What's So Sustainable About the Mayor and Vulcan's Plans in South Lake Union?

- A Better Word Is "Greenwashing"


A report on what happened Wednesday April 14th at Councilmember Richard Conlin's Brown Bag Lunch "Achieving Sustainable Development in South Lake Union"
- and contrasting the rhetoric of "sustainability" and "greening" now being used by our Mayor and Vulcan with a more substantive definition and application of these important concepts.

From this report:
"Sustainable development is not just about achieving conservation in design and building materials. It is
fundamentally a critique of societies that are over-consuming at the expense not just of the earth but of low income and third world peoples. It is a critique about societies that are engaged in patterns of production and consumption that degrade both the physical and human environment and accentuate levels of inequality. The Mayor and Paul Allen’s plans are about runaway growth – overindulgence – excess…displacement and gentrification. They are simply coating it in a varnish of green along the way."

Most of the panel and audience worked for the City or were hired by Vulcan

Every seat in the council chambers was filled the other day for Councilmember Conlin’s brown bag lunch on sustainable development in South Lake Union. It was a well-dressed crowd of freshly scrubbed professionals. I don’t think I saw a single person of color in the room. My first thought was that all the major architectural firms were given an extended lunch hour to attend. Mike Cox, a panelist from the City's Office of Sustainability, later cleared things up for me.

According to Cox, most of those in the room were among the "hundreds of staff working on the South Lake Union project". I took a closer look around the room. My god...he's right...nearly all of these folks are employed one way or another by the City or Vulcan and working on the planning and redevelopment of South Lake Union. At least seven of the nine panelists I believe were also getting checks either from the City or Vulcan (perhaps both). When you think of all the hoops that neighborhoods, human service providers, and plain old citizens must jump through - just to get a little project off the ground or even one city staffer out to their community....well it took my breath away.

After introducing the panelists, Mr. Conlin said “our challenge is to focus on sustainable strategies for development” that would make South Lake “a showcase.” Then, there was an hour and a half of presentations - no time for public comment. During that whole period, only Cox made a passing reference to the cost of the city’s plans for the area, and only then to reference the challenge of finding the dollars to support those efforts. (The total public cost for Paul Allen and the Mayor's plans in South Lake Union now exceeds $800 million dollars - click here for a look at those costs)

The discussion and presentations by panelists largely extolled the virtues of what the City and Vulcan were trying to accomplish in South Lake Union...Superlatives were tossed around like confetti. "We're on the cutting edge", and isn't this “exciting?”. We're moving ahead with a "sustainable", "green" "seamless", "showcase", that is a "celebration of water". We must think "boldly" (like they do in Denmark, Portland and Vancouver). We're off to a good start but must "benchmark the future" while we move forward. And everything of course is going to be green green green. Green "high performance" buildings, green roofs, green building materials, green streets with tree and shrub lined sidewalks. And even "blue" streets for storm water "cleansing".

Vulcan's Triple Bottom Line is driving the City's "greening" of South Lake Union - Why is this so unsettling?

Vulcan, represented on the panel by Hamilton Hazelhurst, summed it all up by talking about the company’s now famous “triple bottom line”. They are planning development in South Lake Union that makes money, is environmentally friendly, and serves the community. Going green can be both fun and profitable. Indeed Vulcan is the driving force behind this “green agenda”. Several documents we obtained through disclosure requests essentially acknowledge that this grand “green” plan has been driven almost singularly by Vulcan. Vulcan, however, cannot take credit for the triple bottom line. Turns out, the “TBL agenda” is a term first coined in the mid-90’s by a cadre of renegade academics and corporate consultants mostly from Europe out to prove to big corporations that integrating environmental concerns into the corporate agenda can be profitable. For more on this see http://www.csrcampaign.org/publications/JohnElkington_page344.aspx?printerfriendly=yes

A city staffer concluded the presentations by saying they are committed to moving forward with an integrated "systems-oriented regional inter-agency collaboration". … That was a mouthful and it all sounded so good, but why did it all seem so shallow…empty…more like eating a twinky for lunch. Sifting through all the encomiums, I was able uncover a few tidbits of information from the discussion.

