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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.

 

 

11 Responses leave one →
  1. July 19, 2012

    Thanks Dan.

    I have to admit that it is gratifying to hear other voices saying this:

    “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.”

    This is what I’ve been saying. It’s time to stop listening to these people. They have nothing of value to offer the discussion. Switch them off.

    However, without political accountability–punishment at the polls or in public disapprobation for bending to the will of the naysayers–Councilmembers will continue to do it. Asking nicely won’t work. Charts and graphs won’t work. It’s going to take removal from office, or at least the fear of removal to motivate these folks to lead. (remember this:http://seattletransitblog.com/2012/02/20/us-them-right-and-wrong-how-do-we-win/ and this http://publicola.com/2012/02/24/the-problem-with-seattle-elections-isnt-too-much-money-its-too-little/)

    So as others (hopefully) join Dan and I in getting fed up, I hope we all start supporting raising the political money to attach a price to pandering to the no growth set and failing to make policy that reflects our values.

  2. Dr. Density permalink
    July 20, 2012

    Dan,
    Good for you for pointing this out. Today’s article by the the Seattle Times took up this subject and gave the negative side the usual heavy weighting. Shame on Amanda Sturgeon and Chris Rogers for condemning Stone 34. They gave themselves a big black eye as I find that terribly unprofessional and short sighted.

    The Bullit Center’s project is a great experiment that leads by example, paves the way and tests the possibilities. However, as a real risk taking development typology, its marketability is questionable and it will likely be difficult to apply it in many locations. Also, it’s not finished yet and does anyone really know how it will perform both technically and financially?

    Good for Richard Conlan for recognizing this by pursuing legislation that encourages more green building, not less. As Lisa Picard at Skanska quoted Voltaire: “Let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good.”

    • Bill Bradburd permalink
      July 20, 2012

      Or maybe “Let’s make a big deal about setting the bar lower”**

      No on-site energy production, thousands of gallons of groundwater dumped unprocessed daily into Lake Union, a building too big for the site. A letter of commendation. No wonder ILFI is miffed about having their name slapped onto the project and pilot.

      Skanska and Brooks are hardly financially challenged entities. They should deliver more considering the spot-zoned bonuses they are seeking.

      ** coming to video soon!

      • dan bertolet permalink*
        July 21, 2012

        Case in point: see previous comment.

        • House Carl permalink
          August 7, 2012

          Why such a lazy response? And why so militant, single-minded and
          overzealous? On the policy I agree with you, the project should
          move forward. But on the rhetoric:

          ” 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.””

          You gotta be kidding me? I think you are way over the deep end.
          No, it is absolutely not Okay for Council members to ignore
          progressives who have seem to have nothing more than the
          deeply offensive temerity to disagree with you.

          Isn’t it right, Dan Bertolet, that all of this public planning would be
          so much easier if we live in a dictatorship? Because a publicly
          calling for points of view you disagree with to be silenced is
          is exactly that.

          Don’t like disagreement over your pet issue? Perhaps you should
          think about Dubai, they like green buildings, and your reaction
          would be more appropriate there. Otherwise check yourself.

          And you should take my advice because your overblown hating on
          these critics will only ensure your little corner of the public
          planning sphere deservedly remains on the far fringe.

          • dan bertolet permalink*
            August 9, 2012

            Why don’t you use your real name, House Carl?

            I’m not saying the Council should ignore anyone who disagrees with me. Did you click on the links? Do you really think the Council should spend their valuable time listening to a guy who goes on record saying “TOD bad for people, business & environment”? The other examples I cite are similarly nonsensical. Sorry, but those who talk smack like that deserve to be ignored.

  3. John of Humdinger permalink
    July 21, 2012

    Where can one find more details on how the Bullet building will process its sewage, and how much this on-site system will cost? Ditto for the solar panels.

    • Bill Bradburd permalink
      July 27, 2012

      Don’t ask for that info, John. Or you’ll be a case in point too.

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