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Our November cover story: Portland’s ‘professional astroturfer’ turns to transportation

Ward Hubbell. Photo by Michael SchoenholtzYou’ve never heard of Ward Hubbell. But he’s been hired by Columbia Sportswear, Fred Meyer and the Port of Portland to slow the building of new sidewalks and bikeways – by splitting the votes of green politicians and pitting his enemies against each other. And his past is even more interesting.

Editor’s note: Once or twice a year, our monthly newsmagazine for low-car Portlanders runs a story that’s mostly text, rather than our usual graphically intensive spreads. Since text translates well to the Web and it’s usually a major project for us, I post them here on the blog, too.

Photos of Hubbell by Michael Schoenholtz.

2004: Building power

For those watching closely, the mid 2000s were a precarious time to be a vinyl manufacturer.

Low interest rates were juicing a seemingly bottomless construction boom. For an industry that draws 76 percent of its revenue from the building sector, the news should have been terrific.

But something odd was happening in this boom: consumers were suddenly asking about "green building," thanks in part to a new set of standards called LEED. And some vinyl executives feared their product might be in LEED’s crosshairs.

"They were worried," recalls Don Loepp, editor of Plastics Today. "They know that there are environmental groups like Greenpeace that would like to see vinyl banned."

A new class of green architects was circulating studies of cancer rates near vinyl factories. The industry watched nervously as LEED weighed a proposal to reward projects for avoiding vinyl.

Enter Ward Hubbell of Portland, Ore.

A 44-year-old Mississippi preacher’s son with a master’s in psychology and a gift for gab, Hubbell had been an up-and-coming vice president for corporate affairs at timber giant Louisiana Pacific when he made the mistake of falling in love with the city of its corporate headquarters. LP left Portland for Nashville in 2003; Hubbell decided that to stay in town, he’d have to create a job of his own.

So, Hubbell said in an interview last month, he started calling timber, vinyl and other executives with a proposal: He would launch a nonprofit to license and promote Green Globes, a new green building standard that would compete with LEED.

A seat on the board of Hubbell’s new "Green Building Initiative" would cost $20,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on a firm’s revenue. Today, GBI’s dozens of sponsors include the Vinyl Institute, Dow Chemical and Louisiana Pacific.

Green Globes has decided not to reward buildings for avoiding vinyl.

The project gave Hubbell foes around the country.

"He is a professional lobbyist who is fronting a green building association as part of his work for his industry clients," says Jay Coalson, president of Green Building Services, a major Portland firm deeply invested in the LEED standard.

"He’s basically a professional astroturfer," says Lloyd Alter, green building editor for the blog Treehugger.

Hubbell says Coalson is threatened by Green Globes because it is cheaper than LEED. Green Globes lets clients invest money in a building rather than a plaque on its wall, he said.

"Monopolies tend to benefit the monopolist only," says Hubbell. "Competition drives down prices. It improves product quality."

Green Building Initiative revenue, 2006-2009As a green building standard, Green Globes never took off. It’s certified 400 buildings, Hubbell says; LEED boasts of 7,674 U.S. projects. GBI revenue has dwindled (see right).

That hasn’t stopped Hubbell from becoming a wealthy man. With a staff of five, he might be one of the 10 best-paid nonprofit CEOs in Oregon.

At GBI’s peak in 2007, Hubbell’s nonprofit was paying Hubbell Communications, his wholly owned public affairs firm, $814,462 annually to manage its operation, including what IRS records described as 30 hours of work by Hubbell each week. In 2009, the last year records were available, Hubbell’s management contract was worth $629,733, 42 percent of the GBI’s revenue.

share of Green Building Initiative revenue devoted to Hubbell Communications contractHubbell said that contract covered part of the salaries of up to five employees, plus travel expenses and rent for a house Hubbell owns and leases to the nonprofit. (One Portland lawyer said this practice, though legal, would raise red flags in an IRS audit.)

Hubbell said he wouldn’t disclose his salary, which would be subject to IRS penalties if it is not in line with similar positions at similar enterprises.

"I’ve never sat down and figured it out," Hubbell said, adding that he earns more than he did as a vice president of corporate affairs at Louisiana Pacific.

