Time to Petition NorthSide for LEED ND

{many details of NorthSide remain fuzzy, like many of the plan's renderings, LEED ND might be the answer}

With the news that Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration Plan has won its pivotal Missouri Supreme Court ruling on the $390 million Tax Increment Financing package approved by the City of St. Louis in 2009, NorthSide looks set to move forward. Which brings up the question that led to the lawsuit against the TIF package in the first place: what is NorthSide?

The Circuit Court’s ruling that invalidated the TIF package ruled that it was in conflict with the TIF act because the redevelopment plan lacked “the inclusion of defined redevelopment projects.” In effect, the court ruled that the City had given McKee $390 million without even knowing what they were buying. Although in overruling this judgment, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the Circuit Court did not have the legal standing to make this argument, the criticism remains valid.

McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration LLC has released documents that speak of vague plans for redevelopment focused around four “Employment Hubs.” The first two to be developed will be located near the new Missouri River Bridge carrying I-70 and at the site of the proposed new 21st street interchange with I-64 at the west of the Gateway Mall. The third is near the current Sensient Technologies campus and the fourth is the Pruitt-Igoe site, called a “Retail Center/Employment Hub.” The NorthSide TIF application describes the three Employment Hubs as “major hubs for the creation of employment opportunities” but gives no further details. The Pruitt-Igoe site is described as “a major neighborhood and regional mixed use entertainment center” with development “envisioned” to include “a new hotel, several small scale office buildings, a grocery store, retail operations, restaurants, a higher density residential property, and a park.” The rest of what we know includes vague mention of “retail opportunities” being marketed throughout the property and a “proposed trolley line.”

New North google earth2
{the footprint of the NorthSide plan spans a large portion of the city}

What is conspicuously missing from these vague proposals are concrete details of the FORM that any of this development will take. And form matters. What scares people the most when they think of this project is that we have no idea what the final outcome will look like. When the dust settles, the North side of St. Louis could look like anything from a strip mall in Brentwood to Manhattan. People who love St. Louis’ urban environment are terrified that just as downtown St. Louis is starting to revive itself, the NorthSide will become a wasteland of strip malls and Wal-Marts, bleeding the city dry of any vitality it has gained. Indeed, there are already worrisome signs that Paul McKee will look to cash in quickly via a cheaply made, suburban development model, despite the negative consequences this would have on the surrounding urban fabric. The first property being developed in NorthSide is a Dollar General store on an important intersection, one block away from a Family Dollar.

The City of St. Louis knows that form matters, which is why it has recently taken forward-thinking steps to prevent development that cannibalizes existing neighborhoods. The city recently passed the Central West End form-based zoning code (ordinance 69406). It regulates only the form of buildings (for example, the relationship of buildings to the street, the number of stories allowed, etc) but not their function, and therefore steers future development towards a density and shape that are appropriate for the character of the neighborhood while encouraging a mix of uses. The form-based code is developer-friendly because it allows them the flexibility to design buildings for any purpose they see fit, but ensures that future growth and development will preserve the character of the CWE.

{Renaissance Place at Grand, a mixed income development in St. Louis received LEED ND certification}

St. Louis is actually very innovative in this regard, as form-based codes are just starting to come into use across the country as a way to promote smart, multi-use, cost-effective urban redevelopment. However, despite doubling down on the principles of good urban design by undertaking such a multi-year initiative in an area that is already one of those most well-developed and successful neighborhoods in the city, St. Louis has since turned around and compromised those principles by handing Paul McKee a blank canvas covering 1,500 acres and saying “do whatever you want.”

To his credit, Paul McKee has engaged Civitas to do the planning for NorthSide. Civitas is a well-respected company with a track record of pursuing innovative urban redevelopment. Notably, Civitas states on its website describing the NorthSide project the “six key principles of sustainability” by which it hopes to “provide for an integrated, balanced approach to sustainable development as well as a means to monitor the success of the project over time:”

  • Economic development
  • Transit network
  • Clean energy
  • Healthy community
  • Green framework
  • Collaborative leadership

Such principles guided development of Stapleton, a Civitas guided development in Denver with some similaries to McKee's St. Louis project. Although these principles are admirable in regards to NorthSide, without more specifics they are simply goals that can be brushed aside as easily as New Years’ resolutions.

{the Stapleton project was built using LEED ND principles on the site of former airport}

In order to be worthy of the citizens of St. Louis’ confidence, not to mention the $390 million pledged by the city, NorthSide must provide more specifics as to HOW it will achieve its goals. One way forward that would be a win for citizens, the City of St. Louis, and Paul McKee himself, would be for Paul McKee to voluntarily pursue certification by LEED for Neighborhood Development for the entire NorthSide project.

LEED for Neighborhood Development could give needed specifics, reassurance, hope

LEED is familiar to many as a system for certifying the sustainability of individual buildings. What is less well-known due to its relative youth is LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND). According to the US Green Building Council website, LEED ND “integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into the first national system for neighborhood design.” Or, as Kaid Benfield of the National Resources Defense Council describes it on his excellent blog, LEED ND is “the country’s first comprehensive system for defining, measuring, and certifying smart growth.”

