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Seeing Green

Sustainable development is not a contradiction in terms. as the mainstream market warms to green, three innovators tell us how they are going further.


By Kira Gould

Green developer is no longer an oxymoron. the mainstream development market is greening, with some innovators pushing ahead and talking about systems, regeneration, and the ethos of the triple bottom line. Although most U.S. construction could hardly be called sustainable, these groups are finding ways to develop land for all kinds of uses in ways that are anything but business as usual.

Jonathan Rose
Photo by Fred J. Fuhrmeister
Jonathan Rose
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Christine Ervin, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council from 1999 to 2004, explores how alliances are transforming markets and policy in her upcoming book, certified green. Developers have played a huge role in accelerating the mainstream green market in the U.S., says Ervin. “We knew that the real estate market would lag behind building owners because they rarely get to enjoy the life-cycle benefits from those investments.” She notes how developer Hines Interests was influential in coming up with the Core & Shell version of the LEED rating system for the speculative market, and how some large property organizations made big statements of commitment to green development, such as PNC Bank, Liberty Property Trust, and the National Association of Realtors, whose Washington headquarters is certified LEED Silver. “Today we’re seeing whole portfolios of real estate going green,” Ervin says. “We wouldn’t see this kind of mainstream market growth without quality developers taking an early lead on green as a high-value business venture.”

The Durst family, developers of 4 Times Square in New York City, is an example of an early innovator; the same group is behind the Bank of America project next door. Development company Gerding-Edlen had successes in Portland, Ore., and a design competition run by Lyme Properties resulted in the LEED Platinum Genzyme building in Cambridge, Mass.

Developers nationwide are finding success with green projects, and although not all these projects push the envelope, the work is getting more comprehensive and sophisticated. Codding Enterprises is “recycling” the former Agilent campus north of San Francisco into pedestrian-friendly Sonoma Mountain Village: 1,800 LEED Platinum homes powered by $7.5 million worth of photovoltaics. John Knott’s Noisette project in North Charleston, S.C., shows how communities can be exemplars of social, environmental, and economic vitality, while Newland Communities, the country’s largest privately owned developer of planned communities, makes “healthy living systems” a cornerstone of its business. In Arizona, Conservation Properties is developing 1,760 acres, of which homes will occupy less than 5 percent; the rest will be restored. Pamela Mang, of the Regenesis Collaborative Development Group in Santa Fe, agrees that the market is shifting. “I see more people coming into development from a land ethic,” she says. “They understand how the land works and are bringing that into all aspects of the work.”

Jonathan Rose

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Photo courtesy Michael Moran (Top, Far Left); Fred J. Fuhrmeister (Middle); F. Charles Photography (Right)

Runs a network of development firms in New York City, New York’s Hudson River Valley, and Colorado. “Our mission is to repair the fabric of communities,” he says. “We plan and develop diverse mixed-use, transit-accessible, mixed-income communities, and develop plans to preserve surrounding farms and open spaces. The result is equitable and supports the cultural, environmental, and biological health of bioregions.”

Building walkable communities near mass transit is the greenest way to start, Rose insists. “A green multifamily building in a transit-based location uses a quarter of the energy of a conventional single-family home in a suburban location. Location is very important. And walkability has impact beyond energy and pollution—it’s more sociable and communal, and it’s healthier.” Another magic word for Rose is density: “Density makes infrastructure more effective and supports the diversity of cultural resources that provide the richness of cities.” Selling density to Americans can be a challenge, but Rose is undaunted. “People move to the suburbs for many reasons, including a desire for contact with nature,” he says. “You can increase density and increase the nature within that community.”

For instance, Highlands Garden Village is a 27-acre mixed-income, multiethnic community on an infill site at the edge of downtown Denver that is much denser and much greener than surrounding neighborhoods.

New York City’s David & Joyce Dinkins Gardens, under construction in Harlem, will provide housing for very low-income tenants, with a third of it for children aging out of foster care (40 percent of whom typically wind up homeless). Here, the boiler will be installed on the roof instead of in the basement, which will make it run more efficiently and save materials, and units will be equipped with fresh air intake and exhaust systems. “Each apartment has its own fresh air circulation,” Rose says. “This eliminated the kitchen and bath ducts running vertically through the building. It is better and it’s cheaper.”