Waiver of normal zoning requirements would allow more density, less parking for those going green but at what cost?

The City, under the direction of Vulcan and their consultants are working toward adoption of a new set of design standards and building requirements aimed at encouraging green buildings - green roofs, green energy efficient building materials, etc green sidewalks, green streets etc. These new zoning and design standards will be "incentivized". I think that means that developers in South Lake Union, i.e., Vulcan and its partners, will be relieved of many normal building requirements faced by developers in other Seattle communities if they go green. This likely will mean their permits will be expedited and they'll be allowed to waive normal zoning obligations such as storm water detention requirements, be given greater mass, scale and density, more square footage and perhaps more relief from parking responsibilities...stuff like that.... provided they participate in green building programs the city and Vulcan want to implement on a neighborhood scale.

City to adopt green Integrated Master Drainage Plan: Even before it's in place, they've eliminated developer's storm water retention requirements in South Lake Union - how will that affect salmon runs and water quality?  There also is a plan to adopt a new green "Integrated Master Drainage Plan" exclusively for South Lake Union. Apparently it’s already underway. Documents we have uncovered in the City’s Public Utilities Department indicate that Vulcan already has successfully pressured the City to seek and obtain some kind of blanket waiver from King County's Water Quality Control Agency relieving individual developers of storm and water retention requirements for all of South Lake Union. This move I presume is based on the theory that green buildings and green sidewalks will reduce runoff and water flows. Later, the city will add a new centralized runoff system that would trap or cleanse the remaining dirty water and the funnel the clean water into Lake Union. There’s something wrong with this picture. Why has King County has already waived storm and water retention requirements without regulations in place first to ensure green buildings and green streets and before implementation of the “integrated system” or other forms of mitigation?

Also, there was no clarification by panelist of the cost financially and environmentally to taxpayers and to the City to create this new drainage plan. To one degree or another, it appears that the responsibilities of retention and drainage (at least that portion not absorbed by the green buildings and streets) would be shifted to the City rather than to each developer. And there was no talk of the potential environmental effects on Lake Union. (For example, we have seen one five-page environmental assessment commissioned by City Light demonstrating that increasing water flow into Lake Union could stir up the toxic sediments on the bottom of South Lake Union, kill salmon runs, and reverse years of improved water quality).

One panelist displayed drawings of green sidewalks lined with trees and shrubs. Car parking stalls would be eliminated and sidewalks widened with a portion dedicated to trees and plants running the length of the sidewalk. More green on roofs and more pervious surface on sidewalks means more water absorbed and less runoff. All good in theory. But documents we found down at SPU (Seattle Public Utilities) indicated that these green suggestions carried costs and complications. For example, more large trees planted in the sidewalks threaten existing water and sewer piping systems. Roots tend to go right through pipes that in some areas are going on nearly 100 years old.

Also, elimination of parking in exchange for green buildings carries its own complications. You waive parking requirements on each new development, then eliminate on-street parking for trees and shrubs...and where are the cars gonna go? Yeah you can argue we're just being pedestrian friendly and what's wrong with discouraging car use.. (yeah tell that to small businesses whose customers always come by car). Oh they should take the bus or trolley or whatever. But why then is the City moving forward with creation of a massive parking garage in South Lake Union, and the widening of the Mercer traffic corridor at public expense?

Green buildings can't hide the fact they're pouring too much growth into South Lake Union at the expense of the existing social, physical, and historic character of this area - how is that sustainable?
A poly-centered approach to growth is a "sustainable" alternative

More importantly, why is the City accelerating growth in South Lake Union to unmanageable levels - the effect of which will be to create more auto trips into the area no matter what accompanying strategies the City employs to get folks out of their cars or living in or near South Lake Union? The housing-jobs imbalance is now very high down there – 1200 units to 25,000 jobs. If 20,000 more jobs are crammed into South Lake Union, at best we’re going to get 4000 more housing units….even if we upzone the area to highrise. And over half of all downtown workers show a preference for living in the suburbs, no matter how much you hype “in-city” living.

