At the Colab complex, long skybridges course
through the atrium, linking all levels and facilities
with food services to facilitate informal
interactions among students and faculty from
all universities.

In an era of scarce resources, health care institutions face a wide range of separate problems, but sometimes solving them becomes easier through formulation of an integrated interdisciplinary approach.

Techniques to realize varied objectives can include: 

  • realizing efficiencies in the provision of health care services—a long-sought objective of policy planners;
  • training substantially more medical professionals—a growing need in order to treat the aging baby boom generation;
  • generating jobs in the expanding health care sector—a highly prized means of advancing urban economic development;
  • promoting partnerships with private bioscience and pharmaceutical companies—a key strategy for development planners;
  • transforming an industrial waterfront brownfield into a center of urban activity—a goal long pursued by urban planners;
  • linking universities in interdisciplinary programs—a strategy to break down educational silos, particularly in health care;
  • reducing the space and costs of building medical training facilities—an elusive objective of public education developers;
  • increasing the size of the health professions workforce—an element vital in addressing shortages in Oregon; and
  • connecting universities through multimodal transportation nodes—a dream of transportation planners. 

Intended to address this long list of objectives in one integrated facility is a $295 million shared education and research facility for four universities in downtown Portland, Oregon. The facility, originally conceived in two phases but now a single project, is the Oregon University System (OUS)/Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Collaborative Life Sciences Building (CLSB) and the Skourtes Tower—collectively referred to here as Colab. 

Located on a former scrap steel brownfield in the burgeoning South Waterfront project, the 495,000-gross-square-foot (46,000-sq-m) Colab project combines in 76,130 square feet (7,073 sq m) the following:

  • the first two years of OHSU’s MD program;
  • the OHSU physician’s assistant and radiation therapy programs;
  • the first two years of OHSU’s School of Dentistry DMD program (recently expanded to include all four years through the early construction of the $105 million Skourtes Tower project);
  • the joint Oregon State University (OSU)/OHSU College of Pharmacy program in 17,940 square feet (1,667 sq m);
  • the Portland State University (PSU) undergraduate biology and chemistry programs in 39,670 square feet (3,685 sq m); and
  • 450 parking spaces and 7,500 square feet (700 sq m) of ground-floor retail space.

Also, the University of Oregon (UO) will have a small research presence in 1,000 square feet (93 sq m).

The Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) initially was going to include its biomedical engineering and clinical lab sciences but withdrew because it decided to consolidate these programs with others in another facility in the Portland metropolitan area. In addition, 6,000 square feet (560 sq m) of highly specialized, minimal-vibration research space, along with 14,000 square feet (1,300 sq m) of standard laboratory space has been added to accommodate the new OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine.

Colab physically links to OHSU’s Marquam Hill main site, along with its waterfront Center for Health & Healing (CHH), through its aerial tram. The Portland Streetcar, as well as the new TriMet 7.3-mile (11.8-km) Portland-to-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit (LRT) Orange Line, connects PSU’s main campus to Colab. The new Porter Street LRT and bus station just south of Colab serves as the major intermodal hub at the bridgehead of a new cable-stayed bridge restricted to use by the LRT, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians across the Willamette River to the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry and beyond.

The Colab complex is the first development on the new 19-acre (7.7-ha) Schnitzer Campus donated to OHSU by the Schnitzer Investment Corp., which eventually will include 2 million square feet (186,000 sq m) of education, research, and mixed-use space. OHSU ground-leases the site to the partners, thereby maintaining control during and beyond the 60-year term. Colab initially will allow the OHSU School of Medicine to expand its class size from 120 to 160 students, and the School of Dentistry from 75 to 90 students, which will allow the School of Dentistry to increase its patient care from about 90,000 patient-visits per year to 120,000. The physician assistant program can expand 25 percent from about 40 students to 50. 

The five-story atrium contains lecture halls and auditoriums with capacities of 150 to 500 seats.
Shared libraries, student lounges, and community and conference rooms top those spaces.

