It's easy to look past the squat former Arco station at North Albina Avenue and Ainsworth Street. The exterior disguises the clean, sleek remodeling inside that has transformed it into the June Key Delta Community Center, a prototype of a greener future for Portland's public buildings.

That title is supposed to go to the proposed Oregon Sustainability Center, a $65 million downtown tower billed as the most environmentally friendly large office building in the world.

But the project isn't likely to get built without an improbable infusion of private money or a change of heart among state lawmakers.

The 2,700-square-foot Delta Center, on a far smaller scale, has emerged as the showcase that mayoral candidates Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith point to as a model of sustainability.

And both say the Sustainability Center—a joint enterprise between the city and the Oregon University System—is a boondoggle; the city would pay much higher rents for bureaus that move into the new building.

The Delta Center cost the Delta Sigma Theta sorority only $2,000 in 1992 when it was an abandoned gas station. The sorority, a national organization of black educators, needed a meeting space, and its leaders realized there was ample money available if they worked to make the building environmentally friendly.

Of the $900,000 that has been spent so far to build the Delta Center, says member Chris Poole-Jones, about $600,000 has come from grants and loans, with most of the rest coming from donations. Poole-Jones says her 55-member organization didn't realize the difficulties it faced when it made the decision to pursue a "green" building, but the choice did the trick financially.

"It helped with funding [for people] to see something like this in an inner-city environment," Poole-Jones says. As plans developed, "We got greener and greener."

The Deltas went for the toughest standard available: the Living Building Challenge, a standard so strict only three buildings in the entire country have met it.

"Living buildings" must be made from the most local, nontoxic materials available and must rely on self-contained, carbon-neutral systems for water and electricity.

Many of the Delta Center's materials were recycled in one way or another. The group snapped up the windows after they were rejected for the University of Washington's library, and shipping containers were transformed into the building's kitchen and bathrooms.

The building is heated and cooled via a 100-foot spike driven into the ground to harness geothermal energy. Once built, the center must go a whole year without adding a molecule of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere before it can be recognized as "living."

Meanwhile, paper and plastics can't be used on site. When people leave, they must haul away their trash. "It's a lifestyle change," Poole-Jones says. "Our younger members are teaching us."

The Portland Development Commission's $135,000 loan and $319,000 in grants were the largest part of the funding. PDC spokeswoman Anne Mangan says the city backed the project because of its design and its development by a historically African-American organization.

"What we were looking for was a project that provided equity that offered some kind of sustainability," she says.

But Mangan dismisses the suggestion that the Delta Center trumps the proposed Sustainability Center.

"They're two completely different projects," she says. "One does not negate the other.... A small building that aspires to be a living building has completely different challenges than a high-rise."

But others who backed the Delta Center are pleased to see it eclipsing the Sustainability Center.

Cassie Cohen, director of Groundwork Portland, which seeks to redevelop brownfields (abandoned industrial or commercial sites). She says projects such as the Sustainability Center skimp on inclusiveness for minority groups.

"I get frustrated because there seems to be a lot of support in the Portland metro area to make sustainable buildings like these, but there doesn't seem to be support for something like a multicultural center," she says. "[The Delta Center] symbolizes a lot of different things: One is that the African-American community—women—came up with that themselves."

The Delta Center still needs solar panels that would take it off the city's electrical grid, and a new sewage system, to earn the "living building" certification. Estimated cost: $60,000 to $80,000. The organization—when not holding its meetings—rents out the center for events, cooking classes and tai-chi practice.

The lessons Poole-Jones says the city's leaders should learn from her organization's building: encourage local businesses to manufacture more environmentally conscious materials, and do the work in small steps. "Keep the cost in mind and make it as green as you can," she says. "You have to. If it’s not green, don’t do it.”