A truly “sustainable” planning and growth management solution would be to promote a poly-centered alternative – locating some of these new biotech and office jobs in other existing underutilized activity centers, and closer to where many of these workers want to and are going to live anyway. Then you provide real bus service into and out of these centers. Bus or car, these folks are commuting shorter distances to and from work which means less energy consumption and less pollution, while greatly reducing transportation costs associated with carrying folks on long commutes. Coupled with aggressive strategies to prevent loss of farmland, greenspace, and containing it within existing regional growth boundaries - that’s the best way to prevent sprawl in the Puget Sound basin. Good growth management does not mean trying to cram it all into Seattle.

It's astonishing how presumptuous and arrogant these people are who are moving the South Lake Union plan forward. Come hell or high water, Vulcan and our Mayor are going to ram the equivalent of seven Columbia Towers worth of growth down there by 2020 – over 10 million square feet of biotech and office space. It's as if Cascade and SLU were a tabla rasa....only empty land, no small businesses (there are over 400 of 'em in South Lake Union), no light industry, no historic buildings (the community has identified over 50 of 'em), no low income housing (about 900 units including several older unsubsidized buildings at risk of being destroyed just like the historic low income Lillian Apartments recently destroyed by Vulcan to make way for one of their planned "green buildings"). Most of what now exists in South Lake Union is being systematically destroyed by Vulcan's grand scheme.

How is all this "sustainable"? How can it be characterized as green under any definition of the term? It’s as if there was no existing social and physical fabric. The existing neighborhood plan, South Lake Union’s history, and mix of low income and working people mean nothing. It’s just there to be remolded in the Mayor and Paul Allen's image and in the image of ego driven architects and planners out to “make their mark” on Seattle’s future.

Sustainability is not just about achieving conservation through good design. It's also a critique against
over-consumption, too much development and most importantly, it's also about inequality


The term “sustainable development” is commonly understood to have originated from a of a UN-affiliated commission that published a document in 1987 now called the “Brundtland Report”. That report first used the term sustainable development and laid out its guiding principle: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It also was a call by the Third World to the industrialized world, later refined at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to mean that “the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet the development and environmental needs of present and future generations”.

Sustainable development is not just about achieving conservation in design and building materials. It is fundamentally a critique of societies that are over-consuming at the expense not just of the earth but of low income and third world peoples. It is a critique about societies that are engaged in patterns of production and consumption that degrade both the physical and human environment and accentuate levels of inequality. The Mayor and Paul Allen’s plans are about runaway growth – overindulgence – excess…displacement and gentrification. They are simply coating it in a varnish of green along the way.

As the first of nine speakers – the only person without a conflict of interest on the panel - the current president of the Cascade Neighborhood Council pointed out that sustainability begins with preservation of the neighborhood's historic structures, the need for more open space, and expansion of low income housing. To his credit, Conlin acknowledged her concern saying that he too was aware of the "social context" required for sustainability. So how come there was absolutely no discussion of the existing social context? The eight other speakers and the rest of Conlin's remarks clearly demonstrated that no one including Conlin had any real sensitivity at all to the existing physical and social character of the area.

A Twinky for Lunch

Sustainability to this crowd is shallow concept – a twinky for lunch – and a way of packaging or representing the enormous amount of development and overindulgence that Vulcan is intent on undertaking in South Lake Union. They may be wearing green, but there still treading heavily upon the earth. It’s little more than a colossal land grab by one developer couched in the rhetoric of "sustainability". Conlin’s brown bagger gave us “lip service” certainly not “public service”.

- John V. Fox for the Coalition

Links: For thoughtful pieces on “greening” and “sustainability”, I strongly recommend the articles by Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation and other publications, and architectural and design critic for The Nation. See http://www.janeholtzkay.com/  There are good links to other articles on her site as well.

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