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Next big thing for LEED planning? Sustainable neighborhoods

Uptown Circle in Normal, Illinois. (Photo courtesy Uptown Normal)

Uptown Circle in Normal, Illinois. (Photo courtesy Uptown Normal)

The Uptown neighborhood of Normal, Illinois, boasts an enormous traffic circle enclosing a popular civic space surrounded by what is likely the largest concentration of LEED buildings in downstate Illinois.

It’s among several neighborhoods around the Midwest that have been designed as “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development” (LEED-ND) projects. From the site of a former St. Louis housing project to a master-planned Chicago suburban train hub, the concepts behind LEED-ND have begun transforming not only buildings but also blocks into sustainable enclaves.

Sponsored by the United States Green Building Council, the LEED-ND program awards communities for planning that reduces dependence on cars while encouraging green construction, energy efficiency, storm water management, mass transit and urban agriculture.

What is LEED-ND?

The USGBC’s LEED program focuses on measuring the sustainability of buildings by employing a points system rewarding LEED buildings, renewable energy, habitat restoration, compact development, walkable streets, mass transit access, water efficiency, bicycle networks and other factors.

Formed in collaboration with the Congress for New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council, LEED-ND is now part of the landscape of 39 different Midwest cities.

An earlier pilot and a 2009 version of LEED-ND invitation drew several hundred submissions from across the country, according to Sophie Lambert, the USGBC’s director of neighborhood development.  Some communities have registered but never followed up on their plans due to a lack of money — or developers — while others got half-way, but not all the way, to the finish line. Others have been completed for years.

LEED-ND hasn’t been quantified in terms of energy savings, though Lambert believes the efficiencies saves money. LEED buildings use 25 to 30 percent less energy than typical structures of the same size and function, and at least one such structure is required in a LEED-ND development. Neighborhoods where residents can walk to retail stores, schools, churches and other community amenities will, in theory, reduce car trips and save gasoline.

LEED-ND in the Midwest

The Midwest has several projects which have achieved LEED-ND and is home to some of the most forward-thinking planning firms in the field, among them McCormack Baron Salazar in St. Louis and Farr Associates in Chicago.

The first projects to reach Stage 3, the highest level of certification, include:

  • Excelsior & Grand, St. Louis Park, suburban Minneapolis. The 17.5 acre new-urbanism neighborhood which cost more than $160 million for 960,000 square feet of mainly residential with first floor retail. Built in a former neighborhood that was a jumble of 1940s and 50s buildings, the multi-level, four structure complex boasts a village green behind it and loops into a major city park. In 2009 it became the first project to be fully certified LEED-ND in the country.
  • Renaissance Place at Grand, St. Louis. The $90.4 million project revitalized a 33-acre area of the city once the home of former Blumeyer Public Housing Complex. The 512-unit development sits near an arts district close to retail and on light rail. The complex includes apartments, townhouses, senior citizen and disabled units, as well as the LEED-certified St. Louis Housing Authority.
  • Prairie Crossing, a 359-unit community Northwest of Chicago, started out as a conservation community and added features such as a geothermal system, wind turbine and photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to power and heat buildings. A transit parking lot was once a former waste site. The development includes a high performing charter school and certified organic commercial farm.
  • The Brewery, formerly the Pabst brewing complex in Milwaukee, features several buildings for offices, residential housing and a restaurant/inn.

A tale of three LEED-ND neighborhoods

One of the first sustainably certified neighborhoods in the country turns out to have been at one time one of the poorest. Once home to a notorious housing project, Renaissance Place in St. Louis today boasts a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing units.

William Carson, director of sustainability for McCormack Baron Salazar, said Renaissance Place was funded largely by Hope VI money from Housing and Urban Development and a complex mix of state, local and philanthropic funding.  Even though the company largely works in distressed neighborhoods it always designs and builds with sustainability in mind, he said.

“The addition of green amenities of energy and water savings really makes sense in low income communities where people simply don’t have additional resources to waste,” Carson said. “On top of that our public partners like them because when you have an operating subsidy from a public authority and federal government they want to keep their expenses flat. So building green makes sense for the long-term operation.”

After receiving LEED-ND certification Carson’s organization added solar panels and storm water retention to Renaissance Place because, again, they end up saving money for residents. Those features are now common in all the firm’s LEED-ND projects.

If Renaissance Place has been good for residents it also has been good for business, helping McCormack Baron Salazar win work in LEED-ND projects in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tulsa, Sacramento and Pittsburgh.

Normal, Illinois, the home of State Farm Insurance and Illinois State University, generally lives up to its name. “Normal is not some flaming liberal town,” said Mercy Davison, Normal’s town planner.

