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Higher-ups in the District government love to brag about their city’s environmental credentials: D.C., they’ll tell you, has more certifiably green buildings and more acreage of green roofs than any place besides Chicago, not to mention more Energy Star-approved buildings than anywhere besides Los Angeles.
“We’re a city that has nearly 30 acres of green roofs on its buildings already,” District Department of the Environment Director Christophe Tulou boasted last month. “We don’t have any business being in that position as a city of 600,000 people, and yet we are…It’s just so incredibly exciting.”
“I think we’re about to kick Chicago’s butt,” adds Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, making note of the 179 buildings now certified to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard by the U.S. Green Building Council. Some 600 more such LEED buildings are in the pipeline.
To a large extent, the honchos actually deserve their self-administered pats on the back. Yes, the federal government now requires its buildings to become LEED-certified once they’re built or substantially renovated. But that’s only resulted in one certification in D.C.—the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms building on New York Avenue NE. The rest of the prodding came via the city’s own Green Building Act of 2006, which expedited reviews and will soon require all large existing buildings to report their energy consumption. The law also forces all new developments to meet LEED standards.
But there’s one green metric you don’t hear as much about: The newest rating system, LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND). D.C. has already had more projects sign up for the certification than any city in the country.
As it happens, LEED-ND is the kind of certification that Washington—or any other similarly dense and transit-served city—can easily use to run up the score: It’s the first system to recognize that location, rather than the technology of individual buildings, is the major factor in reducing carbon footprints. It’s not much use building a 4,000-square-foot single family home that uses no net energy if it’s in the middle of an exurban field you need to drive to.
The District doesn’t have many empty exurban fields. But it does have a robust Metrorail system and relatively compact neighborhoods—meaning LEED-ND points rack up without a developer even trying.
Take Constitution Square, for example. Developers weren’t even planning on getting LEED certification for the 404-apartment residential portion of the massive mixed-use project in NoMa. Two-thirds of the way through construction, they realized that they could meet LEED-ND standards without much extra effort. So they filed the paperwork (and paid the $20,000 fee) for that extra seal of approval.
“The thing is with LEED-ND is, it’s just good urbanism,” says Matt Steenhoek, a development manager at PN Hoffman, which had a hand in Constitution Square. “A lot of it’s just stuff you’re going to do anyway because it’s the way you want to build a successful project.”
In some ways, LEED-ND wasn’t meantfor urban areas in the first place. It’s most useful in suburbs where smart-growth principles like density, narrow streets, less parking, and access to transit are not only uncommon, but made illegal by zoning restrictions. In those places, registering as a LEED-ND candidate early on can help a project win approval from jurisdictions concerned about traffic, trash, and noise.
In at least some places with less environmentally friendly regs, the Green Building Council—which hands out the certifications—has worked with local governments to improve their codes. In Cleveland in 2008, LEED-ND pilot projects prodded the city to revise ancient ordinances designed to send all stormwater into sewers.
But in D.C., there’s not much daylight between the Green Building Council’s ideal and existing regulations. LEED-ND projects are springing up either at the city’s insistence or of their own volition—especially at the big public-private partnerships that are good candidates for certification anyway.
At the Southwest Waterfront, for example, the city’s land disposition agreement with the developers requires both LEED Silver certification and ND certification for the whole project. Other projects, like CityCenterDC and Forest City’s The Yards project near the Ballpark, opt for LEED-ND as a way of distinguishing themselves in a world where green building certification is already par for the course.
“We just realized that this was going to be a great way to reinforce through the market what The Yards was going to be,” says Ramsey Meiser, Forest City’s senior vice president of development. “I wouldn’t say that there was one overriding thing that we did from a design standpoint for ND.”
It’s a useful marketing tool for developments in areas the public isn’t used to thinking of as residential—like, say, Constitution Square, which sits in the middle of a thicket of glassy, blocky office buildings. “The people at the company felt that it would help it to have an ND plaque and certification, especially for marketing of the residential flats,” explains Laura Watchman, a consultant who helped craft the guidelines and now works for companies that want their developments to comply. “Especially in a neighborhood like NoMa that’s up and coming and revitalizing, it’s really helpful to have that third-party validation. It helps to rebrand the neighborhood, and to provide that incentive for people to feel like it’s a hip and green place to live.”
So what’s the point in a certification that urban developers can get without doing much beyond what they were required to do already?
Doug Farr, a Chicago-based architect and planner who helped put together the rating system, says that even in places where developers are already doing everything LEED-ND is supposed to incentivize, there’s a virtue in labeling and quantifying what that means. “What’s the Beyoncé song, ‘Put a Ring on It’?” Farr jokes. And besides, he says, there’s a lot beyond the basic certification level that would push a developer to opt out of dirty infrastructure—generating renewable energy rather than depending on the grid, growing food on-site, and processing sewage, for example.
But if they don’t, the organization argues that the fact that getting basic certification isn’t a problem, since building in cities can be more onerous than just plunking houses down on open tracts of land in the suburbs.
“They should be rewarded for picking that location,” says Green Building Council’s Dara Zycherman. “If it was really easy for you to get there, it’s not a bad thing to get recognized for it, although of course we want to push people in directions they’re not comfortable with.”
For the District, though, there’s a downside to having a metric that’s inherently biased in favor of cities: All those impressive LEED-ND certification stats allow the city to avoid reforming those few developments that still adhere to the suburban-Arizona version of spatial organization.
Take the low-slung, big-box retail planned for the Shops at Dakota Crossing, in Fort Lincoln. Forget LEED: The project is as far from a Metro station as you can get in the city and surrounded by oceans of parking lots. And then, of course, the three single-use Walmart developments on Georgia Avenue NW, Bladensburg Road NE, and East Capitol Street—as much as the company might tout the sustainability of individual buildings, they don’t fit into anything you could characterize as a “neighborhood.”
Should the District mandate LEED-ND as a way of avoiding such monstrosities in the future? Tregoning would love to oversee a city that universally adheres to the standard, but it hasn’t been a top District priority. By way of explanation, she cites the city’s current record of environmental success. “It’s a little bit like overkill almost to require the LEED-ND certification, because our entire city, pretty much, we’re meeting that standard,” she says.
It’s a case where all those admirable green stats allow officials to let the few exceptions slide. Incorporating LEED-ND standards into “large tract review,” which governs projects over three acres in size, might have prevented some of those nightmarish building scenarios. At the moment, the Office of Planning can only intervene if it looks like there would be massive traffic problems or other disruptions. To squeeze as much walkability from these projects as possible, the only tool left to the city is persuasion.
With a little more LEED leverage, Tregoning could do more than nudge.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery