Sustainability Round-Up: Presidents and Billionaires Edition

Posted on: October 6th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Rachel Bowdon

Big players are stepping up to jumpstart more energy efficiency in buildings across the US. (Photo: Flickr using Living Off Grid)

What do British billionaire Richard Branson and former President Bill Clinton have in common? Energy efficiency. Over the past two weeks, Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room both launched partnerships with companies and organizations such as Barclays Capital, Goldman Sachs and the Natural Resources Defense Council, with the aim of improving the energy efficiency in US buildings. These two separate initiatives could potentially unlock more than $1.6 billion in private investment.

Carbon War Room’s business consortium plans to invest up to $650 million in efficiency retrofits on commercial buildings in Miami and Sacramento. According to a New York Times article, the group will develop projects through Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), a “new tax arrangement that allows property owners to upgrade their buildings at no upfront cost, typically cutting their energy use and their utility bills by a third.” The CGI partnership has already secured more than $1.1 billion for energy efficiency projects. Through this project, the partners will work with tenants of new or existing property to incorporate energy efficiency measures into the design of their premises. As relayed by Environmental Leader, CGI says that “untapped, cost-effective efficiency improvements could save the building sector up to $33 billion per year by 2030.” In making the announcement, former president Bill Clinton explained, “This is a huge deal.” Yes, indeed!

However, the private sector is not alone when it comes to investing in the sustainability of our built infrastructure. On September 20, the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development voted to preserve funding for two key components of the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities in the FY2012 appropriations bill. As stated by Smart Growth America President and CEO, Geoff Anderson: “The Partnership’s programs are helping small towns rebuild their main street, and they’re helping mid-sized cities improve their business districts. These projects are rebuilding roads, renovating abandoned properties, creating pedestrian friendly downtowns, and dozens of other worthwhile projects that will help American communities recover from the economic downturn and stay strong in the coming decades.”

Switching gears a bit, check out some more green preservation articles we’ve recently come across concerning sustainable communities, building retrofits, and reuse.

Phenomenal Cosmic Skyscrapers - Itty Bitty Environmental Savings

Tim De Chant, creator of Per Square Mile, blogs about Michael Mehaffy’s new paper that argues why skyscrapers won’t save the environment. Mehaffy explains that skyscrapers not only take an excessive amount of energy to build and operate, but they also don’t do that great of job of reducing sprawl. For example, many people that work in skyscrapers don’t actually live nearby, but commute from distant, less populated areas. “Mehaffy advocates for lower-slung, higher-density development like that found in many neighborhoods built at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. He says the "sweet spot" is around 50 people per acre, or about 32,000 people per square mile. (Think Brooklyn or Baltimore.) Beyond that point, he says the beneficial effects of density begin to level off.”

As Detroit’s Offices Fill Up, Suburbs Feel Pain

Many major companies located in Detroit suburbs are choosing to relocate downtown and the effect has become noticeable. “The vacancy rate of Detroit's suburbs has increased almost 2 percentage points to 25.1 percent during the past two years; downtown Detroit's rate, meanwhile, has stabilized at 31.4 percent.” Companies such as Quicken Loans are leading the way and buying up properties in downtown, including the Dime Building, a Daniel Burnham-designed structure.

A Call for Urban Doctors

“Much like the human body, cities are complex, dynamic systems. Merely improving building performance and increasing the mix of renewable energies will do nothing to address the existing decaying, underperforming building stock in our cities. These two "great imitators" are unfortunately the only issues that many architects, engineers, and urban planners focus on today. In reality, only 1 percent to 3 percent of our building stock is represented by new buildings. To truly improve conditions in our cities, we need to rethink not only how the built environment is constructed, but how it's conceptualized. If we can achieve it, repositioning the existing building stock will have great financial as well as environmental benefits, creating job opportunities and a new economic engine for our cities.”

It’s Time for A Renovation Revolution

Kelley Beamer of Cascadia Green Building Council writes, “Existing buildings are crucial in that they contain the architectural stories of our cities and provide some of the most beautiful and inspiring elements of our cities. The excitement of a flashy new green building will almost always get a front-page story, while a renovation is somehow less interesting. Yet since new buildings only account for 1.5 percent of all buildings, the greatest opportunity for really making an immediate impact on greenhouse gas reduction is tackling the existing built environment.”

A Spectacular Green Neighborhood is Brewing in Milwaukee
Kaid Benfield writes, “Milwaukee’s newest trendy neighborhood is likely to become one of its best, and almost certainly its greenest. The Brewery, an environmentally sensitive restoration and adaptation of historic structures among the decaying wreckage of the former Pabst Brewing Company, is already home to striking residential lofts, a great beer hall, a range of offices, Cardinal Stritch University City Center, and a small urban park…The seven-block, 20-acre project involved the restoration and adaptive reuse of an amazing 26 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, surely making it one of the most ambitious historic preservation projects in the country.”

Redeveloping Former Industrial Sites Doesn’t Mean Giving Up on Industry

“This month the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the latest grant recipients in an economic development initiative designed to help cities convert formerly industrial (and potentially contaminated) eyesores into community assets. The $13.3 million pot, coupled with another $35 million in federal loan guarantees, will help build a Marriott in Toledo, a light manufacturing site in Cleveland and, in Philadelphia, a supermarket within a food desert and an affordable housing project in a neighborhood where unemployment is twice the national rate. In all, HUD boasts that nearly 2,000 permanent jobs will be created.”

Rachel Bowdon is the program assistant for the Sustainability Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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