Op-ed: Why the 2014 Measure R is not ‘true green’

In 2010, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly ratified a different Measure R, which gave city council the go-ahead to adopt the Downtown Area Plan, a plan created through an open and transparent process with wide community participation. It became law in 2012. The people who opposed the Downtown Area Plan in 2010 are now proposing a new measure, also Measure R, a complex bill that proposes to “fix” a wide range of supposed shortcomings in the Plan. These “fixes” will undo the plan, not fix it.

One of the more loudly touted claims of the new Measure R — that it will make our downtown “true green… not green washed” — is simply specious. Here’s why:

The voter-approved Downtown Area Plan already requires LEED Gold, just a step below LEED Platinum, the highest level in the US Green Building Council’s widely accepted green building rating system. The Plan also provides an incentive (called the “Green Pathway”) for going beyond LEED Gold. Measure R 2014 proposes to require LEED Platinum, as the minimum standard for downtown Berkeley projects. This “fix” is an example of “the best being the enemy of the good;” the “fix” will stop projects, not fix them or make them greener. The current Downtown Area Plan arrived at the right combination of idealism and pragmatism, of requirements and incentives.

LEED Platinum will be tough for many downtown projects to achieve (not every building can or should be a Brower Center) and will add significant costs. These are strong disincentives for those looking to build downtown. As proponents of Measure R have pointed out, projects can easily earn a few LEED credits for the great urban location, but many other LEED credits will be difficult if not impossible on these tightly constrained urban sites. I know this from personal experience: my firm, Siegel & Strain Architects, has designed or consulted on many LEED Platinum and Gold projects, including the Brower Center in downtown Berkeley, and has also worked on the development of the LEED standards themselves.

Proponents of Measure R now insist that LEED Gold is not good enough and that not taking the “Green Pathway” to exceed LEED Gold means our current policy is a failure. Not true. If you look at total energy use in the downtown, as the Downtown Area Planning process did, transportation energy is a larger part of the overall ecological footprint of the downtown than energy used in buildings. (Energy use is the largest single component of LEED.)

People who live in higher density neighborhoods with ready access to transit, like downtown Berkeley, use half the energy per capita of people who live in the suburbs, less even than those of us who live elsewhere in Berkeley. And, as Environmental Building News has demonstrated, transportation energy used by people who commute to office buildings exceeds the energy to run those buildings by 30% to 100%. Higher density in the right location, combined with great access to public transportation, can save more energy than most other green building measures combined.

By concentrating growth downtown, increasing downtown walkability and bike friendliness, and requiring developers to give transit passes to residents, the Downtown Area Plan recognized these advantages and rewarded them. The math is pretty simple: more LEED Gold buildings will, when you include transportation energy in the calculation, save more energy than fewer LEED Platinum buildings. The Downtown Area Plan got the balance of community benefits right.

Requiring LEED Platinum as the minimum standard is simply too extreme and will only accomplish what the proponents of Measure R are really after – to greatly reduce the size and number of new projects in downtown Berkeley.

As someone who has been immersed in the world of green building for over 20 years as a practicing architect, teacher and advocate for greener buildings, it really disturbs me to see LEED invoked in this shallow and disingenuous way to overturn a well thought out and voter approved plan.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see more LEED Platinum buildings downtown – let’s develop more incentives to encourage that. But a LEED Platinum mandate would undoubtedly have the reverse affect. Let’s not “fix” a Downtown Area Plan that isn’t broken. Measure R will not make downtown Berkeley greener.

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Henry Siegel is the founding principal at Siegel & Strain, an architectural firm that has received more than 60 design awards, including four Top Ten Green Projects of the Year from the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE). He lives in Berkeley.