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Olympic Village Neighbourhood Green Enough?

Leading green builder says Vancouver's Southeast False Creek plan falls short of world-class.

Scott Deveau 4 Mar
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When Vancouver's city council approved plans for Southeast False Creek Tuesday, it waved off critics who said the project spent too much in service of green ideals. But now the city's sustainable Shangri-la has a critic from the sustainable building community.

A leading green builder in B.C. says the project risks not being green enough. If the project is to be a successful model of innovation, argues Joe Van Bellegham, a Victoria-based green builder, the Vancouver council will need to rethink how it parcels out the land and specifies technology. There's no doubt the project will be much greener than your average neighbourhood.  The measure of such things, recognized worldwide, is the LEED rating, which stands for Leader in Energy and Environmental Design. It's a point system grading how efficiently builders use energy and water. Southeast False Creek's development plan will also require all municipal buildings and the Olympics Athletes' village to be built to a LEED gold rating, and all other buildings are required to meet a LEED silver rating.

No other municipality in North America requires such high LEED standards.

Aim higher says developer

Van Bellegham, developer of the Dockside lands in Victoria, says his project is poised to become the first platinum LEED community in North America, and he doesn't understand why Southeast False Creek can't do the same.

Some have argued the Vancouver project had to be made a bit less green in order to cut costs and create a prototype that commercial developers could replicate in other settings while turning a profit.

And some have gone further, arguing that Southeast False Creek, as planned, is already economically out of whack.

In the Feb. 18th Vancouver Sun, columnist Bob Ransford's raised concerns that the $85 million from the city's Property Endowment Fund used in the project will not be returned and that the anticipated $68 million profit from the Southeast False Creek development will also not be reinvested into the fund, but will rather redirected into the community's services.

Ransford said in his column the city's plan to invest in social housing, child care centres, and community gardens is "gutting" the city's $1.2 billion Property Endowment Fund and would "rival the fast ferries as one of the costliest failed attempts at using public dollars to build something that has never been built before."

Ransford's concerns were echoed in Tuesday's council meeting by both NPA councilors Sam Sullivan and Peter Ladner.

Triple bottom line

Mayor Larry Campbell said the purpose of the Property Endowment Fund is to invest in the community, not the bank. The city has adopted a triple bottom line approach to building Southeast False Creek, attempting to balance social, economic, and environmental concerns in its development. 

Vancouver's COPE dominated council won't to turn a profit on developing 12 hectares of waterfront property. Council has defended the economics of its plan highlighting that one third of the development's residential units will be allocated to affordable housing with subsidized land values; another third will be allocated for social housing.  About 10,000 people are expected to live in the community.

Joe Van Bellegham, who has no qualms about admitting he has an interest in developing part of Southeast False Creek, says the project should not only offer that level of social housing, but push harder at the edge of green sustainable construction.  Van Bellegham admits he was a "shitty" builder in the past, but has adopted a new philosophy around green building.

"I'm a chartered accountant.  I went to business school.  What do they teach you there about the environment? It's a cost of business or, you know, do the minimal amount possible to avoid prosecution," he said.

The Dockside plan

The Dockside project will be built on five hectares on the east side of Victoria's inner harbour that is contaminated by industrial waste. Van Bellegham's Windmill Developments won the contract to develop the site and remediate the land.

The sustainable community features on-site septic treatment, a bio-diesel factory that will provide fuel for the project's construction vehicles, car share program, and mini transit. There will also be a facility that will reach "super-platinum" LEED rating and will house a group of NGO's like the Sierra Club.  The facility will also act as an education centre for sustainable building, Van Bellegham said.

"What stopped a lot of municipalities from using the triple bottom line is that they were afraid they weren't going to get fair value.  What Victoria has done is shown leadership.  They are getting a fair value for the land, but they're getting much more than they could ever have imagined," Van Bellegham said.

He said he has some concerns about the way the Vancouver is parceling up the Southeast False Creek project's land and placing technological restrictions on developers.

The Southeast False Creek development plan outlines specific green building strategies it wants builders to adhere to; from green roofs and bio-swales to retain rain water to building orientation to reduce heat demands. But the development plan is also specific about what methods developers use.

Heat sources are to use methods like geo-thermal ground loops or sewer-pipe heat recovery. Van Bellegham warns that if the city gets too restrictive on how it wants the community built, it may well cut into the innovation that green builders could bring to the table.

'Don't try to figure out too much'

"The danger is too to try to figure out too much.  A lot of proposals I've seen elsewhere get really constrictive and say, 'You shall use this fixture. You shall use this glass.' Personally, I think that's a mistake. That should be where the developers distinguish themselves," Van Bellegham said.

His other concern is the city's intent to put individual parcels up for development instead of larger sections of the community going to one developer.

 "Vancouver, in my opinion, is really on the brink of something.  Victoria for instance is attracting attention from around the world and really capturing people's imaginations.

"If they had have taken the triple bottom line to Dockside and parceled it up like Vancouver is planning, there is no way they would have gotten what they got, because you need the economics for a lot of these systems to be spread out.  I'm not saying that all of False Creek would have to be parceled as one sale.  But you need some meaningful pieces put out," Van Bellegham said.

Van Bellegham said high rating LEED buildings use so few resources, building something like on-site sewage treatment for one building would be unfeasible.

City Hall satisfied

The City of Vancouver's green building planner Dale Mikkelsen said he is not concerned that the city's plan is placing too many constraints on builders. 

He said forcing the developers to conform to communal systems actually helps them build to a LEEDs silver standard because by virtue of tapping into the communal systems, they up their LEED rating on each building. 

Likewise, Mikkelsen said he is not concerned the dividing the land up into smaller parcels will impede upon innovation. 

Mikkelsen said the five current platinum ranked buildings in North America were all developed as single buildings.

The overriding goal to developing Southeast False Creek to a LEEDs standard is to "show developers building green is the way to go."

By developing such a large area divided into small parcels there will be more builders involved and it will create a larger demand for sustainable products to be built in B.C., Mikkelsen said. 

"This will create a competitive market and the builders will be forced to try to achieve a higher LEEDS rating to distinguish themselves," Mikkelsen said.

Changes can be made

The city's green strategy is independent of the development plan for Southeast False Creek and can be amended by council at anytime, Mikkelsen said. The standards are currently set at silver for all other buildings than the municipal ones and the Olympic village, which must be built to a gold standard.  There is nothing preventing council from upping the ante over the 15 year plan to develop the area (nor is there anything preventing it from reducing those standards).

The LEED rating system is what Mikkelsen refers to as a "market transformation tool" that is itself malleable.  The standards for LEED are upgraded every three years to reflect the standards buildings are adhering to. In three years, the gold level municipal buildings are being built at, will in fact be held to a much higher standard, Mikkelsen said.

Scott Deveau is on staff of The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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