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Get Stoked to Surf The Fourth Wave of Planning

2012 May 17
by dan bertolet

(Note: the following was submitted but not selected for the 2012 Living Future Conference’s 15 Minutes of Brilliance.)


Last year in Seattle, the Bullitt Foundation’s proposed Living Building was subjected to a costly legal challenge based on Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Opponents argued that an environmental impact statement (EIS) should be required because the building would block views. Given that it’s on track to being one of the greenest commercial buildings ever constructed in the United States, and is also located in a dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhood, the fact that environmental regulations could be exploited to oppose the project suggests something is amiss, to put it mildly.

Following on the heels of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Washington’s SEPA was created during an era in which the planning culture was dominated by concerns over ecological degradation and responded with strict limits on growth -– planning’s so-called first wave. In the mid-1970s planning entered its second wave, focused on comprehensive planning and infrastructure, followed by a third wave defined by “smart growth” that began around the turn of the century and is still the prevailing approach today.

And now a fourth wave of planning is emerging, with a perspective that will hopefully put an end to perverse contradictions such as what happened with the Bullitt Foundation Living Building. The formative influences on planning’s fourth wave are the “new normal” economy, climate change, energy, food systems, and regional sustainable development.

< The LEED Platinum Center for Urban Waters on the Foss Waterway in Tacoma; photo by Dan Bertolet - click to enlarge >

So then, how do we make this transition to the fourth wave and a new regulatory milieu that accurately reflects the profound, inherent environmental benefits of compact, mixed-use urban infill? As one example of a modest first step, Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood is in the midst of a lengthy upzone process that required a voluminous EIS. To counter the typical “growth is bad” perspective of the EIS, I (while with my former employer, GGLO) worked with a group of local property owners to create an Environmental Benefits Statement that articulates the wide range of benefits that high-intensity redevelopment would bring.

As a second example, my firm is currently engaged in a Subarea planning process in Tacoma that will implement a brand new flavor of Upfront SEPA that was designed to encourage infill around transit. The EIS will pre-approve a set amount of development across the Subarea, and once adopted, it cannot be appealed.

But ultimately, what our environmental policy needs is a makeover. Massive change is upon us, and we can’t afford to let crusty regulations needlessly impede progress on what is already a mind-numbingly overwhelming challenge. NEPA and SEPA were created in the hey-day of muscle cars, and it’s time to sort out the pieces that belong in the policy junk yard. At the same time, new policy must be added to ensure that we properly account for expanding knowledge and game-changing trends such as global warming. All that’s stopping us from surfing the fourth wave and creating a revamped set of regulations that make sense for the 21st century, is us.


Dan Bertolet is an urban planner with VIA Architecture and the creator of the Citytank.



9 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt the Engineer permalink
    May 18, 2012

    Irony alert.

    Not only are we limited by past thinking, we’re so locked in to old mindsets that we’ve left these concepts in new standards we’re creating. Case in point, from the Living Building Challange:

    “The project may not block access to, nor diminish, the quality of fresh air, sunlight and natural waterways for any member of society or adjacent developments.”

    So much for tall towers, or even midrise buildings.

  2. Bill Bradburd permalink
    May 19, 2012

    The green-washing of development continues unabated with further relaxing of so-called Living Building standards and their application to intensive in-city development. Particularly with the Skanska building on Stoneway, where an additional 20ft of height is being sought along with other departures.

    On top of that additional 20ft, the project will include what is ostensibly an elevator shaft that will extend almost 18ft above that over 30% of the roof. The building itself will not feature the desired commercial uses at ground level to foster our “lively” pedestrian environment. And the massive amount of parking provided with the projects belies the much ballyhooed transit-rich future that would forgo commuter parking.

    Of course let’s not even talk about the fact that the developer scoffs at the notion of actually achieving any of the “Living Building” virtues of its namesake.

    Environmentalism in Seattle under the McGinn and Conlin dynasty consists of a patina of green (environmental) with a larger share of the green being profit.