GBI’s critics claim Hubbell’s goal, after leaving the timber company, was never to create a permanently successful product. It was to divide potential green building supporters and paint declining practices "green" – at least for a while.

"It’s a slowdown," said Coalson. "The more you can slow it down, the longer people can go without having to actually change the way they do their business."

2011: Street fighter

Ward Hubbell. Photo by Michael Schoenholtz.

Portland’s cozy network of "active transportation" activists had never seen anything quite like it.

It was a warm August morning, and the city council chambers were packed. One after another, sidewalk advocates took the stand urging the city not to spend $2 million on a downtown bikesharing service. One after another, bicycling advocates took the stand urging the city not to spend $1.3 million on sidewalks for Barbur Boulevard.

It was an unprecedented split in a political coalition accustomed to sharing lobbyists and locking steps.
And in a regional transportation budget of $400 million, it was a fight "over crumbs," sighed Marianne Fitzgerald of Southwest Neighborhoods, one of those who spoke, unsuccessfully, for sidewalks and against bikesharing. If only the crumbs had been a bit bigger, the city might have committed to both projects.

The bikes-versus-sidewalks fight, last August, was a twist of fate. The size of the crumbs was anything but.

It was, in fact, the first victory of a little-noticed Portland nonprofit launched in 2010 with a simple goal: Redirecting public money from biking and walking toward helping freight trucks reach highways.
Its name: "Building the Economy through Sustainable Transportation." Its founder: a local public affairs specialist named Ward Hubbell.

Carlotta Collette. Photo by Metro.Carlotta Collette was confused.

It was late 2010, and the elected Metro councillor was chairing a task force assigned to decide how Portland and its suburbs should be told to spend an allowance of federal transportation grants.

In a hard-fought vote that summer, a Metro committee had voted 7-6 for cities to spend 75% of the money on "active transportation" and 25% on "green economy" projects.

At the time, reported that a local freight advocacy group called BEST was a main backer of the "green economy" provision.

But what did "green economy" mean? Collette said that early in the debate, BEST had circulated a "pretty smart proposal": a vision she recalled as emphasizing "green tech and green jobs."

She referred to the proposal as "the green memo" because, she said, it had been printed on green paper.

Portland transportation spending splitBut once the meetings started, an odd thing happened: Hans Bernard, BEST’s man on the task force, acted as if "green economy" simply meant "freight."

To Collette, it seemed like an abrupt switch to a far less nuanced idea of the future economy.

"Any notion that it should be about green jobs and green economy kind of disappeared," Collette said last month, still wondering why BEST had changed its tune. "I kept trying to get Hans up to the table and give him more opportunity, but he didn’t seem to feel that he could defend it either."

Nine months later, acting on the task force’s new guidelines, the City of Portland agreed to spend $2.4 million, 26% of the federal allowance, on a freight intersection near N. Lombard Street. Metro expects to approve it, along with the bikesharing project, Dec. 15.

Ward Hubbell. Photo by Michael Schoenholtz.Hubbell, who hired Bernard to lead BEST last year, said in an interview that he loves active transportation, but that Portland’s already got plenty of it.

"If you’re going to say we want to be Copenhagen and we want 40 percent of the population to bike to work, well good on you, good luck, God bless," Hubbell said. "I don’t think it’s going to happen."

He said companies that rely on urban freight such as Fred Meyer, Schnitzer Steel and Columbia Sportswear have been happy to back the lobbying effort. BEST asked members to pay $2,500 to $10,000 a year, depending on a firm’s revenue.

Hubbell said BEST is searching for every penny available for freight. With a coming $450 million fight for cash to widen the I-5 bridge, they may need it.

"How sustainable is it for trucks to line up for 10 miles here idling in traffic?" said Hubbell. "And how sustainable is it for businesses to move out of the state because they can’t move stuff?"

As for the phrase "green economy," he said, it "wasn’t a term we came up with."

"I probably would have called it ‘freight,’" Hubbell said, smiling. "But that’s just me. I’m not a real fancy guy."

(Photo of Collette by Metro.)

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