Rose, who recently started the Rose Smart Growth Real Estate Investment Fund, says his aim for that operation is to further development that is regenerative and restorative. “People would rather be in a greener, healthier building,” he says. “As the public comes in contact with greener buildings, they will wonder why we would do things any other way.”

Martin Melaver’s

Martin Melaver
Martin Melaver
Photo by Fred J. Fuhrmeister

Grandmother started a corner grocery in Savannah; his father built it into a network of supermarkets. The family sold the business in 1985, yet held onto the real estate. “We looked at how real estate was practiced and we saw homogeneity and a lack of connection to place or people,” Martin Melaver says. They wanted something more. The social equity, civil rights, and environmental stewardship issues that are important Melaver values are evident in the family’s new venture. “Our vision is to be a vertically integrated, truly sustainable real estate company. We do development, brokerage, and more,” says Melaver. “There is a social, economic, and environmental aspect to everything we do. We’ve been using the triple bottom line ethos, without calling it that, for years.”

Melaver developed the first LEED-certified retail shopping complex, Abercorn Common, an enterprise that involved multiple retailer prototypes. “We learned how to get inside the mindset of the user,” says Melaver. “Once you get to talk to a retailer’s designers or engineers, they are on board. They are tired of doing the same thing all over the place.” Some of the national chain tenants have told Melaver that their Abercorn stores are top performers—at least in part because of the lower operating costs that can be such a boon to profitability.

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Photos courtesy of Fred J. Furmeister (top leftt), Jim Holmes (top right), bottom 2 - Melaver

Third-party brokerage presents the biggest challenge for Melaver’s business. “We deal with developers doing the same old thing,” he says. “We want to convince them, but our voice in that mix isn’t as powerful as when we are the developer. Yet for every one development we do, our brokerage arm is doing a dozen. That is where great change could happen.”

The firm always expects a market return, though Melaver acknowledges that his teams analyze things differently than conventional developers might. “We are not a build-and-flip developer. When we do cutting-edge projects, we can amortize some initial costs over a longer time period.” Doing things differently sometimes means passing up work. “A big potential client once asked us if we would consider not doing LEED, and we said no,” he says. “We didn’t get the job, but I don’t regret it. There is no lack of development companies out there to build as usual. That’s not where we provide value.”

Joe Van Belleghem

Joe Van Belleghem
Joe Van Belleghem
Photo by Fred J. Fuhrmeister

IIs a partner at Windmill Developments, a Vancouver, British Columbia–based company that focuses solely on sustainable projects, and president of BuildGreen Developments, a consultant to the Canadian government. Van Belleghem, who got into green development eight years ago as a way of gaining market distinction and good press, began to study the impact of developments beyond traditional accounting, considering hard costs associated with transit, water use, and infrastructure; and such soft costs as healing rates and absenteeism, to name two.

“Our focus is on triple bottom line development, ensuring that a project has economic, environmental, and social health in equilibrium,” he says. “Developers need to think way beyond the building, out into the community.” Van Belleghem, an accountant, insists that the triple bottom line perspective improves profits. “Good accountants look at first cost and life-cycle cost—the true economics that include productivity, time, and other factors.”

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Renderings courtesy Windmill Developments

Windmill teamed with Vancity Capital to develop Dockside Green (pictured above), a major mixed-use waterfront project being built in Victoria. Sewage will be treated on site, and all stormwater will flow to a creek—both money-saving strategies. The project is also a model for addressing job and labor union issues, with training and even literacy programs as part of the offering. Windmill’s Aqua project in Calgary integrated affordable housing into a high-end market product (naysayers were silenced when it sold out before completion), and in Ottawa the company worked to bring a nonprofit theater into the first floor of the Currents, a housing and mixed-use development. The community rallied around the project. Van Belleghem seems mystified about why more people don’t work this way. “We have low permitting risk and costs because we rarely see public opposition to our projects. And these projects market themselves. What I’ve saved I can put into a better product, which is likely to be even more successful.

It’s not that complicated.”

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This article appeared in the January 2007 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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