    Real environmentalists and sustainability advocates should not be fooled…

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      May 20, 2012

      Sorry Bill, but the departures have already been approved by the DRB. Not sure who’s being fooled. The reality is that Skanska’s project will be one of the greenest office buildings ever built in Seattle. It also puts jobs in a transit-rich city location where they belong, rather than in the burbs. The parking ratio is relatively low by current office standards. It has has 18000 sf of street level retail (why do you say there will be none, Bill?), and also provides an 8,000 sf public plaza.

      “Per the parameters of the Pilot Program, Stone34 is designed to use 75% less energy than typical buildings and capture nearly all water uses on-site. The building will be equipped with technology to inform occupants of their level of energy consumption – exhibiting that human awareness is the most effective way to reduce energy use. Stone34 isn’t limited to green ‘features’ – our green systems are fully integrated with the building and occupants, resulting in a true partnership of humans and technology.”

      Bill, might I suggest you try to get past your “all developers are evil” obsession once in a while?

      • Bill Bradburd permalink
        May 21, 2012

        I never said “all developers are evil”, however I do complain when projects are more hype than substance, or certainly will advocate when projects run contrary to city policy or sustainability goals. And while your assertion and other points you make are interesting, they have nothing to do with my point, which is the the Skakska building is using a continually loosening Living Building standard that just may result in a project that diverges from type of growth we need to address the “mind-numbingly overwhelming challenge” that faces us. The main Skanska tenant is already “in the burbs”, and to argue that all jobs need to be in Seattle only exacerbates our transportation issues, and prevents the region from a achieving a more balanced mix of uses everywhere.

        The Skanska building itself will add almost 40 ft in height to the base 40ft zone. 20 of that by participating in the “challenge”, and an additional 17+ ft thru DRB departure. You are right, the departures are approved, however quite dubiously. The DRB itself demurred on having to justify that additional heights against environmental benefit per the ordinance. And they were directed to assume that a future modification to the ordinance should be used.

        The Skanska “living building” is all commercial, has 3 floors of underground parking (will not capture anywhere “near all water uses” on site and in fact will be dumping 30K gallons of groundwater directly into Lake Union.

        Finally, it is clear to many that what this whole living building game that the developer is engaged in here is to obtain prime waterfront views with a building that just should have been built somewhere else. Calling it a Living Building only makes this more palatable.

        The living building standard is being loosened up (with legislation being written by their attorney) to allow Skakska to move their project forward. The Living Building Institute should be concerned about this trifling with their moniker.

        • dan bertolet permalink*
          May 28, 2012

          This project is not more hype than substance, Bill, e.g. a 75% reduction in energy use, etc etc. So sorry, but I can’t help interpreting your criticism as being based on a bias against developers. You complain about too much parking in this project (even though it’s a low ratio), but you also oppose proposed legislation that would remove requirements for parking. Hmm, what’s the common denominator?

  3. james in the CD permalink
    May 22, 2012

    You state: Opponents argued that an environmental impact statement (EIS) should be required because the building would block views.

    You then go on to immediately state: Given that it’s on track to being one of the greenest commercial buildings ever constructed in the United States, and is also located in a dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhood, the fact that environmental regulations could be exploited to oppose the project suggests something is amiss, to put it mildly.

    So by the logic you published here – you are suggesting that “Green” experimental buildings should not be subject to the SEPA process? Aesthetics is a component of every SEPA review, I am not certain how the adjacent property exploited the process? Citizens have the right to request the permitting agency require an EIS, and it seems like the environmental review process worked – as the developer didn’t have to do an EIS for the building???

    By your logic, all I can do is assume that since the building encompasses values that you believe in, it should be given preferential treatment in the environmental review process. I think your argument stems from the fact that you are a trained architect and not an urban planner

    Regardless, you should be happy to know that they are currently updating the SEPA review process – maybe you should give them a call and get on one of the committees to help out with this endeavor.

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      May 28, 2012

      James, sorry if the post was too brief to explain the ideas in detail. Actually, my interest in this stems from a big picture view of things based on being an urban planner. SEPA does not give any credit for the benefits of smart growth, and I think that’s a serious deficiency. For more explanation, read the South Lake Union EBS, linked to in the post.

  4. dan cortland permalink
    May 27, 2012

    Anyone here seen Roger Valdez’ missing box of crude rhetorical devices? He doesn’t mind sharing, but eventually he’ll want it back with the rest of his collection.

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