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Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program: A Case Study in Progressive Divisiveness

2012 July 19
by dan bertolet

< Rising from the trees, the Bullit Center under construction in Seattle’s Central District >

The first question to ask about the current debate over Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program is, why is there a debate at all? It’s just plain embarrassing that in a City that talks so loud and proud about sustainability, once again we have such hand wringing over a modest piece of legislation that is so obviously the right thing to do.

Launched in December 2009, the Living Building Pilot Program (LBPP) is designed to incentivize the development of buildings that operate on one quarter of the energy and water consumed by a typical building. If a new building can achieve those highly demanding specs, and also capture and use half of the rainwater that hits its site, and also meet 60 percent of the “imperatives” of the rigorous Living Building Challenge, then it becomes eligible for a range of departures from standard code requirements, subject to City approval. Departures are offered as a way to enable innovative design solutions and help compensate for the added costs associated with meeting the stringent performance targets.

The value of the long-term public benefit derived from buildings that qualify for the LBPP cannot be understated, particularly regarding energy. We all know about climate change and the harsh realities of an increasingly resource-constrained planet, right? Achieving anything even close to carbon neutrality in Seattle is going to require huge reductions in building energy use, and we need to get on it now because new buildings will be on the ground for decades.

This year some changes to the LBPP were proposed, based in part on the real-world experience of the second development project attempting to qualify—the “Stone34” office building in the Wallingford neighborhood (the first project was the Bullitt Center, pictured above). The key proposed updates are the exemption of ground-floor retail space from floor-area-ratio limits, and an increase of the height bonus from 10 to 20 feet in certain commercial zones.

And of course it’s the building height that has become the lightning rod for opposition, the typical hyperventilating well illustrated in this flyer thick with blatantly misleading claims. Though Matthew Yglesias wrote from a national perspective in the following, one could easily assume that Seattle was his muse:

When progressives see a fight pitting a neighborhood activist against rich developers, their instinct is to side with the activist, even if all the developer really wants to do is erect a building that will allow a lot more people to live or work or shop in their neighborhood. Indeed, the vast majority of big city residents are deeply committed to liberal politics on the national level, but feel just as comfortable standing with entrenched interests seeking to block change on a local level.

What’s doubly remarkable is that even with all the truly great features of the Stone34 project—vastly reduced resource consumption, high-quality design and materials, generous public open space, sprawl-reducing location, economic development—the above mindset is still operative.

Another disappointing twist in the current debate is push back from the International Living Future Institute, creators of the Living Building Challenge, who are concerned about the proposed updates essentially because they want to protect their brand—it’s easier to qualify for the City’s Living Building Pilot Program than for full-on, official Living Building certification. Fair enough, but how sad to see an organization whose mission is to advance green building criticizing legislation that would help enable the second greenest office building ever built in Seattle. The simple resolution would be to rename the program, but that would set the legislative process back months. So would it really be that hard for the City and the Living Future folks to play nice and come to an agreement on renaming the program as soon as possible?

Clearly the progressive community has a masochistic fetish for divisive bickering, a fetish in which Seattle indulges perhaps more than any other U.S. city. So the circus of angst that typically erupts around what ought to be no-brainer sustainability policy decisions shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, though that doesn’t make it any less counterproductive (or irritating).

The first part of the solution is for Seattle’s elected officials to accept that they have a responsibility to make policy based on objective reality no matter how many deluded naysayers may try to deny that reality, and that there are times when they need to stop wasting everyone’s time with endless debate and do their jobs as leaders and decision makers.  It’s perfectly okay—a good thing, actually—for Councilmembers to ignore progressives who habitually talk smack, or in the case at hand, those who howl about “monster buildings in my backyard,” or grouse that policy promoting a building that reduces energy use by 75 percent is just a greenwashed developer giveaway.

The second part of the solution involves healing the dysfunctional schism within the progressive community over sustainable development and land use policy. No small task, that. We are tangling with human nature—people who like the way things are resist change, and nobody wants “outsiders” controlling their destiny. At the same time, those who believe massive change is imperative must be careful not to lose touch with the concerns of people who may be directly impacted (yes, I am guilty).

We progressives agree on pretty much every other issue. Surely we can find a way to come out of our corners, find common cause, and collaboratively take on the fuck-ton of work there is to do on creating a city equipped to thrive in the coming decades.


Dan Bertolet is a Seattle resident and the creator of Citytank.