It’s Not Easy Building Green
A Seattle neighborhood's complaints about a "deep green" building raise key questions about zoning.
By Jenny Cunningham
February 1, 2013
She is nine months pregnant on this sunny fall day. But that doesn’t stop Katherine Bragdon from taking a walk (more like a waddle) from her picture-perfect, red-shingled Wallingford bungalow to the nerve center of the neighborhood where Stone Way rolls down to the north shore of Lake Union.
“South Wallingford is a special neighborhood, the sailboats and the houseboats and the history,” she says, standing at the intersection of 34th Street and Stone Way, where young urbanites clutching rolled yoga mats walk by dry-dock workers on a lunch break. “And the industry. It still has at its center an independence and funkiness.” The view from this intersection where old Wallingford meets newfangled Fremont is pure “only in Seattle” magic: Bikers and runners on the Burke-Gilman Trail are framed by a backdrop of downtown high-rises that seem to float on the steel gray water of Lake Union, punctuated by the exclamation mark of the Space Needle.
Developer Lisa Picard sees something different when she bikes by this spot on her way to work—a parcel of land crying out for a makeover. Specifically, Picard has her eye on a huge lot covered in asphalt bookended by a couple of funky one-story buildings next to a city dump. “This is a real opportunity to start to shape our urban environment for what we want; embrace the density,” Picard says in a video about the development planned for this spot, a new headquarters for running-shoe manufacturer Brooks Sports, which wants to move from Bothell to Seattle.
It’s these contrasting perspectives and Brooks’ plans that have led to a clash over what happens to this view. Neighbors who want to preserve it, tenants who want to revel in it, developers who want to profit by it, a mayor and certain City Council members who want to see this intersection morph into a model of new Seattle’s dense, walkable, urban look and feel.
From her office in South Lake Union, Picard heads up Seattle commercial development projects for Skanska, a $19 billion multinational construction company based in Sweden. An executive vice president, Picard rolls out plans onto a long, white minimalist desk. As designed by Seattle-based LMN Architects, the five-story, 120,000-square-foot building would fill the entire block between 34th and 35th streets. Brooks would be the main, but not the only, tenant, with offices on the top floors and retail on the first level. Sleek, shiny and almost transparent, the project Skanska dubs “Stone34” would stand almost 65 feet high. Trouble is, the land is only zoned for 45-foot buildings.
“The original comprehensive plan calls for zoning at lower levels near the lake. It is the basic principle of ‘down in front’ that we learn in kindergarten.”
The city wants to give Skanska a pass on certain zoning restrictions, such as height and floor area ratio, because Stone34 is aiming for environmental efficiencies more rigorous than LEED green building standards in the mode of the Bullitt Center (which opened earlier this year on Capitol Hill and is considered to be the greenest office building in the world). And yet the Wallingford project’s biggest naysayer is the International Living Future Institute, a prominent sustainability nonprofit that believes Stone34 is a pale imitation of the Bullitt Center and doesn’t deserve the same exemptions. Many neighbors don’t care what shade of green the office block is—they say it’s too big and tall to be this close to Lake Union, and they accuse the city of bending a green building pilot program—the Living Building Pilot Program—into a form of incentive zoning that allows Skanska to build in violation of zoning codes in exchange for giving the community a building it doesn’t want and never asked for.
“I don’t understand how building a bigger building than zoning allows with more than 200 parking spaces and a workforce that’s commuting from Bothell promotes car-free living,” says Lee Raaen, Wallingford Community Council president.
If you live on Capitol Hill or Queen Anne, or in Northgate, the Central District or any other neighborhood with a business district: Resist the urge to stop reading. With a new wave of construction galloping through Seattle, this David and Goliath story is heading for your neighborhood soon, if it hasn’t already arrived.
And here’s how David and Goliath stories play out in Seattle if the Wallingford project is any indication: After a year of meetings struggling to find some middle ground, David calls Goliath “greedy,” and Goliath dubs David “resistant to change.”
“They have fought anything that’s ever happened in Wallingford,” Skanska’s Picard says of residents. “For example, concerts in Gas Works Park.”
Neighbors say the developers just want to maximize their profits by building the biggest possible office block with little concern about how Stone34 will permanently change the place they call home.
“I’m not against change. I would welcome any well-designed building that’s within the current zoning,” says Wallingford resident Bragdon. “But this looks like anywhere USA.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, because, as originally conceived, the Living Building Pilot Program wouldn’t have accepted Stone34 as a candidate. When the City Council created the program three years ago, the idea was to take the rigorous criteria of the International Living Future Institute—a Seattle-based nonprofit that sets the gold standard for green construction around the world—and to give props to local projects that dared to aim that high. In return, the city would allow these buildings to be 10 feet taller and perhaps more inventive than zoning traditionally allows.
What is a Living Building? According to the institute’s website, there are 20 “imperatives” that define “the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment” and only three buildings have qualified—classrooms in Hawaii and St. Louis, and a nonprofit institute in New York state. The Bullitt Center will likely be certified once it can prove, during its first year in operation, that it meets the most important standard for a Living Building: It must create as much energy as it consumes.
The Stone34 project has always been clear: It won’t meet that bar, in part because a building can only be as green as the people who inhabit it. Brooks vows to be as energy efficient as possible, switching from desktops to laptops, for example, and shutting computers off at night. But as a designer of running shoes and apparel, Brooks needs to wash and pound and torture its gear. And that takes energy.
“They are testing materials to make sure they have the longevity to perform,” says Picard. “They can’t say, ‘We’ve used all our energy for the day, let’s shut down at noon’ and compete against companies like Adidas and Nike.”
