Thursday, May 10, 2007

The grass is always green; it's just the fence that's being mean...

Did you do your homework?

Located on the waterfront in Victoria, British Columbia, Dockside Green is slated to be the first LEED platinum-rated development in the world, which basically means it is as environmentally-friendly as you can get. Comprised of 26 buildings on 15 acres near the city's harbor, the project will include 1,000 apartments, condos and townhouses, in addition to over half a million square feet of commercial and retail space.

The project's list of environmental sustainability features is enough to make even the greenest Green blush. To wit:

Targeting LEED™ Platinum certification and striving to be greenhouse gas neutral, Dockside Green will showcase a variety of sustainable innovations including biomass energy cogeneration, on-site stormwater and sewage treatment, exciting alternative modes of transportation, and a host of other environmental commitments.
In case you don't feel like clicking the links, here are some specific details. First, biomass energy cogeneration:
Rather than burning wood waste, we'll use a thermochemical gasification process to create a synthetic gas that will in turn fuel the engines of Dockside Green's power generator. The input “chemicals” for thermochemical gasification – wood, water and air – are heated in a low-air environment until the wood undergoes gaseous decomposition. The resulting gaseous products are then scrubbed and cleaned before entering the engines, so no smoke is produced – just green electrical energy and clean, odourless flue gases. To avoid noise disturbances, the gasification plant and the engines will be housed in an acoustically isolated building.
The process will be responsible for producing heat for the buildings, with excess being sold to off-site customers. What's more, the use of solar power for hot water and electricity, combined with high efficiency appliances and fixtures, will help Dockside achieve it's goal of being greenhouse gas neutral.

Also interesting is the project's water management system. All sewage will be treated on-site and reused in toilets and irrigation, saving nearly 70 million gallons of water each year (roughly 60 percent less water usage than traditional developments). Moreover, stormwater will be captured by green roofs, cisterns, bioswales and bio-filtration and channeled to a man-made stream running through the middle of the property (something like this was recently discussed on the HCCA listserv). The developers promise that "post development rain event conditions will not exceed the rate and quantity of predevelopment conditions..."

But it doesn't stop there, Dockside's developers also promise to incorporate social and economic sustainability measures, each of which is accounted for in their Triple Bottom Line approach:
Our development plan emphasizes the creation of a healthy and inclusive community that supports new economic opportunities and a high quality of life with minimal impact to the environment.

Our strategy recognizes that triple bottom line components should never be treated as separate targets, independent of one another. Instead, we believe in taking an integrated approach; intertwining economic, environmental and social objectives so that each enhances the attributes of the others, making it difficult to distinguish which specific TBL component a particular tactic is addressing.

Many believe that economics determine what can be done from an environmental or social perspective (the more money you have, the more you can do). While this is true to a certain extent, our approach is to select design features that embrace all the triple bottom line components demonstrating how a commitment to the environment and sustainable New Urbanism pays off in the long run through factors like job creation, improved marketability and energy cost savings.
Among the specific social and economic sustainability features are live/work spaces, affordable housing set asides totaling $3 million, a permanent community liaison group and (my favorite) a provision to keep out chain establishments.

Lest you think these lofty goals are only marketing gimmicks (or "greenwashing"), the developer has promised to set up an ongoing monitoring system to ensure Dockside adheres to this vision and, get this, will pay the city $1 million if it fails to achieve LEED platinum certification for the entire project.

Now, the list of amenities is certainly extensive, but what I really like about the project is its philosophical foundation.

We've talked a lot in Columbia about how to make Town Center development "work" with respect to traffic, infrastructure and whatever definition of community "values" we each hold. But with its focus on creating a complete ecosystem, of sorts, Dockside does us one better.

The project is being designed with a systematic, integrated and closed-loop approach. It's not enough for a variety of pieces to play well together, each building, public space and amenity serves to complement the others and helps create a more holistic, um, whole.

When I look at the Town Center master plan, I don't see this level of thinking. I see a plan overly-constrained by short-sighted feasibility and politics. Of course, our situation is only loosely analogous to Dockside, but the point is still there.

If we want Town Center development to serve as a model of forward thinking and community sustainability, we need to look at the example of Dockside and others like it and ask ourselves how we can raise an already-high bar.

I certainly don't have the answers, but I'll still ask the question.


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Anonymous said...

LEED Platinum, while being a very good standard, isn't the be-all, end-all. Lots of green design elements exist and have existed for decades that exceed some of the features Dockside Green is proposing.

The developer's original proposal (that the city council accepted over other proposals) included onsite electricity generation, too. After winning the project, the developer went back to the city council saying they would not include the originally-planned onsite electricity generation. The city council then met in closed session to decide the wood waste plant's location.

The bioreactor to generate gaseous fuel for powering their heating infrastructure is less environmentally friendly and has more losses built into it than just passive solar heating, which has been used successfully for decades to heat correctly designed residences with little more than a light bulb's worth of electricity being added to the mix. I am curious where this "wood waste" is coming from. Onsite or offsite? If offsite, it's hardly closed loop, unless they're replenishing the source's biomass from onsite somehow.

A $1 million (Canadian dollars) penalty for falling short of LEED Platinum is a drop in the bucket for the developer considering they're building 1,000 residences, some of the condos listing for CDN $750,000. Think of how much the developer could be tempted to gain if they don't do all the green they promise. If done right, they'll do it green and come out ahead anyway.

I am also curious how the very modest $3 million set aside for affordable housing will cover the 20% and up to possibly 25% affordable housing the project is touting.

I will give them credit for cleaning up a considerably contaminated industrial site - let's hope they did a thorough job as it will now become residential.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to see just how many good considerations a developer is willing to include in a development when, like in this case, the developer had to compete against other developers to obtain the development rights for this site from the local government. While GGP already controls the land they wish to develop (not including CA and county rights-of-way that may be requested to be included in such plans), would they, too, considerably improve the quality of future development in order to get county and community approval for denser development? But is denser development even needed or wanted here?

As to why a development of 1,000 new residences in Victoria was even being done, the exodus from Hong Kong in the '90's was a major contributor, swelling Vancouver's population by 20%. But unlike many mass migrations, Hong Kong's expatriates were unusually wealthy. That, along with the site being waterfront property, perhaps explains why Dockside Green believes it can market CDN $750,000 condos.

A greener outcome would have been to avoid the political uncertainty in Hong Kong, thereby removing the motivation for the mass migration, that in turn eliminating the expansion of Vancouver's housing needs by 20%, that then permitting such reclaimed industrial sites to be turned into waterfront parks that should receive ongoing environmental protection instead of developments squeezing 1,000 residences and a half million square feet of business onto 15 acres.

Steve Fine said...

Very interesting and timely topic, Hayduke. Keep up the good work!