Originally conceived of as Phase II of the project, the Skourtes Tower was approved by the OHSU board in May 2011 and will be built simultaneously with the CLSB. It includes the rest of the OHSU School of Dentistry program in 70,000 square feet (6,500 sq m) of mainly clinical space, 200 of the total 450 parking spaces, and 40,000 square feet (3,700 sq m) of OHSU research space, half built out and the other half built as unfinished shell space pending recruitment of new researchers over the next five years. A portion of that space may be used as an incubator for developing private companies in bioscience fields. The total budget for the Skourtes Tower is $105 million—$43 million to be raised from philanthropic efforts over the next few years, $7 million from operating margin improvements in the School of Dentistry, and $55 million from issuing new tax-exempt debt on OHSU’s credit. To date, $27.1 million of the philanthropic goal has been raised.

The $190 million CLSB, formerly Phase I, is financed through a mixture of sources. The OUS was ultimately awarded $50 million of Article XI-G bonds (general fund–backed bonds that do not need to be paid back) and $60 million of Article XI-F bonds (revenue bonds to be paid back from space rents and other revenue). This $110 million was matched by a $40 million grant from an anonymous donor to OHSU and a $10 million equity contribution from TriMet for the construction of the adjacent station area. To that original project budget of $160 million was added $30 million in OHSU funds for the new OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine (OCSSB).

Physical and Financial Savings

Co-locating programs from four universities creates an opportunity to realize both physical and financial savings. Each of the programs uses a variety of lecture halls, classrooms, laboratories, conference rooms, distance learning centers, studios, and other facilities that can be shared in 59,800 square feet (5,560 sq m), about 32 percent of the net usable space in Phase I. In addition, other classrooms and auditoriums allocated to constituent partners may be shared, increasing efficient use. And all the parking will be shared, which adds 11 percent to the shared area. Planners calculated that the development program for the whole Schnitzer Campus could be reduced by up to 30 percent from 2.9 million to 2 million square feet (269,000 to 186,000 sq m).

The Colab complex is divided into three parts. A five-story atrium links a six-story building
housing retail space, classrooms laboratories, and offices with the 12-story Skourtes Tower
housing more retail space, research labs, and the dental school. 

The Colab complex is visually divided into three parts. A six-story, 186,244-square-foot (17,302-sq-m) building on the south houses retail space and classrooms on the ground floor, with classrooms, teaching laboratories, and offices above for the CLSB. The northern tower, 12 stories in height, contains both CLSB and Skourtes Tower program elements. The bottom five floors of the north tower house retail spaces, classrooms, and teaching and research labs for the CLSB, and the public lobby for the Skourtes Tower dental clinic. The top seven stories of the Skourtes Tower contain 111,442 square feet (10,353 sq m) housing research space, part of the dental school, and, at the top floors, the dental clinic. 

Central and easily accessible to both the north and south buildings is a five-story atrium that contains various sizes of lecture halls and auditoriums ranging from 150 seats, to 200 and 300 seats to 500 seats. The 200- and 500-seat halls are tiered, but the others are flat to enable the accommodation of a variety of teaching configurations fostering group learning. Shared libraries, student lounges, and community meeting and conference rooms top those spaces. Long skybridges course through the atrium linking all levels and facilities, and all food service is located there to facilitate informal interactions among students, faculty, researchers, and staff from all the universities. The atrium creates an active heart for the complex and makes it possible for each constituent part of the complex not only to use the common facilities within the atrium, but also to shift the allocation of more exclusive spaces among users.

Below the whole complex are two levels of parking containing spaces for 450 cars. While the overall campus was planned at a 2.4-to-1 parking ratio, the Colab complex is lean at less than one per 1,000 square feet (93 sq m). Planners figure that the aerial tram, streetcar, and bus and light-rail stations at the site, along with heavy bicycle use by students, will sharply reduce demand for parking space. 

