July 10, 2008

Oregon Health University Joins With Others on Proposed Life Sciences Building

By Ted Sickinger, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Jul. 8--Unable to finance a waterfront medical campus on its own, Oregon Health & Science University is joining forces with other state universities to request $250 million in public and private money for a collaborative life sciences building on vacant land below the Marquam Bridge.

The 300,000-square-foot building would be located on the southwest corner of a 20-acre parcel that the Schnitzer family donated to OHSU in 2004. The vacant land has since served as surface parking for the university and the annual home for the Cirque du Soleil big top.

The site is just north of OHSU's new building on the south waterfront as well as the tram to its Marquam Hill campus. The location would provide easy access to Portland State University via streetcar and is adjacent to the proposed Portland-Milwaukie light-rail line.

The building would house shared classroom and research space for OHSU's medical school, Portland State University's science departments, Oregon State University's College of Pharmacy and health-related programs at the Oregon Institute of Technology.

The proposal is a milestone for collaboration among institutions in the Oregon University System, which often must squabble over limited state funds and see their projects diluted as money is parceled out over many campuses. The plan would also provide a financially strapped OHSU with a path forward to increase the capacity of its medical school.

"One of the key things to making this work is the extent to which the partners can share the space," said Marilyn Lanier, vice provost of OHSU.

The schools will submit their joint capital request at Friday's meeting of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. If it wins support -- and state education leaders have already identified the project as a strategic priority -- the request will go to Gov. Ted Kulongoski for inclusion in his 2009 budget. Backers hope the building will be operating in 2012.

Proposed funding sources include $125 million in general-obligation and lottery-backed bonds that the state would repay. Another $75 million would come from private gifts and grants. A final $50 million in bonds would be repaid through building rents and other fees.

Although plans are still tentative, backers say the building would allow OHSU to expand its medical school class size from 120 to 160 students and help PSU avoid a looming shortage of classroom space in its science programs.

"We'll clearly need space," said PSU's dean Marvin Kaiser. "Some of the fastest-growing majors are our sciences, and our research activities are also growing rapidly."

The University of Oregon already has an expansion under way in Portland, but has expressed interest in locating some research in a collaborative building.

Education leaders have a wish list of other needs that a new building could fulfill, including simulation labs, a business incubator, joint research efforts aimed at commercializing technology, and additional space for private companies.

Chronic financial difficulties have stymied OHSU's plans to start building a medical campus on the Schnitzer land. The university received an anonymous $40 million donation last year -- its largest ever -- to help put up the first building. But a tentative philanthropic campaign for the campus took a back seat to other financial holes at OHSU, leaving the status of the Schnitzer campus in limbo even as local, state and federal agencies have moved forward with their vision for the riverfront corridor.

The nearby South Waterfront District, just to the south, has been plagued by higher than expected infrastructure costs and a moribund market for the condominiums that are multiplying in several sleek high rises. Private biotech jobs that OHSU promised on the south waterfront when seeking its last big chunk of state funding have yet to arrive.

Backers hope the new building will dovetail with transportation improvements and jump-start some of the economic-development initiatives that were envisioned originally.

"We already have good relationships between OHSU, PSU and the U of O," said Jim Francesconi, a former city commissioner and lawyer who chaired a higher education committee looking at the project. "We want to move those forward in a way that serves both education and research, and that will be good for the Portland economy."


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