“This is a pilot and experiment,” says Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin. “We are looking for the sweet spot where we give enough to developers that it becomes cost effective for them to build a deeply green building. We didn’t feel we had found that sweet spot when only one building [the Bullitt Center] applied under the original Living Building Pilot.”
In August, the City Council passed an ordinance sponsored by Conlin that allows the Skanska project to go forward and stay in the Living Building Pilot. “The Living Building Pilot project now has two tiers, ‘Living Building’ and ‘Deep Green,’” explains Jess Harris, green building lead permitter for the city.
Under “Deep Green,” Skanska gets more for building a less environmentally sensitive building than the Bullitt Foundation got for constructing the greenest office building in the world. In addition to 20 feet of extra height, Skanska can also build bigger overall, because under “Deep Green,” any retail it puts on the first floor does not count toward the overall square footage limit.
Skanska says it must have these extras in order to create a commercial building that can compete in the marketplace. The company has designed a building that it assumes will get the rezone, which is fine with council member Conlin, who chairs the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee.
“Seattle’s goal is not just to create a small number of living buildings,” Conlin writes in his blog. “But to change the world by demonstrating that buildings that meet rigorous standards for the environment can be commercially viable.”
“It is a risk to build to Living Building standards,” says Mike Podowski, the manager of land use policy for the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). “We created the 60 percent default [which allows projects that meet 60 percent of Living Building standards to get incentives] so developers would not be afraid to build a green building.”
Raaen, an attorney as well as Wallingford Community Council president, believes the city’s motives are not so pure. “You know the old saying ‘You don’t want to know how the sausage is made’? When it comes to this law, that holds true.” Raaen contends that the ordinance creating Deep Green was, in fact, written for Skanska, and then rubberstamped by the City Council.
“Usually projects comply with the law,” Raaen says. “They don’t write the law to comply with the project. This whole thing is upside down.”
“That’s not true,” says Podowski. “My office wrote the law. The City Council wanted to get some more projects.” The DPD points out that the current iteration of Stone34 was created with neighborhood input, mostly in design review hearings when a volunteer panel from northeast Seattle examined Skanska’s plans, and the public weighed in.
The Northeast Design Review Board, appointed by the mayor, currently consists of one construction manager and four architects. The “community representative” on the board is one of the architects who designed Amazon’s 1.8 million-square-foot headquarters in South Lake Union.
“The Design Review Board serves many important roles, but offering an unbiased voice for the community is not one of them,” Bragdon says. “Even the board’s ‘community representative’ has a stake in large-scale developments.”
Ironically, the most stinging criticism of the changes in the Living Building Pilot comes from the International Living Future Institute, creators of the Living Building program. When the city added a “Deep Green” shade of Living Building, the group’s vice president, Amanda Sturgeon, saw red.
“Our world needs these buildings. That is the point of the incentives, to give citizens something in exchange for developers building beyond zoning laws. To give them a real Living Building,” Sturgeon says. “It’s hard to know what the public is getting in return for easier zoning when the city lessens Living Building standards.”
What does the public get? Ask Suzie Burke, who owns the 39,000-square-foot lot where Brooks wants to build its headquarters. “Three hundred to 400 jobs, in this economy. That is golden!” In her office above The Red Door Ale House in Fremont, Burke ticks off the benefits with her fingers. “What a great disguise for the transfer station. It’s green. It is giving back to the community.”
Burke has skin in this game. Sometimes called the Baroness of Fremont, Burke is a powerful player in this neck of the woods, where her father bought a 19-acre mill in 1939 and to which she has continued to add more land, including the lot at 34th Street and Stone Way in 1988. “I own everything between here and there. OK, not really,” she says with a laugh “But, yeah. I own a lot of it.”
For Burke, it’s jobs that matter, and she believes neighbors are thinking too small: trying to stop progress to save their views. “Let’s be honest,” she says, “in the city of Seattle, you do not own a view. Anywhere.”
Katherine Bragdon disagrees: “I won’t personally lose any view of the lake. But it will be lost for the public; for people driving on Stone Way or walking the neighborhood. The original comprehensive plan calls for zoning at lower levels near the lake. It is the basic principle of ‘down in front’ that we learn in kindergarten.”
Neighbors and the Wallingford Community Council had one rock left in their slingshot: They filed an appeal of city permits and that stalled the $51 million project. But this David and Goliath story doesn’t end like the one in the Bible.
In late November, the Wallingford Community Council agreed to drop the appeal if Skanska contributes cash to create new public access to North Lake Union, preferably a dock where kayaks and canoes can launch. Skanska and the Community Council declined to reveal the settlement amount. By the time you read this, Stone34 will be rising to 65 feet as Skanska intended.
But the Living Building Pilot that made it possible for the developer to exceed zoning is going away. At the strong urging of the International Living Future Institute, the pilot project that bears its trademarked name will sunset once the projects that are in the pipeline are completed.
Which is not to say that there won’t be an incentive program for developers who want to build environmentally friendly buildings. The city is looking into continuing “Deep Green” as a permanent incentive. DPD supervisor Podowski says the neighborhood can be proud of the role it played. “Wallingford served the public purpose of testing out this green building technique.”
That’s cold comfort to Katherine Bragdon, who says she will permanently be looking at the back end of a test project. “A few weeks ago, my 3-year-old toddler said, out of the blue, ‘The building should not be tall because then we won’t be able to see the moon and the stars and the bridges.’ I tried to put a positive spin on it, saying, ‘Change is good.’ But, wow.”