“We always made the argument this makes sense not because it’s the right thing with a capital R but because it makes sense in dollars. It helps us retain people, it’s good for our quality of life.”

Normal’s love of LEED began in 2002 when the city council required public and private buildings in Uptown to be LEED certified. The first to pass muster was a children’s museum, the second a transportation hub combined with a new city hall, the third a hotel. A residential building sited for a third parcel that eventually will be constructed by a private developer will have to meet LEED standards.

Doug Farr, of Farr Associates, worked on Uptown Normal and subsequently has helped plan more than a half dozen other LEED-ND projects.

“Uptown Circle was a bigger deal in that community than any other project we worked on — it was their downtown, their first go at urban redevelopment, sustainability and it involved multiple mayoral terms and public financing,” he said. “It was pretty high-stakes, played out in public and the press.”

The bet paid off. Davison, the planner, shares the council’s belief that it would make Normal more attractive to transplants and students, while locals have come to love Uptown Normal’s urban vibrancy.  The project helped in another way when the federal government awarded Normal a $22 million grant to help pay for the transit center.

“The third-party validation for the neighborhood seems to have helped” in winning the grant, she said.

In Minnesota, the Excelsior & Grand development came about when its architect, Elness Swenson Graham, heard about the LEED-ND pilot and decided the project could be the first ever certified. Although the project was always primarily about building a multi-use neighborhood on underutilized land in a suburb without any tradition of density, ESG decided to add some luster to it by getting the LEED-ND certification, said Dennis J. Sutliff, principal.

The firm spent $70,000 in non-billable hours to achieve LEED-ND but no phone calls of interest followed.  “Did we win another job because of LEED-ND? No,” he said. “We’ve been involved in other projects involving walkable communities but clients picked us because of our reputation, not because we built a LEED-ND community.”

Challenges To LEED-ND

Farr led a team that created LEED-ND for the USGBC and wrote a book on it. He sees challenges in moving forward, from a lack of money to what he sees as a growing, and disturbing, public disregard for planning.

The largest roadblock, however, is outdated planning ordinances.

“You would be hauled off to jail if you did LEED-ND in a lot of communities,” he said. Many cities mandate large block sizes of 600 to 1,800 feet long, well in excess of LEED-ND standards. Big minimum paving widths on roads encourage fast speeds while minimum lots sizes lead to a lack of a housing mix, as well as reliance on cars.

Yet the tide seems to be turning LEED-ND’s way. Farr points out the real estate bubble had a positive impact. “Guess what people want to finance and live in? Urban apartments — that looks a lot like LEED-ND,” he said. “Mixed use and some single-family, and some multi-family. The recession was kind to LEED-ND.”

St. Paul journalist Frank Jossi writes about politics, business, energy and the environment. His website is www.jossi.biz.

Comments (3)

It is really fantastic to see LEED for Neighborhood Development getting some traction. Designing future neighborhoods with walking trails, parks and amenities within a reasonable distance makes tremendous sense, especially if gasoline continues to spike upward in price. I like this article and have posted it on my sustainable website: DesignCharrette.com

Thanks for this article! Very good information.

By Ken Riead on May 7, 2013

I live in Normal and I am not as excited about the circle as Mercy Davison is. So far, the plantings in the circle of the water area have been planted several times because the marsh plants have not survived very well in hot central Illinois summers. They look kind of pathetic usually. Davison does not portray the townspeople as progressive at all, yet we have to be somewhat as the town has more or less gone along with the mayor and the council and their rather expensive projects in downtown Normal. The revision of the downtown (which the planners renamed uptown) has taken twice as long as projected and is still not done, in part due to economic difficulties. The multimodal transportation is directly next to the Children’s Museum so buses are zooming in and out while parents have no place to drop their kids off at the museum. The original drop off area was taken away due to revitalization. That was pretty poor planning, Doug Farr or whoever came up with that plan. Also the green trail has had to be moved because the railroads thought the way it crossed the tracks was unsafe. So putting up a bridge for the green trail is going to cost another million or so. Normal’s revitalization is not as rosy as the town planners want people to believe. Maybe this sounds crumudgeonly, but it’s worth getting a more balanced approach to reporting, even in trade journal.

By JS on May 14, 2013

I have been to this feature, and although nice it has some hazardous conditions, serious fall hazard at seating for children or inebriated students. Regarding LEED success, the same thing could be done without spending the hundreds of thousands in fees for the status symbol. Very poor use of of taxpayer funds and bonded debt money.

By Walter Ward on May 24, 2013