Hard to Be Really Green

Let's scrap the city's weak, pale-green environmental standards and actually take the total environment into account

Now that S.F. media impresario Al Gore has burned a tanker's load of jet fuel toting his PowerPoint presentation around the globe, and compelled a million or so moviegoers to drive to asphalt-surrounded, high-voltage-air-conditioner-cooled cineplexes to see An Inconvenient Truth, we can all agree global warming is a problem.

After that, however, environmentalists concur on little beyond a vague imperative: Earthlings, change your evil ways!

So do we buy hybrid cars? Or are eco-lame vehicles such as the 31-mpg Ford Escape Hybrid SUV mere enviro-distractions?

Shall we build new Las Vegas hotels with PVC-free carpet and low-throughput showerheads? Or are these so-called "green buildings" an example of green-washed showboating that misses the bigger picture?

Should environmentalists fight gas-guzzling, plant-paving sprawl? Or is suburban expansion unavoidable? What about smart growth; is it an unworkable panacea?

And most important: Does all this confusion mean that if environmentalists get what they want — a national consensus accepting the problem of global warming — it might not help Mother Earth much at all?

San Francisco could quell this environmental discord, and move America toward actually reducing greenhouse gas creation, by taking what might initially look like a step in the opposite direction. We could scrap what may be the city's boldest, most successful environmental initiative, a 2004 law requiring all new city-owned structures to meet the U.S. Green Building Council's stringent "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" (LEED) standard, which rewards developers for amenities such as passive solar climate control and nontoxic carpets.

This program is laudable, yet too narrow in scope. The way the standard is now written, buildings that ultimately contribute to global warming get to be labeled "green."

In its place, we should adopt a standard that looks beyond individual buildings, and takes the city, the country, and the planet into account. That would mean putting greater focus on rewarding buildings that enhance the health, natural environment, and quality of life of a city, region, and continent by emphasizing urban design while considering architectural design. This standard would reward population density and ease of nonautomobile access, while still taking into lesser account Earth-friendly carpet, faucets, and such.

In 1970, San Francisco Mayor Joe Alioto's proclamation launched the first Earth Day. Expanding the city's 2004 green-building initiative to put more emphasis on smart growth likewise might serve as an example for the world. We might help make Al Gore's environmentally ambiguous, yet ultimately commendable, efforts more worthwhile.

Breaking the spell of shortsighted environmentalism is a bemusing parlor game.

One example: "Sustainable" Whole Foods Market organic asparagus that's jetted in from Argentina and electronically cooled during its weeklong trip to the checkout means a diner consumes ladles full of energy with every bite.

Another example came to me last Monday at 8:30 a.m. as I listened to a presentation by the Downtown smart-growth think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) describing a soon-to-be-built, $10 million "urban center" dedicated to educating the world about green-minded city design.

Funny thing about the proposed urban center, though: It won't be topped by the sort of 24-story Downtown condominium tower SPUR advocates as the best way to give people environmentally sensitive walking access to jobs and other city amenities. Instead it will be a puny four stories of exhibition, meeting, and office space.

"We're not in the condominium business. And we couldn't get the capital, and we're having too hard a time getting the capital we have, and the site is too small," explains SPUR President Jim Chappell.

Another irony: The SPUR center will be trounced in the San Francisco green-building stakes by a new California Academy of Sciences building complex now under construction in Golden Gate Park. The new academy will be relatively poorly served by mass transit. It will be astride a new 800-car parking garage. And the academy's leaders recently aided a campaign to block a measure that would have closed a portion of the park to automobiles on Saturdays. Nonetheless, the academy has a reasonable chance of earning a LEED "platinum" rating, the highest possible, by putting grass and solar cells on its roof, among other amenities. The project in April received the silver Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction at a ceremony in Bangkok.

"They were traveling to Bangkok to accept an award for the ecological design of the building at the same time they were fighting to keep cars in the park. The irony was just huge," says Tom Radulovich, executive director of the urban environmentalist nonprofit Livable City, who's also a member of the academy's Community Advisory Group.

Thanks to LEED criteria that give an advantage to buildings not located in a dense, urban grid, the SPUR building will be on Mission Street near SFMOMA, next to 32 transit lines, yet can only hope to qualify for a "silver," third-tier LEED rating from the Green Building Council.

The LEED standard was developed in 1995 by a group of environmentally minded building organizations in need of a consistent standard that might pierce what was then a cacophony of unverifiable claims that constituted the early green-building movement. The standard swiftly took hold, dictating how buildings are erected in San Francisco and nationwide. Even the U.S. Army has a program of constructing buildings according to LEED.

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