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Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Even as LEED for neighborhood development emerges from nascence, the program has already proven itself versatile and market-friendly.


By David Sokol

Congratulations, it’s a girl! Just in time for Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in November 2008, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and its partners the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a revised rating system for the LEED for Neighborhood Development program (LEED-ND). The window for public comment on the new criteria closes in January 2009. If no second response period is launched thereafter, LEED-ND may open for enrollment as early as this spring.

Related WestPac’s $1 billion development of a new base village in Snowmass, Colorado, demonstrates that LEED-ND features also find favor among skiers and other future users of the project.
Photo © Related Westpac
Related WestPac’s $1 billion development of a new base village in Snowmass, Colorado, demonstrates that LEED-ND features also find favor among skiers and other future users of the project.

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The newborn analogy is particularly fitting for this pivotal moment of LEED-ND’s lifespan, because the program has had a lengthy gestation. The development period included a sizable year-and-a-half-old pilot involving 238 registered projects, 15 of which were certified as of press time. A sampling of these projects underscores the qualities that differentiate LEED-ND communities from others, such as their higher density and pedestrian friendliness, while also proving that the program is remarkably adaptable to diverse typologies of geography and building.

LEED-ND’s versatility is a function of the multifaceted partnership that founded the program in the first place. The USGBC’s Sophie Lambert, director of LEED-ND, explains that USGBC, CNU, and NRDC began developing a grading system for neighborhoods together in 2002, according to the belief that a three-party effort would grab a hold of the development community more effectively than any one group, no matter how venerable, could manage by itself.

A problem more fundamental than marketing was a major issue for this trio during the salad days of LEED-ND. “A concern they had is that you could have a Platinum-certified building in a location that was not sustainable,” Lambert says. “It could be on a greenfield site with no access to transit. And while buildings are responsible for 40 percent of greenhouse emissions, transportation produces 30 percent of emissions. That’s a powerful number.”

Clearly, developers and architects shared this concern, as 371 projects responded to a call for expressions of interest in the LEED-ND pilot program in early 2007, and the number or registrations shrank by relatively little, to 238, for the pilot’s commencement that July. This group was self-selected, meaning, importantly, that participants’ design teams had prefigured the principles of Smart Growth, sustainability, and conservation that informed the pilot rating system. Of all the subjects interviewed for this article, none made fundamental changes to siting, neighborhood design, or other elements that define a large-scale development as sustainable in order to accommodate LEED-ND. These participants, rather, had embraced the same values as the USGBC, CNU, and NRDC—in some cases, well before the core committee that writes the standards of LEED-ND had devised the requisites of the pilot.

Take, for example, Le Technopole Angus, a not-for-profit organization that operates a business park of the same name near downtown Montreal. Founded in 1995 after the closure of the Canadian Pacific Railway shops in the city’s Rosemont neighborhood, Le Technopole Angus set aside 20 percent of the former industrial area, which the rail company had planned to redevelop completely into residences, for generating new jobs. The resulting campus of office buildings is located just steps from a subway stop and serviced by its own public bus as one part of an integrated transportation scheme. Moreover, its green-building operations program includes comprehensive waste management. In addition to these years-old amenities, the Technopole board of directors decided in 2005 to LEED-certify all new construction. Charles Larouche, vice president of real estate and finance of the Montreal business park, says that registering for the LEED-ND pilot was a “natural” extension of these choices. Le Technopole Angus achieved a Stage 1 Gold rating (an optional, anticipatory rating that well predates full completion of a neighborhood) in mid-September.

The Australian developer Westfield also goes a long way back with its LEED-ND pilot project, Westfield UTC Shopping Centre in San Diego. The company acquired the property in 1998, and in 2010 will break ground on a significant revitalization that already earned Stage 1 Gold certification in April 2008. Greg Fitchitt is development director overseeing the refresher. “Just listening to the community and talking to political leaders, fairly early on, around 2004 and 2005, we decided we wanted to go green with this project,” he says. Westfield, which is adding 750,000 square feet of retail to the complex, chose to integrate 250 units of housing, a transit center, and new landscaped open spaces, even though at the time “there wasn’t a LEED program out there that fit well with what we planned to do.” When the pilot was announced, Westfield pounced. Fitchitt notes, “The greenest building in the wrong location is far less sustainable than a traditionally constructed building in the right location. LEED-ND recognizes that.”

