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Green Vision for Victoria's Harbour

Vying to develop the Dockside land is a cutting edge proposal by a team that includes the Sierra Club, VanCity and architect Peter Busby.

Scott Deveau 1 Sep
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Waterfront condominiums fetch $300,000 on average in Victoria. So it's no surprise that Terry Williams, an architect of 46 years, often wondered why only half of Victoria's inner harbour was developed.

This year with the Dockside land up for sale, not only were Williams' questions answered, but the green builder of 18 years was also brought in as part of a "dream team" that expressed interest and was short-listed to develop it.

The city has kept who and how many companies were short listed in August under lock and key, but rumors of proposals from the US, Australia, and Britain abound. Home Depot apparently looked at the site as well, though the City confirmed none of these rumors.

However, the BC chapter of the Sierra Club, Veins of Life, a watershed management organization, and Lifecycle/Groundworks, a community gardens nonprofit, are part of an ensemble of non-governmental and environmental groups who spoke to The Tyee about their part in a mixed residential, commercial, and light industrial complex on the site.

The project would be co-designed by Williams and Peter Busby, a Vancouver-based architect.

'Forgotten zone'

"Dockside was a forgotten zone of the city, just waiting to be developed," Williams said.

The development of the nearly five-hectare Dockside land was marred by a large chunk of soil contaminated by metal and petrochemical spills, which the city expects the developer to clean up before building.

But according to the Dockside's project manager Carola Bloedorn, the city originally only wanted to recoup the $4 million dollars it spent to market the land along with the remediation of the soil. So, the City of Victoria upped the ante and went with a triple bottom line approach, which weighs the social, environmental, and economic impact of each proposal equally to determine who gets the contract.

The green project would be co-developed by VanCity Enterprises and Windmill Development. The 'dream team', as he calls it, was put together by Windmill's development partner Joe Van Belleghem, who built similar projects in Calgary and Ottawa. Van Belleghem acted as a development consultant on the Vancouver Island Technology Park project, which was the first building in Canada to receive a Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold rating.

The City requires a minimum of a silver LEED rating on the project and Van Belleghem was quick to point out that all his projects target a LEED gold rating.

He has a long history as a green builder, but that wasn't always the case. "A lot of developers have a formula, get it up and get it sold. I've been a shitty developer.  I built the old way because I didn't know any better. 

Inspired by book

I'm not interested in building that way anymore," said Van Bellegham, who changed his approach after reading Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawkins and Amory and Hunter Lovins. "It was always assumed that doing something good for the environment would cost more. The underlying message was do the minimal amount possible and avoid prosecution. If we get outside of that thinking and realize that if you look to the environment for solutions, you can make money out of this."

Williams agrees.  He said it's just "common sense" if you are being responsible to a client to design in the most cost effective and energy efficient manner.

"There's absolutely no reason in mind, if you design the building from day one, that these buildings should not be energy efficient, sustainable, reduce the use of nonrenewable resources, have a better interior environment, and still cost the same money as a conventional building," Williams said.

Although Van Belleghem won't talk specifics (because the short-listed developers do not submit their detailed proposals until the end of October), he said he would expand on the environmentally friendly practices he has harnessed in the past.

Nonetheless, Victoria shares similar issues to Calgary with respect to dwindling water supply and a lack of affordable housing. Van Belleghem said he incorporated solutions to these problems in the Calgary project. Local and recycled materials were used in Calgary, as well as, low-flow showerheads, stronger envelopes, the site collects rainwater for all nonpotible water including what is used in the low-flush toilets, and it also uses flushless urinals, which use a biodegradable substance lighter than urine to seal-in the waste. These methods, Van Belleghem said, reduced the energy and water expenditures by 50 per cent and the sewage output by 65 per cent in Calgary.

'About social justice'

He also has a different approach to affordable housing.  Instead of segregating and using cheaper materials to build, he uses the same materials and methods used in his high-end condos, just makes them smaller dwellings.

He also builds them onsite, because he feels it's "healthier" for everyone to live with different classes.

In most cases, cheaply constructed housing ends up costing more in utilities, which no longer makes them affordable.

"If you're a government managing affordable housing and energy costs go up, who's going to pay? It's illogical to build like that," said Van Belleghem, who added in the past other developers used his affordable housing scheme against him saying it will hurt the marketing of the project. "That just isn't the case and besides, it's about social justice."

One amenity Van Belleghem is talking about is a sustainable complex for Victoria's environmental groups to co-locate and begin sharing resources. Members of the Sierra Club, Veins of Life, and Groundworks/Lifecycles Project Society are just a few of the groups that sat on the steering committee for the sustainable complex for the past year.

Sierra Club looking to move

VanCity enterprises, a subsidiary of VanCity banks which focuses on building affordable housing and now green building, originally brought the groups together to talk about putting the complex in the old Hudson Bay building, said Jacques Khouri, CEO and president of VanCity enterprises. But VanCity and Windmill changed their focus to the Dockside land when it went up for sale.

"We have very strong community ties through this group," Khouri said. "We're pretty open, which is to say, we're not dictating top down.  We're listening to what they say and we're trying to put it into what we do."

Kathryn Malloy, the B.C. chapter of the Sierra Club's executive director, said the developers are sincere in addressing her concerns.

"We have identified ourselves as a key player, not only because of our brand but because we believe that it would really help us walk the walk to actually live and work in a building that is about what we teach," Malloy said and added the Sierra Club spends more than $72,000 a year on rent and utilities at their present location. "I wouldn't say it's energy efficient, let alone any kind of alternative going above and beyond."

She said Sierra and some other socially and environmentally friendly businesses and agencies hope to be part owners in the complex and will likely run a capital campaign to do so.

In addition, with shared resources, they will also start to change how they seek funding by incorporating more agencies in their proposals, thereby reducing the competition for ever-dwindling and increasingly competitive funding for non-profits and environmental groups.

'Triple bottom line'

Van Belleghem was drawn to the Dockside project by Victoria's promise to take a triple bottom line approach in developing the land. He already uses the triple bottom line in management decisions. For instance, he uses 40 per cent fly ash in his concrete, that costs more because it takes longer to cure past three storeys, but reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the creation of the concrete.  One tonne of concrete creates one tonne of carbon dioxide emission, Van Belleghem said.

The city remains committed to the triple bottom line on the proposals. Even still, Van Belleghem said he is anxious to see how the developers are evaluated. "Obviously, the city needs and should get an economic win from Dockside but you don't want the environmental and social evaluation criteria set so low that everyone is evaluated so high on these components that it would result in the entire process being about price," he said

Bloedorn said Victoria is basing its criteria for the triple bottom line on models used in other countries as well as those used in Calgary and it hopes to make its decision on Dockside after detailed presentations from all the short listed companies are heard in October.

Scott Deveau is a Victoria based journalist who contributes regularly to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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