Missing The Forest For The Trees

Early in my blogging days, I wrote a post on the problem of green sprawl--the practice of developing "green" buildings on unsustainable sites.  Can a building really be considered green if it is built on greenfields in the urban periphery (like green Wal-Marts or Best Buys), or a single family dwelling comprising of tens of thousands of square feet? Twitterer Lauren Glasscock sent along this fabulous link to the 10 dumbest "green" buildings.

I read about a new version of this phenomenon in Chattanooga.  Apparently, Unum Group is: 

[B]uilding a $20 million project that includes a parking garage to hold about 1,450 cars which will attempt to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

So now the big question-- Can a parking lot for 1,450 cars ever be "green"? 

To be fair, the Chattanooga Times reports:

The garage, expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2010, will open the way for the sale of much of Unum's 28 acres of surface parking lots.

Mr. Watjen said property will likely be turned into development for downtown, but it is unclear exactly how it will be distributed.

A garage structure is more sustainable than surface parking lots, for the runoff factor alone.  But I question the "green"-ness of erecting infrstructure for 1,450 cars.  Is this something the USGBC should be certifying? Or does it compromise the fundamental credibility of the LEED system? 

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Tim Hughes - August 24, 2009 2:58 PM

I do not know the details of this project, but a parking garage that replaces 28 acres of surface lots seems like an intrinsic improvement that could be quite significant. Not only are you improving run-off, but you could be fighting heat island effect. Add in more efficient use of the old parking lots ... that may mean reuse of 28 acres of surface parking, maybe some open space, certainly not development into greenfields.

I think this is an arena where the ideal maybe should not be the enemy of the good.

Shari Shapiro - August 24, 2009 3:18 PM

Tim--you hit the nail on the head. Where does supporting incremental change bleed into greenwashing? It is not an easy problem. The enormous "green" mcmansions are actually the easy cases--determining whether a parking lot that replaces a lot of surface parking is "green" is a much harder question.

Sara Sweeney - August 24, 2009 5:11 PM

You also need to look at the parking lot size in relation to Zoning requirements for parking, as well as public transportation access. Although it is not discussed in this post, it may very well be that the lot is actually for 100 cars less then minimum, and there is easy access to public transporation (it could also be for 100 cars over Zoning minimum...). Also, if I read the post correctly, and excerpts from the Chattanooga Times, looks like the other 28 lots being sold could help spur development in the city. Not a bad trade-off.

We're not going to give up our cars easily, no matter what -it is a huge cultural shift, and right now it is more the rarity than norm to NOT drive one's car. We still have a ways to go, probably in reality, a long ways. Ultimately too, I agree with Tim's comment, and the fact that in this case perhaps the ideal should not be the enemy of the good. In my opinion, LEED should indeed reward and encourage this kind of project.

Tim Hughes - August 25, 2009 9:47 AM

There are a lot of different lenses to view these questions. As lawyers, in our work life we view them through our client's interests. As commentators on legal issues and green building, we may be influenced by our work experiences, but also have internal judgments about how the development industry "should" evolve, how the economy "should" evolve, et c. to meet these challenges.

The tough part with all of these questions is that ultimately, the response requires developing a growing consensus for changes in individual behavior. For me, I want to walk the walk in my own life as much as possible, but I drive a car so there are those who could ping me for being part of the problem. In the end, what hits me is it seems like lots of aggregated small steps by lots of individuals and businesses across the board translates to big changes over time.

All that being said, maybe folks should not want or expect a medal for doing the smaller steps which is perhaps the underlying thrust of the question you are asking.

On a final note, and this is riffing off Sara's comment as well ... the big shift is conversion to workable land use, planning and development built around other modes of transportation besides the car. That fits into so many of the challenges we face moving forward.

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