Space Allocation through Market Disciplines

Colab is structured as a tenancy-in-common between OHSU and OUS, serving its constituent universities, PSU, OSU, and UO. Along with the ground lease, this scheme creates a framework for efficient development and management based on market disciplines.

Colab will link OHSU’s Marquam hilltop main site with PSU’s main campus through
the Portland Streetcar as well as the TriMet Light Rail Transit (LRT) Orange Line.

One solution that Colab’s creators devised was a method of allocating space flexibly among its constituent institutions on an annual basis. A web of agreements between and among the partners establishes the allocation scheme. OHSU as project manager, after consultation with the OUS/OHSU collaborative building program committee and under the oversight of a steering committee composed of OHSU and OUS, as well as the smaller constituent partners, decides on the initial allocation of what is formally classified as the exclusive space on which each pays annual rent. 

Thereafter, a market mechanism crafted into the agreements helps allocate space, based on rent, which includes the prorated portions of operating expenses, capital reserve fees, and debt service. Tenants will assess their respective space needs at least annually to determine whether they desire to license space from another tenant during the upcoming year. While no tenant is obligated to license any portion of its exclusive space to another tenant, the parties expect to periodically enter into agreements to license or swap use of space. Each tenant will then manage its own exclusive space. In addition, tenants will share the costs, occupancy, and use of the common space in proportion to each tenant’s respective percentage interests. This scheme in the multi-university setting actually works better than similar market-equivalent efforts within universities because budgets are already separate.

Even more unusual than the physical and financial economies made possible by Colab is the opportunity to improve the quality and depth of the students it trains. Modern health care has become focused on increasingly narrow specialties, with more silos erected between disciplines as well as between universities. Colab, however, is designed in a holistic manner to integrate training among different professions. So, for example, notes David Robinson, OHSU’s interim provost, medical and dental students will share significant components of the first two years of classroom education, and physician assistants will share the first year. The goal is for students to take common courses and training in such areas as anatomy, geriatrics, ethics, health care policy, medical team communication, and teamwork, along with individual modules specific to each profession. The integration not only will improve performance, but also may reduce training costs and improve the use of facilities. The target is to achieve as much as 80 percent active use of all facilities.

Interdisciplinary research parallels earlier professional training. The Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine will bring together a number of scientific disciplines to study how cancer cells grow. These disciplines include researchers at OHSU in the fields of cancer, neuroscience, infectious disease, and cardiology. They also include the fields of physics, nanotechnology, and quantitative analysis from investigators at PSU. 


Oregon has much experience in collaborative solutions. Begun in 1994, the Oregon Master of Public Health (OMPH) program is already a joint program built on the collective experience and expertise of three partner institutions: OHSU, OSU, and PSU through its College of Urban & Public Affairs.

The sharing of location, facilities, and programs of four universities produces real economies in both development and operation. Mark Williams, OHSU associate vice president for campus development, notes that no single university in Oregon had adequate resources to undertake a project of this scale. Moreover, he says, “Universities are notoriously not command-and-control institutions” where efficient decision making is the norm. So, joint collaboration to create Colab represents an innovation to seize an opportunity for the four institutions to accomplish the following: develop together at a lower development capital cost; reduce the duplication of both spaces and services, such as lobbies, restrooms, and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems; increase use of expensive facilities like auditoriums, distance learning centers and information technologies, classrooms, laboratories, and conference centers; lower collective operating expenses; and lessen debt-service costs.

Moreover, Colab is being developed to open in September 2013 on a central city site that plays four roles:

  • a new hub for intermodal transit;
  • a catalyst to revitalize the Portland waterfront through environmental remediation of a brownfield andconstruction of a sustainable Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold or Platinum facility;
  • a stimulus to increase downtown employment, residential space, and retail demand; and
  • a model for urban economic development through building cross-trained human capital to serve growing health care demand.