Nov 24, 2008

Green thinking is good--but not with blinders on

Sustainability and the Big Pic

Last week; I attended two green events:

1) A Green Strategy CEO Conference; convened in Albany's Pine Bush Discovery Center.

- I learned about the windmill project at Jiminy Peak; met with the Governor's Energy Sec'y; heard about CISCO's internal green processes and their green product line (building management networks). Good stuff

2) An Open House tour of a new corporate HQ in metro Boston

- I saw their smart windows, smart rooms, smart toilets (the smartest building in town!), the geothermal cooling, the light bulbs each having their own IP address; etc; etc, etc.

RE: #2 -- A major disconnect hit me as I got talking to the principals of this firm. Here they were bragging about the sustainability / energy efficiency / low carbon footprint of their new digs -- all while placing the new building (formerly in an old mill town) into the middle of the distant exurbs @ 30 miles from the nearest train stop! Their workforce was semi-skilled blue collar folks, many of whom took the bus or walked to their jobs at the previous location. Their new reality is that they've either added many hours to their weekly commute (multiple bus tranfers) or they are now driving cars. Many did not even own a car before and are now forced to go buy one. Others (about 15%, I was told) did not stay with the company after the move; and we can guess why. So what's the NET GREEN to this glorious project?

Lesson learned: Too often, we don't look at the big picture when it comes to these type of things. Instead, we compartmentalize our decision-making into narrow silos and don't pay attention to the big picture / holistic POV.

Public Policy Parallels

Public policy often takes this 'silo approach' as well. Policy related to: service delivery, economic development; community development; zoning; design review; transportation; taxation; etc; etc--are usually done in a vaccum without regard to the aforementioned holistic approach. And very often -- like my metro Boston micro-example-- the net result is something counter-productive.

A Saratoga Springs Example

It was interesting to me that the very day a 'Sustainability Group' was convening in town, the general citizenry was reflecting on the three submitted proposals for the new Public Safety complex.

Ignoring -- for the sake of this particular discussion -- the issue of 'whether a facility of this size should even be under consideration' (still a proper issue worth discussing), I think the current process will act as a good example of what I am referring to here. If form stays true, I predict that the future discussion of this project will fall into that compartmentalized scenario.

Yes; there will be (are) fingers pointing to the green features of some of the designs. But I would offer that any legitimate discussion of their so-called Sustainability Indexes are ALREADY being ignored -- and will continue to be so. For example:

1) PAID PARKING: Two of the proposals include paid parking as part of the business model. Enlightened policymakers would consider this to be unacceptable and short sighted. It puts any movement to strengthen the Localization / Local Economy aspect of downtown (a very worthwhile initiative) at a serious competitive disadvatage. Example:

A Union Avenue resident needs a toothbrush, a pair of shoe laces and a sandwich. He/she should (more on that later) have two choices: downtown or Wilton/Exit 15. Assuming that person will not take the preferred walk/bike transportation option to fill this shopping need: Where exactly are we incentivizing that person to shop IF we impose a $2 parking fee? After all, we have just added 20% to the cash outlay here. So much for the localization effort--and there goes the sales tax revenue and the income to city-based business entities. Not to mention the gas/carbon ramifications of that ride out to the mall, with its free parking once there.

* If sustainability is a priority, then parking needs to be FREE for city residents -- as in 100% free; all of the time. The suggested $15 discount for monthly parking does not hack it. Again, we need to ENCOURAGE local citizens to shop AND work downtown. Paid parking discourages it.

* Note: Free for residents only; NOT free for out-of-town downtown office workers (more on that later)

* It WOULD be proper (and preferred) to institute paid parking for out-of towners/tourists (including those daytime office workers).

The hoped-for result of this type of public policy will find: a) local residents trading downtown; b) downtown businesses catering to local needs; c) downtown businesses increasinlgy owned/staffed by local residents.

2) Gound Floor Businesses: It is correct to have this as part of the mix; but only if these businesses are:

a) Catering to local residents' needs; and

b) Locally owned/staffed

What the city does NOT need is formula/chain businesses (for economic development/asset reasons) in these locations.

Futhermore, if sustainability is a priority, it should discourage the continuing proliferation of shops that cater primarily to tourists. This is not espousing an anti-tourism approach to commerce -- it is saying that the pendulum has swung too far in that directon and is in need of balance with a local economy.

Yes; there are sufficient case studies and precedents to suggest the proper (and legal) ways to make all this happen.

3) Upper Floors Use: should emphasize RESIDENTIAL as opposed to office usage

Point: the single biggest planning mistake the city made in recent decades was to improperly encourage/zone the upper downtown floors and the entrance roads (Church Street, Lake Ave, etc) of the city into mixed usage. The result has been the transition of former 'affordable housing' space into commercial office space. This trend should be halted.

This new building presents the opprotunity for just that. The vast majority (if not all) of the upper floors (2nd floor+) should be residential. Furthermore, they should be 'rental/apartments' as opposed to 'ownership/condos.' Aka 'affordable.''

Point: the aforementioned poor planning history is one of the major reasons for the city's parking problem. The transition of upper-downtown from residential to commercial has resulted in a slew of 'pink collar' jobs coming downtown (mortgage boiler rooms; nonprofits, etc), staffed primarily by out-of-town workers. These workers need parking during the daytime at 8AM, which makes shopping downtown at 11AM a problem for those few local people trying to do so.

If those same spaces were occupied as residences; then parking probelems would be partially alleviated: these people either give up their spaces when they drive out of town or (better yet) they might not even need a car/spot if they can both live & work downtown.

4) Tie it all Together:
this plan encourages the following scenario:

- More people live downtown

- Those people are eager & willing to shop downtown

- Businesses catering to their needs emerge (both from market forces and from the encouragement brought about by the policy incentives herein)

- Those same businesses will hire those local people that are living downtown (it's cheaper to hire them because they don't need a monthly parking pass)

- Fewer out-of town daytime office workers require fewer daytime parking. Those spots are freed up for local commerce. (Note: it might also mean that fewer spaces are required)

- More commerce downtown = greater sales tax revenue and healthier merchant P&L's.

- The economic multipliers then kick in: more bank deposits=more loans activity; more local jobs upstream & downstream

- Fewer Saratogians are driving to Exit 15 or beyond to shop = less gas consumption = green

- More Saratogians are working in Saratoga = less gas consumption = green

- Less gas comsumption = more money in Saratogian's pockets = more local spending power = more benefits

(One BIG Feedback Loop)

5) Who Will Oppose Such an Approach?

- Developers: because it takes away their preferred options. Example: it is easier for them to manage a space if it is commercial vs residential (less wear and tear; fewer tenant issues; the lack of payback if they're forced to build 100% affordable housing (there are ways to solve that equation). Furthermore, taking national chain stores out of the rental mix will bring down lease rates: good for local merchants, but not so good for the landlords.

- Unenlightened city officials: some will look strictly at the upfront revenue-loss (parking fees, etc) as opposed to looking at the long-term benefits that a Sustainable / Localization approach to this project (and others) bring to the table.

Yes: both will growl. Too bad: rage against the machine.

But: simply tossing 'green features' into the mix of a specific project or into larger public policymaking generally does nothing more than add to budget costs and capital outlays for all involved (developers and governments). But when being green is defined in a wider framework and with a wider constituency in mind, the community as a whole wins -- financially AND environmentally.


1 comment:

Real Deal said...

I disagree on what you say here.

But soon after: I agree.

Then I disagree again.

At first I think you're pretty sharp.

Then I think you're an idiot.

But you know what? At least you're tossing it out there.

Keep it up.