Like LEED for buildings, LEED ND provides checklists and awards points based on how well developments conform to certain standards. Its major categories of guidelines are the following:

  • Smart Location and Linkage (which includes points for preferred sustainable development locations, brownfield redevelopment, bicycle network and storage, house and jobs proximity, and wetland management)
  • Neighborhood Pattern and Design (e.g. walkable streets, compact development, mixed-use neighborhood centers, mixed-income diverse communities, street network, transit facilities, and access to recreation facilities – emphasis mine)
  • Green Infrastructure and Buildings

Although the location for NorthSide is already set, the plan would likely qualify for significant points under the “Smart Location” criteria based on the fact that the majority of NorthSide could be considered brownfield redevelopment or infill development. However, the details of its proposed transportation network are vague and therefore uninspiring. Civitas pledges on its website to “design a safe transportation system that encourages walking, biking, mass transit and connects residential, commercial, and retail areas.” However, details of how it would accomplish this are lacking. A proposed MetroLink extension and streetcar have been floated but not fleshed out. Pledging to fulfill the criteria for “Smart Linkage” would increase the public’s confidence that NorthSide will successfully incorporate elements designed to reduce traffic and improve health while providing access to jobs and amenities, such as a connected street grid and public transportation.

The guidelines for neighborhood pattern and design are likely the most important benefit that LEED ND certification would bring to NorthSide.  According to the TIF application, NorthSide plans for “a variety of housing types with a range of price-points.” Yet no information has been released that describes what these housing developments will look like or how the neighborhoods will be designed. NorthSide could easily be composed of suburban-style, sprawling, auto-oriented neighborhoods. In contrast, LEED ND provides concrete guidelines for neighborhood design that encourage “walkable streets, diverse and compact neighborhoods, high-quality public spaces, reduced dependence on automobiles, and community participation in design.” Filling NorthSide with well-designed neighborhoods that are walkable, compact, and mixed-use would result in a variety of economic benefits for the city.

NorthSide/22nd St. vision
{images of NorthSide show designs that resemble LEED ND projects}

Such neighborhoods create a sense of character and place, which is increasingly important to home buyers. They perform better economically and have retained their value during the housing market crash. In addition, compact neighborhoods require less public infrastructure to serve the population, providing services to residents at less cost to the taxpayer. If Paul McKee chooses to fill the city with suburban-style housing developments, he would be using public money to build all of that sprawling, inefficient infrastructure, and then sticking future residents of the city with the bill for its maintenance. Pledging to follow LEED ND guidelines would increase the public’s confidence that the creation of NorthSide would create neighborhoods that are attractive, efficient, well-organized, and would provide the best possible return on the City’s investment.

I am less concerned with whether NorthSide will score many points in the third category listed above: green infrastructure and buildings. I would rather have urban infill that is well-designed and not “green” than “green” and sprawling. Increasing the cost of construction may not be appropriate in this under-invested area of our city. However, our nation’s buildings account for 38 percent of all CO2 emissions and 73 percent of electricity consumption. In an age of increasing focus on efficient use of energy and resources, as evidenced by the popularity of LEED-certified buildings, by ignoring green infrastructure we risk building out 1,500 acres of soon-to-be obsolete buildings. There is nothing more cost-effective than doing it right the first time.

Benefits of LEED ND certification flow to all parties

As we have seen, the standards that exist are robust, specific, and voluntary rather than restrictive. I believe that Paul McKee should announce his intentions to the city to seek certification from LEED ND for the NorthSide development. This would be a win for all parties involved:

  1. Citizens – Begin to have faith that Northside will be a successful, transformational project and push for the project to move forward. The largest, most innovative LEED ND-certified redevelopment areas in the country is a market success.
  2. The City of St. Louis – LEED ND certification for NorthSide allows the city to tell citizens it is spending taxpayer money on a plan that will be certified by the best, most modern set of planning standards for sustainable development we have available. These standards reduce the financial risk for the city, increasing the likelihood that NorthSide will provide a sound return on its investment.
  3. Paul McKee – Lawsuits cease and he is able to begin moving forward on development as the public gets excited to see what he has in store for the city. LEED ND helps guide potential relocations to the development footprint and potential retail developers. McKee claims a true sustainable vision for future urban development.

LEED ND certification for NorthSide doesn’t have to be voluntary. There are now many examples of local governments that REQUIRE developments to meet the standards of LEED ND to be eligible for special benefits. For example, the city of East Lansing, Michigan requires private development that receives city assistance for more than 15 percent of total project budget and is over a certain size to attain LEED ND or LEED-NC silver-level certification or above. Paul McKee’s development not only has received an incredible amount of city assistance but it is also poised to remake a large chunk of the city. How is it that a small city like East Lansing is capable of ensuring it gets the best return on its public investment but St. Louis, which is over 6 times larger by population, is perfectly happy to throw away much larger sums of money?

{in Chicago, 1,100 acres of existing neighborhoods and a former steel plant is now Lakeside, a LEED ND development}

In the end, my proposal to Paul McKee is about perception. It’s not that he and Civitas CAN’T do what I describe above, it’s that we don’t KNOW if they can…or even, really, what their plans are at all. Pledging to achieve LEED ND certification would be a powerful signal that Paul McKee plans to achieve something great. And that he’s willing to be held accountable to be sure that he does.

What can I do to help?

If you think that LEED ND certification for NorthSide would benefit St. Louis and want to help make that a reality, there are several ways you can help.

1. Leave your thoughts in the comments section below
2. Email your Alderman with the following message (find your city Alderperson):
          a. “I, (your name), strongly believe that for St. Louis to fully benefit from the millions of dollars allocated to Paul McKee for NorthSide, the project should conform to the highest standards we have for neighborhood design: LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND). As a citizen who cares about this city’s future, I encourage you to push for Paul McKee to pursue LEED ND certification for NorthSide.”
3. Sign my petition at Change.org
4. Use the resources provided by LEED ND to advocate for better development in St. Louis in the future:

5 Ways That Local Groups and Citizens can use LEED ND
A Citizen’s Guide to LEED ND: How to tell is a development is smart and green