Participants’ motivation for signing up for the LEED-ND pilot sounds a lot like the rationale for LEED-ND itself. This suggests that the program reflects a new wave of action rather than conjuring it from nothing. Indeed, Smart Growth and New Urbanism have been gathering considerable steam since the 1990s. And there are principles of sustainable building—another mature movement—that overlap with those of LEED-ND, such as building smaller houses on smaller lots. These and other mutually reinforcing concepts are more apparent in the next generation of ratings systems. The LEED-ND revisions stress green building technologies in addition to siting, for example, while the LEED 2009 revisions place more emphasis on location.

That would also explain why the projects enrolled in the LEED-ND pilot have been received so positively. Not only were the sustainable-neighborhood features of Westfield UTC Shopping Centre driven by community demand, but its format—featuring mixed uses, an urban edge activated by street-front commerce, and easy foot access—is commensurate with the “town center” concept that has largely usurped traditional, introspective malls in America’s large-scale retail development industry. On the opposite end of California, Emeryville Marketplace, the Platinum-rated redevelopment that Lambert cites as the star pupil in the LEED-ND pilot program thus far, confirms this trend. This property’s owner, TMG Partners, has also opted to mix uses and attempts to get people out of their cars.

LEED-ND’s popularity is not only gauged by consumer trends, but also in the enthusiasm with which its pilot projects have taken off from the ground. TMG Partners, for one, handily won a rezoning for Emeryville Marketplace, in part thanks to its highly responsible perspective. In an equally telling example, Jonathan Marvel, a principal of the New York–based design studio Rogers Marvel Architects, posits that embracing LEED-ND criteria has allowed his firm, part of a design team overseen by developer The Hudson Companies, to transform six acres on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal from a former gasworks into the mixed-use development Gowanus Green starting in 2010.

The city-owned property was the subject of a competition to which The Hudson Companies submitted a scheme envisioning 774 units of housing paired with 65,000 square feet of commercial and cultural space, and most notably, three acres of open green space. Achieving that openness requires making “a slightly more expensive building by cantilevering the second floor” of each building, Marvel explains. The architectural move increases overall open space by 10 percent, he notes. Meanwhile, the park-like campus includes a two-acre public component that runs alongside the canal, and includes a swale to minimize stormwater running into drains or into the watercourse itself, whose history of fetid pollution should finally end when a local pumping station comes back online this year.

The contest brief for the Gowanus Green site did not explicitly state a preference for LEED-ND–compatible designs—“It’s implied, because everything the city does goes toward PlaNYC 2030,” Marvel says, referring to Mayor Bloomberg’s year-and-a-half-old long-term vision for enhancing the quality of life as well as the ecological profile of New York. Even so, the architect adds, “I definitely think our take helped push it above and beyond the other competitors.”

Another measure of LEED-ND’s reflection of a prevailing mood, besides foot traffic or warm reception from the community, is the number of skis. “In a resort setting most guests come from an urban environment. When they arrive they don’t want to get in their cars and drive everywhere,” says Scott Stenman, vice president of development for Related WestPac. Currently Related WestPac is investing $1 billion in a new base village in Snowmass, Colorado, which, like most ski resorts, will include LEED-ND features such as mixed-use development and proximity to open space, but also will showcase a gondola that shuttles visitors to other commercial cores in the area, a comprehensive transit center, and underground parking to densify pedestrian traffic. “They want to experience a village setting,” Stenman says of the perambulatory design.

That Snowmass Base Village—or, two hours’ drive away, the Stage 1 Platinum–rated Ever Vail mixed-use resort development, which is due to break ground in 2010—can hit many of the same sustainability points as a shopping center in San Diego or a business campus in Montreal is a strength of LEED-ND. To be sure, Washington, D.C., ranks as the best-represented address in the pilot initiative, “but LEED-ND is not just a rating system for urban projects,” Lambert says. While, say, urban infill is an obvious contender for certification, there is no one model for excelling at LEED-ND. Rather, success requires an urban attitude, even at a far remove from city limits. That these qualities have already been embraced by the mainstream across a wide geographic reach, promises a long and happy life for the LEED-ND post-pilot program—and perhaps even foreshadows the end of sprawling suburbs.

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This article appeared in the January 2009 print issue of GreenSource Magazine

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