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Building Green 2004

March 11, 2004

Real green buildings start with recycled land

  • Redeveloping brownfields is risky, expensive and essential

     Rainier Court
    Rendering by Johnson Braund Design Group
    A brownfield in southeast Seattle will be home to Rainier Court, fulfilling an important tenet of green building: avoiding the destruction of virgin land. The 525-unit mixed-use project, designed by the Johnson Braund Design Group, is being built by InterCity Contractors.

    Green building is supposed to be all about sustainability, meeting current construction needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. So you have to wonder at the logic of chopping down trees and digging up virgin land to put up a so-called “green” building.

    Recycling urban property makes a lot more sense from both environmental and economic standpoints. Infrastructure is already in place, sprawl is postponed and natural habitat is preserved.

    So why don't more developers look to underutilized city lots?

    Because any vacant city lot usually has something wrong with it, such as an environmental issue from prior usage. Although acquisition costs are relatively low for distressed properties, cleanups can be very expensive and complicated, making returns uncertain. Even the most green-hearted developers are rarely willing to assume such a large financial risk on their own.

    Greenfields vs. brown

    Charlie Bartsch, senior policy analyst at the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C., gave a good summary of the situation in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on technology, environment and aviation.

    “On the one hand,” Bartsch said, “a manufacturer can acquire an untouched greenfield site, probably in a new industrial park far from the central city, and build a facility to suit with minimal fuss.

    “Or the same manufacturer can opt to locate in an old, largely abandoned central city industrial district. The latter site, almost assuredly contaminated, is probably available at little or no cost.

    “However, the manufacturer will spend considerable amounts of time and money having it tested to find out exactly what substances it contains, cleaning it up and getting it ready to build on. He will then spend months pleading with bankers to lend on it, and invest even more time and money to provide necessary site documentation and monitoring.

    “But the nightmare will still not be over. He will worry for the rest of his natural life that some as-yet-undetected contamination might surface, undermining the value of the property and possibly costing millions in liability claims.”

    The second scenario explains why site preparation costs per acre in urban areas can be quadruple those of a site of the same size in a new suburban industrial park — and why changes must be made in our approach to brownfields to encourage sustainable development on polluted sites. What it usually takes is public involvement.

    Rainier Court

    Rainier Court in South Seattle offers a shining example of how a public-private partnership can rescue a seemingly doomed property, and deliver important social benefits at the same time.

    For decades, Rainier Court's location, in a topographically low area of Rainier Valley, was a dumping ground for construction debris and contaminated fill from development in other parts of the city. The site had also been used by an electrical warehouse/maintenance facility, auto shop, machining operation and other industrial businesses.

    Very few wanted to live or do business there, given the area's contaminated soils and distressed reputation. So the three city blocks lay nearly dormant since the 1960s.

    SouthEast Effective Development (SEED) and community leaders, however, had a vision for the site — transforming the empty lots into much-needed senior housing, apartments for families, individual homes and a small commercial presence.

    SEED is aptly named. The not-for-profit community corporation's goal is to plant and nurture development to improve neighborhoods in the Rainier Valley. SEED acquired the properties, located at 3700 Rainier Ave. S., with the help of federal and local funding, then brought in a private developer for additional financing and expertise.


    What makes Rainier Court so remarkable is the collaborative spirit that allowed it to happen.

    SEED built a broad base of support by approaching Rainier Valley community leaders, Seattle City Council, the mayor, King County and business groups, winning them over with the multifaceted benefits of the development. SEED also explained how a project of this magnitude would never get off the ground without public backing. Having a diverse group of supporters helped speed both funding and permitting processes.

    Collaboration was a factor in finding practical and economical remediation solutions, too. Site characterization data were financed and completed by the EPA. GeoEngineers analyzed the data and prepared a cleanup action plan, working with project designers and the state Department of Ecology.

    As a result, the project design incorporates elements that will protect human health and the environment, and comply with the state's Model Toxics Control Act.

    For example, in addition to excavating contaminant hot spots, the building was designed with parking on its first level. The parking provides two benefits: the floor slab will safely cap remaining contaminants, and separate living units from the contaminants.

    Lessons learned

    We can apply lessons from Rainier Court to other underutilized properties throughout Puget Sound.

    Select property carefully. Study all reasons for the site not already being used and view these as opportunities. Is contamination extensive? Are there ecological issues? Is noise a factor? How are the sight lines and sun angles? Address every issue in your plan, so you have a ready answer when objections arise.

    Clearly articulate the vision for the property's proposed usage, making certain that it reflects deeply held community values. Housing is needed throughout the greater Seattle area, especially units that attract families and seniors. The better the vision resonates with the community's goals, the easier it will be to win support.

    Get the public and financiers involved early. Brownfields that could be easily fixed up are probably already gone. Those that remain need a lot of work — and money.

    Public agencies are one of the few places to find big-scale funding these days. The Department of Housing and Urban Development's Brownfield Economic Development Initiative funds are the most flexible federal resources.

    Go for LEED recognition. The U.S. Green Building Council awards points depending on the eco-friendly nature of construction. But right now only one point can be earned by building on a brownfield, with one additional point given for reducing impact on virgin land. This drastically underrepresents the amount of risk necessary to develop a brownfield. More points, or an automatic increase to the next ranking level, must be granted to brownfield development.

    We've made a lot of progress instilling the concept of building green. But let's not forget that reusing distressed land can contribute to the overall health of the environment, business and community. Consider contacting the Green Building Council (usbgc.org) and urging them to modify the LEED criteria. Sustainable building really does begin with the earth beneath us.

    Dave Cook is a GeoEngineers associate in Seattle, specializing in environmental and redevelopment issues. GeoEngineers has offices in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii.

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