Friday, October 10, 2008

LEED for Neighborhood Development: AY's "selection," density, and other curiosities

In the realm of Atlantic Yards, it's a relatively small fib (or lingering error), but it's still worth noticing. The latest Forest City Ratner promotional brochure claims:
Atlantic Yards also has been selected as part of LEED's [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Neighborhood Development Pilot Program, which encourages compact development, proximity to transit, access to public spaces, mixed use, affordable housing, and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design.
(Emphasis added)

I wondered how exactly AY had been "selected," given the prospect for some neighborhood-unfriendly features like indefinite interim surface parking, given that AY open space isn't due until Phase 2 (which has no starting point), given that expected shadows nixed planned solar panels on a nearby building, and given that Phase 2 would include most of the affordable housing.

Registered, not selected

It wasn't selected. A look at the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED for Neighborhood Development web page shows that Atlantic Yards is one of 239 "Registered Pilot Projects," most of which have not yet been evaluated as certified--and none of which have been "selected."

Sophie Lambert, Director, LEED for Neighborhood Development, confirmed to me, "Atlantic Yards is not part of the smaller Focus Group of ND pilot projects." (That includes some 60 projects.) "Thus, they technically should write 'registered' rather than selected. Many projects make this error, however, since at the very beginning pilot projects were going to be selected."

She's right; a 2007 LEED document stated, "Up to 120 projects in total will be selected to be a part of the pilot program."

Admirable goals, but not all fit AY

LEED for Neighborhood Development is the first national standard for neighborhood design (FAQ) and clearly an improvement on simply viewing buildings in isolation. (LEED notably omits historic preservation.) As the Pilot Version Rating System explains:
Unlike other LEED products that focus primarily on green building practices, with relatively few credits regarding site selection and design, LEED for Neighborhood Development places emphasis on the design and construction elements that bring buildings together into a neighborhood, and relate the neighborhood to its larger region and landscape.

Working with USGBC in partnership are the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Credits are given for projects meeting various elements of the program, under the broad categories of Smart Location & Linkage (e.g., Brownfield Redevelopment, Reduced Automobile Dependence), Neighborhood Pattern & Design (e.g., Diversity of Housing Types, Walkable Streets), and Green Construction & Technology (e.g., Energy Efficiency in Buildings, Reduced Water Use).

Clearly, many elements of Atlantic Yards would gain credits, such as a location near a transit hub, stormwater retention, and low-flow toilets. However, as noted below, AY likely wouldn't get credits in certain sub-areas and, in others, the checklist doesn't quite address the challenges posed by this project.

Projects must submit documentation to be certified; a minimum point total is required, while higher scores gain silver, gold, or platinum LEED certification.

Density: 7-70 units/acre

It's curious that while the program encourages density, its definition is rather gentle, according to the Pilot Version Rating System: Build any residential components of the project at an average density of seven or more dwelling units per acre of buildable land available for residential uses.

That's the minimum. The highest number of points is for projects that achieve 70+ units per acre. Now, greater density, on the whole is a good idea. The question is whether Atlantic Yards is too dense, as urban planners like Ron Shiffman have pointed out.

After all, Atlantic Yards, approved at 6430 units over 22 acres, would be 292 units/acre. However, under the rating system, the ratio would be even higher, since several acres assigned to the planned arena would not be available for residential uses.

Reduced parking footprint

Projects also get points for locating off-street surface parking lots at the side or rear of buildings, also using no more than 20% of the total development footprint area for surface parking facilities, with no individual surface parking lot larger than 2 acres. (Atlantic Yards, at least in the phase of interim surface parking, would have a parking lot larger than that.)

Also, bicycle and/or carpool parking spaces equivalent to 10% of the total automobile parking for each non-residential and multifamily building on the site would have to be required.

Atlantic Yards would probably qualify; still, the checklist doesn't address the fact that AY would contain far more parking than appropriate, given the proximity to a transit hub.

Community involvement?

In several areas of the checklist, it would be interesting to see if Atlantic Yards gains points. For example, Community Outreach and Involvement has the following requirements:
Meet with immediate neighbors and local public officials to solicit input on the proposed project during the pre-conceptual design phase,
Host an open community meeting during conceptual design phase to solicit input on the proposed project,
Modify the project design as a direct result of community input, or if modifications are not made, explain why community input did not generate design improvements,
Work directly with community associations and/or other social networks of the community to advertise public meetings and generate comments on project design,
Establish ongoing means for communication between the developer and the community throughout the design, construction, and in cases where the developer maintains control of part or the entire project, post-construction.

Would the well-orchestrated 8% project scaleback be submitted as an example of community input?

Other missing LEED for ND elements

Atlantic Yards likely wouldn't get points for several other elements of the checklist, including Building Reuse and Adaptive Reuse, Minimize Site Disturbance During Construction (protect trees to provide habitat and promote biodiversity), Solar Orientation (create optimum conditions for the use of passive and active solar strategies), and Light Pollution Reduction (minimize light trespass from site).

Also, curiously enough, the rating system doesn't address the issue of superblocks; I'd think that the creation of superblocks, as with AY, might lead to a subtraction of points.

Contact info?

It's also worth noting that, while the developers of many projects registered in the pilot program provide contact information in the master list, Forest City Ratner has not done so for Atlantic Yards.

FCR's parent company, Forest City Enterprises, does provide contact information for its two other registered projects, The Yards in Washington, DC, and Stapleton, in Denver. Is the omission of an AY contact an oversight or an unwillingness to tout the project?

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