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By Clair Enlow

March 23, 2005

Design Perspectives: Neighborhoods can blaze the green trail

  • With political and financial leadership, the Northwest could take the lead in urban sustainability.
    Special to the Journal

    Captured rainwater has started to trickle through the pebble planting beds and pour from the basalt scuppers of the Cistern Steps.

    It's the second of two demonstration projects for Growing Vine Street, a plan for a kind of urban ecotopia that began with neighbors at Western and Vine.

    The steps, which are carved into the street right-of-way adjacent to the Belltown pea patch at Vine Street and Elliott Avenue, will be dedicated this Saturday.

     Northeast Portland
    Rendering courtesy Mithun Architects
    This concept for an area in Northeast Portland shows an open space built around a prominent water treatment system. The ambitious plan calls for reducing the net impact of development there to that of a pristine forest.

    Just up the street, in the next block, is the Beckoning Cistern, a construction by artist Buster Simpson that accepts storm runoff from the adjacent 81 Vine building — cleaning, filtering and holding it for irrigating planting beds along the edge of the street.

    Both of these projects are part of a vision that combines art and sustainable infrastructure. They reduce the burden of storm drainage and create a lively pedestrian environment.

    Growing Vine Street is finally bearing fruit after a decade of imagination and work. And what you see there now is just a taste of what's planned along Elliott Avenue.

    "We need the green on our streets, right where we walk out the door," said architect Carolyn Geise, a tireless promoter and visionary for the project.

    The Cistern Steps are there because of the support and enthusiasm of many, said Geise. "This was the introduction to Belltown for a lot of people." However, "We had to abort a lot of the large ideas to get the demonstration projects done."

     Carolyn Geise
    Photo by Clair Enlow
    Architect Carolyn Geise led a demonstration project called Growing Vine Street, which combines art and infrastructure on one street in Belltown. The project fits the tradition of creative activism in Seattle.

    Those large ideas have to do with filtering and reusing street runoff and "gray" water, and integrating plantings and art into new systems for doing so. They're ideas whose time has come, but hardly soon enough for Geise, Simpson, many paid and pro-bono design consultants and lots of neighborhood volunteers who have hung on so far.

    They enjoyed the support of the city and county through grants and matching funds. But they had to move bureaucratic mountains at every phase, from design to construction.

    Portland moves ahead

    In the blink of an eye — compared to the 10-year timeline of Growing Vine Street — Lloyd Crossing, a 35-block area in Northeast Portland, has come together around a huge idea.

    With the help of Seattle's Mithun Architects, this neighborhood has made an astounding commitment: to add 11 million square feet of new construction — a five-fold increase — while reducing the area's net environmental impact to that of a pristine Northwest forest.

    This may be a stretch — the goal relies in some part on the purchase of "carbon offsets" from owners of real forests.

    According to Mithun CEO Burt Gregory, these projects may be confined to a certain number of blocks, but they are "connected to the global realm."

    The Lloyd Crossing blocks are just behind Lloyd Center. They've got the Max light rail line that connects the city center to the suburbs, but they were passed over by the celebrated redevelopment boom of downtown Portland, right across the river.

    Cistern Steps dedication
    “Into the Future: Now That It’s Built, Let’s Enjoy It” is the title of a dedication ceremony at the Cistern Steps, Vine Street and Elliott Avenue (by the Belltown Pea Patch) at 11 a.m. Saturday.

    The event will have live music and food provided by local Belltown restaurants. A “brainstorming workshop and community forum” will follow at 12:30 p.m. Parking is available across the street at the Seattle Trade and Technology Center lot, or take the waterfront streetcar. For more information, contact Carolyn Geise at (206) 819-3710, cgeise@geise.net.

    Lloyd Crossing will complement its transportation assets by adding exponentially to its tree canopy and providing open space for workers and pocket parks for new residents.

    Building heights and massing will optimize solar exposure for each new structure. Wildlife habitat will be restored, and construction materials will favor local, recycled and renewable.

    Capturing wasted heat

    But the most impressive parts of the plan have to do with energy generation and conservation. Photovoltaics are everywhere — on rooftops, on window shades and even arrayed along an interstate highway. The energy plan includes wind turbines on roofs and a biogas plant that uses "volatile solid waste" — sewage — produced in the area.

    Perhaps most significant part of all is the plan to use a shared thermal system to capture wasted heat and energy. A loop of large underground water pipe will serve as a thermal reservoir connecting neighboring buildings. It can be expanded incrementally, ultimately connecting many buildings and capturing enormous amounts of thermal energy that would otherwise be released in the atmosphere.

    The energy strategies at Lloyd Crossing will cost hundreds of millions over the 50-year period of the plan. But its chances are good, with the backing of the Portland Development Commission and large property owners in the area.

    Futuristic fantasy?

    This is not a futuristic fantasy. This is design for the real world. The means for all of these steps are well within reach. Now benchmarking standards for neighborhoods are on the way.

    For individual buildings, the standard is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council and adopted by governments near and far, including Washington state and King County. (The city of Seattle has sought and obtained LEED certification for several buildings, but has not yet made a similar commitment.)

    Now the USGBC is developing benchmarking standards for neighborhoods, standards that can be met in many ways — if the political, financial and technical support is there.

    Lloyd Crossing
    Photo courtesy of Mithun Architects
    The plan for Lloyd Crossing covers 35 blocks in Northeast Portland, between Lloyd Center (shown in the foreground) and office towers.

    On Friday night, Meany Hall was full of cheering Seattleites who came to hear Danish parliament member Svend Auken tell them how it's done. Since the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the small nation has effectively turned back the tide of oil dependency, become a net energy exporter and increased its gross domestic output at the same time.

    It all requires massive public investment, but according to Auken, the Danes would not want their money back. They like the independence, the health benefits and the reduced energy costs for business. They've also become an exporter of many of the technologies that drive sustainable development all over the world.

    At the same event, Mayor Greg Nickels got great applause when he reiterated his assertion that if the federal government refuses to accept the Kyoto challenge, American cities will.

    We now know that global warming is happening, and that limiting it will require drastic cuts in CO2 emissions and energy consumption. There is also widespread consensus that sprawl has to be curtailed, and density must be increased in urban centers.

    But what does it take? How can we move sustainability to the next level? In Denmark, it took a crisis. What about here?

    Auken's Seattle-based sponsors Jason Antonoff and Particia Chase of International Sustainable Solutions, will find out. Antonoff plans to run a series of articles in the Daily Journal of Commerce that follows changes in Copenhagen's Western Harbor and compares them with opportunities that exist in Seattle's south downtown and waterfront.

    'Neighbor power'

    For Jim Diers it takes active participation by ordinary citizens. Diers, who headed the city of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods for 14 years, is the author of "Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way," published by University of Washington Press (December 2004).

    In the book, he describes large and small projects that brought communities together around redevelopment, community services and open space.

    A new neighborhood may be a testing ground for new technologies and standards, but it doesn't pass his sustainability test if it tears down usable buildings or displaces affordable housing. It also misses the mark if the ideas for the future come from the city bureaucracy, not residents.

    For Diers, neighborhood equity is essential. He points to the Delridge neighborhood as an example. Delridge lacked some basic public amenities like a library or community center. Now it has both. And largely through neighborhood matching funds and volunteer labor, it has also restored habitat in and around Longfellow Creek. Three acres of greenbelt have been preserved and a historic school renovated.

    At the neighborhood level, sustainability takes investment — and long-term commitment. Also, it takes the right combination of imagination, technical expertise, political leadership and institutional support.

    But don't forget: Activism is a form of energy in Seattle that can be harnessed and renewed.


    Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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