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Coming soon to D.C.? (www.livingcityblock.org)

Far west of here, a city block in Denver, Colorado is being renovated from the inside out. It’s an ambitious idea: Get the majority of property owners in a very small area to retrofit their buildings for maximum energy efficiency, using cooperation to lower the cost of upgrades that might be prohibitively expensive if undertaken independently.

The group making it all happen is Living City Block, an outgrowth of a sustainability think tank called the Rocky Mountain Institute. In Denver’s Lower Downtown, they did a comprehensive study of a one-and-a-half block area, convened a charette, and got buy-in from the mayor and local businessowners, promising lower operating costs and a healthier environment for workers and residents. They’ve started work on a couple of buildings already, with the goal of reducing energy use 50 percent by 2012 and becoming a net zero block by summer of 2014.

But the whole idea of Living City Block is that it be exportable to other cities, and they’ve already set their sights on a second project location: The block between 13th and 14th streets and U and V Streets NW, in the heart of D.C. Llewellyn Wells, LCB’s president, found the location through talking with D.C.-based environmental consultants Suzanne Hunt of HuntGreen and Patty Rose of GreenSpace, and was in the city a couple of weeks ago meeting with other local community individuals and groups.

“There are a lot of people who have been doing a lot of great work there for a long time,” Wells says. “There’s a lot of excitement and organization, so it’s real fertile ground.”

Here’s how it works: LCB puts in the “soft costs” of bringing in property owners, studying the project area, and coordinating with local politicians and government agencies to integrate power, water, and waste systems. Since the businesses themselves need to put up the capital expenses, though, the initiative depends heavily on making the business case for things like solar panels, geothermal heat, energy efficient piping, and permeable sidewalks. It’s a very easy case for large structures, like the Empire State building. Smaller buildings need to work together to create economies of scale, but older buildings are especially worth saving, since they possess the kinds of walls built for an era before air conditioning.

Wells hasn’t actually started reaching out to the folks whose buildings he hopes to retrofit—which include new-ish developments like Donatelli’s mixed-use Ellington building and the one that houses Busboys & Poets—but hopes to do an intense workshop sometime this summer, before creating a governing structure to coordinate the project going forward. “It’s a pretty involved process,” he says. “You want to be breaking ground on something within a year.”