty Piercy's dream is a sustainable Eugene: a city that sustains business and people -- the latter, through good jobs -- while protecting the environment for future generations. The "think green" concept is hot across the Northwest and here in Oregon -- the governor appointed a sustainability board this year -- and Piercy made it the cornerstone of her inaugural mayoral address in January 2005.

But critics on the left don't think Piercy is dreaming big enough. They say she needs to subject the volatile issue of land use to sustainability standards, and they cite the controversial Whole Foods proposal in downtown Eugene as Exhibit A.

Businesses, meanwhile, support the idea of sustainability -- but only if government doesn't force them to make changes.

The City Council will sit in judgment later this year, when asked to adopt a number of sustainability proposals that could change how the city works, and how it works with business. The concept may have traction there, if Council President Jennifer Solomon -- a self- described "edgy old conservative" -- is any indication.

"When I used to hear the word 'sustainability," I was like, 'Oh, brother," " Solomon said. "But in the last six or eight months that I've been exploring this issue, it's really very interesting and there's really a lot of opportunity."

Businesses sign on

Piercy's task force of business people and community activists, many of them from environment-oriented jobs, have discussed ideas for months. Co-chairman Rusty Rexius, president of the Eugene-based Rexius landscape business, said the ideas -- though nascent and yet to go through a lengthy public-input process -- include:

** Encouraging or requiring the city to buy its materials from local and sustainable companies, when it makes financial sense.

** Requiring a new City Hall or other new city buildings to earn certification from LEED -- Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a national standard for environmentally sound buildings. Such buildings can be more expensive to construct than conventional buildings.

** City incentives to businesses that earn the LEED certification or use sustainable practices.

** Changing the building code to make it easier to build "green" and to add other sustainable practices. For example, rules could be changed so builders could orient projects to best capture solar energy.

** City partnerships with sustainable companies on projects.

The movement has picked up speed nationwide despite debate over what is -- and is not -- sustainable. As part of its research, Piercy's task force tapped San Francisco officials regarding the "precautionary principle" that city adopted in 2004.

The rule requires early public involvement in decisions that affect the environment and a "rigorous" analysis of the best way to do the least harm, said Jared Blumenfeld, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

The city now steers the $700 million spent annually on goods toward products that pass the test for being environmentally sound.

Blumenfeld said the switch was driven in part by his city's desire to be a hub for an emerging industry: environmentally "clean" technology.

"We want people to see there's a reason to come to San Francisco - we'll buy your clean-technology products," he said.

"We're also a very strong labor town, and we want to make sure all our employees are not exposed to chemicals."

Piercy a hypocrite?

But critics say that Piercy's push for sustainability is hollow if she shies from tough issues such as where and how development occurs.

As a primary example, they point to the plan to build a Whole Foods supermarket downtown with a city-funded $7 million public parking garage next door.

Paul Nicholson, owner of the Paul's Bicycle Way of Life stores in Eugene and a former city councilor, said it's hypocritical for Piercy to push sustainability while supporting a project that -- in his view - increases the reliance on cars and threatens local-owned sustainable grocery stores.

Piercy is "doing substantive things to promote really unsustainable, car-centered megastores, and at the same time, she's undermining the local businesses that have been contributing to the community... and functioning in the local, sustainable manner that she claims to want to promote," Nicholson said.

The Whole Foods debate illustrates the challenge of defining sustainability.

On one hand, the Whole Foods Market chain, based in Austin, Texas, sells organic foods, is routinely ranked as a great place to work, and its Eugene store could boost an ailing downtown.

On the other, critics say the city should not give special help to a huge corporation that will drain as much as $46 million a year in sales from existing Eugene grocers.

Six locally-owned grocery stores have come out in opposition to the city's parking garage proposal, saying it amounts to an unfair subsidy to Whole Foods.

Piercy noted the chain's sustainable qualities but acknowledged that, given the potential of the Eugene store to generate more car trips, it's "not a perfect deal."

Nevertheless, she said, "if we're trying to get people to live, work and play downtown, and add vitality to our downtown scene, we still have to accommodate the need for cars to be there."

Kevin Matthews, president of land-use watchdog Friends of Eugene, called Piercy's sustainability push "well-intentioned."

But he said it may not have real impact if it doesn't address land uses.

"What about growth, development and sprawl?" he asked. "It would be great to have a big new company that makes serious high-end wind generators, but if that company brings with it a couple hundred employees who go in new suburbs that result in minimally controlled ecological impact, are we really making progress?"

Eugene businesses may be more receptive to Piercy's plan because part of the emphasis is economic development -- arguably the city's first such focus in two decades, said Dave Hauser, president of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce.

Companies from Ford Motor Co. on down are embracing sustainability, Hauser said, but the key is letting businesses choose the changes they make, not requiring them.

"As it unfolds, the things that are going to be important to us are practical, achievable steps, not a lot of new bureaucracy and regulation," Hauser said.

$17 an hour, plus benefits

Piercy's group sees a shining sustainability example in Peterson, a west Eugene-based manufacturer of huge machines that grind low-grade wood for reuse as pulp, paper, compost, mulch and fuel.

In addition to making Earth-friendly products, the company uses energy-efficient lights, low-waste paint-spraying equipment and other sustainable policies, owner Neil Peterson said.

As for its workers, Peterson welders and assemblers earn about $17 an hour, and employees have medical, dental and 401(k) benefits, share in profits and are privy to the company's financial information.

In 25 years, Peterson has grown from 20 workers to 185, extended its reach globally and now aims for annual sales above $100 million in five years.

"We want a strong company, and we want to show a profit," Peterson said, "and all three of those things" -- attention to workers, the environment and the bottom line -- "will get you there."

In fact, task force member Jack Roberts, head of the Lane Metro Partnership, a business recruitment organization, said any business can profit from sustainable practices. Like Hauser, though, his support ends where regulations begin.

"I have a problem where it moves into a regulatory, 'If you're going to move (your company) here, it has to meet certain green standards," " Roberts said.

The reach of the task force proposals also will define their reception by the council.

Solomon, a political conservative, and Chris Pryor, a moderate, echo the concerns about mandates for business; Betty Taylor, a liberal, said she supports any sustainability requirements that can be legally imposed.

For her part, Piercy won't rule out regulations but said her desire is to encourage change -- not require it.

"When I ran for office, what I would hear a lot is that you can't be pro-business and pro-environment at the same time," she said. But "it became very clear that most people across political (spectrums) believe you can have both of those things and should have both of those things."

"This community really believes that you can do well for the environment and make economically good decisions, and those things can work together," Piercy said. "This is good sense -- and cents."


What does "sustainable" mean? From Webster's Dictionary: A practice that sustains a given condition -- such as economic growth or a population -- without destroying or depleting natural resources or polluting the environment.

What does it mean to Eugene's mayor? Kitty Piercy's task force wants "sustainable development" -- development that meets the needs of this generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

What's the "triple bottom line"? That's short for the three values the group wants businesses to consider -- workers, the environment and profits.

What's being studied? Numerous ideas, including review of city operations, help for "green" industries, raising public awareness and providing incentives to business.

What's the time line? The effort started last April. Draft recommendations could go to the city in June, with public review during the summer and final proposals before the City Council in October.

For more information? Visit SBJD/SBI.html{1} or call 682-5010.

Copyright 2006 -- The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA RSS