'Ecodistricts' discussed for new Baltimore developments

It's hard to see a benefit in a high-profile redevelopment project being delayed four years, but Caroline Moore has found one.

Moore, the lead developer for the 28-acre State Center project, said the setback caused by a lawsuit — which was dismissed this spring — has created a chance to incorporate the latest environmental techniques into the designs. The project could introduce Baltimore's first "ecodistrict," creating a zone with a set of common environmental goals and infrastructure systems to help meet the targets.

"It's not often a developer gets to Monday-morning quarterback our own project, so we are doing that," said Moore, CEO of Ekistics LLC. "We're really just kind of blowing the dust off of plans that are 3 years old and looking for ways to make them better."

The ecodistrict approach, pioneered in Portland, Ore., scales up the kind of environmental standards often applied to individual buildings, a move backers say allows property owners to have a greater impact, while preserving the flexibility of a small operation.

In the past five years, the idea has gained traction, with cities such as San Francisco and Washington proposing zones in which buildings share systems for energy or stormwater management. In Baltimore, the idea has been discussed in relation to Harbor Point, as well as the west side around Lexington Market, where the city is looking for developers for a number of major sites.

"The basic concept of an ecodistrict is this idea of getting greater efficiencies out of systems within a neighborhood or community than you could get doing it one building at a time," said Peter Doo, a partner at Doo Consulting, a Baltimore sustainability consulting firm, who is a member of the city's Sustainability Commission. "At this point, it's just talk. If we can define it clearly enough and people can get interested enough about it, then who knows what could happen?"

One factor spurring interest in ecodistricts in Maryland is new, tougher regulation around stormwater runoff. The state's rules, enacted in 2010, tighten requirements for the quality and quantity of runoff, and discourage the traditional practice of collecting and treating water in an underground tank or pond, calling instead for more absorbent surfaces.

Beatty Development already plans to install a green roof and a system to harvest rainwater for irrigation and other uses on the Exelon tower it's building at Harbor Point. The firm is studying ecodistricts and hopes to make Harbor Point a model of environmental design.

"Why do we want to do these things?" said Jonathan Flesher, Beatty's senior development director. "First of all, it's the right thing to do. Second of all, it's a great way to market your property as something different. And third, there are very, very stringent stormwater management regulations that have gone into effect."

For State Center — where plans were first approved in 2008, before the new stormwater rules went into effect — the delay caused by the lawsuit means rethinking the designs, Moore said. The suit, brought in 2010 by a group of business owners backed by attorney Peter Angelos, contends that the award of rights for the $1.5 billion project to build state offices, residences and stores on did not follow competitive bid procedures. The MarylandCourt of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit this spring.

"I want to be really smart in having State Center be able to crack that code on stormwater management," Moore said. "We could look district-wide for solutions. We should figure out how to do that incredibly well and do it economically and smartly and elegantly."

State officials said there has been no official discussion of creating ecodistricts in Maryland.

The Baltimore Office of Sustainability is researching the methodology championed by the Portland-based nonprofit EcoDistricts, as well as other neighborhood or district-based programs to tackle environmental sustainability, coordinator Alice Kennedy said. The hope is to find the most effective way to meet the goals outlined in the city's sustainability and climate action plans.

"We're still looking at what options exist, what benefits do they bring and what would it take," she said. "There isn't anything very specific in terms of projects or programs."

In Washington, planners for the Southwest Ecodistrict, which is composed primarily of federal buildings in need of renovation, adopted targets based on President Barack Obama's 2009 order that set sustainability goals for federal agencies. Designs call for shared gas-powered heating and cooling, as well as a common stormwater system, which will recycle some of the water for nondrinking purposes without using energy to pump it to a treatment plant.

Planners say the systems could help reduce the district's greenhouse gas emissions by 51 percent, even with the addition of 4 million square feet of new development, while reducing potable water consumption by 70 percent.

The project is economically feasible in part due to Washington's stormwater credit exchange, which allows property owners who reduce runoff to sell credits to other owners, said Diane Sullivan, a senior urban planner at the National Capital Planning Commission. It's a system also under discussion in Maryland.

"The big moneymaker here is the ability to sell the stormwater credits," Sullivan said. "Our analysis at the end of the day really did say that the benefits do outweigh the costs."

Adam Beck, vice president of programs for EcoDistricts, said demand for creating such zones has risen as growth picks up in cities, and the challenges of climate change become more apparent.

The group is in the process of creating a set of updated targets, which would formalize designations similar to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building standards. Next week, the group is planning to announce eight cities with specific projects to show what an ecodistrict looks like beyond the planning phase. In September, it will host a summit about the movement in Washington.

"The success of the green building movement has been fantastic, but there's a scale at the neighborhood and district level that provides a real opportunity to accelerate great outcomes," Beck said. "There's been so much interest that we need to help the marketplace and be very clear on what this is and what this isn't."


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