From Main Street to Green Street:

LEED certification for sustainable neighborhoods

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When people think about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) green building certification program, they think of cutting-edge technology, solar panels, or glass office buildings. While it's true that many LEED- certified buildings incorporate new technologies and modern designs, USGBC has a variety of programs that cater to old buildings, schools, and, now, entire neighborhoods. Whole neighborhoods can participate in green building programs?

Currie
Currie Barracks is the first LEED-ND pilot project in Calgary, Alberta. It will redevelop an entire section of a retired Canadian Forces base into a mixed-use community.

Yes! A new rating system, LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), is slated to be unveiled this summer. It is relevant to Main Street communities because it merges principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and green building into a standard for neighborhoods and awards points based on a community's location and environmentally responsible and sustainable-design components. LEED-ND recognizes many of the characteristics inherent in Main Street revitalization that affect the environment, local economy, and quality of life. Both new developments and established communities are eligible; the rating system can be applied to a single building, a Main Street community, or even suburban retrofits.

Understanding LEED-ND

The program, which has gone through pilot testing and public comment periods, consists of a partnership among the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the Congress for New Urbanism, and USGBC. It would recognize communities for their dense land use as well as access to jobs, housing, public transit, schools, parks, and public spaces while reducing the impact of the built environment and people's lifestyles on the natural environment and public health. The primary goal of LEED-ND is to create communities that have local businesses, local goods and services, local schools, local food production, and local recreation options so people can spend more time and money in their own neighborhoods.

Like other LEED programs, LEED-ND is a system of points, and the level of certification is based on the number of points earned. The current version has 110 points that can be earned across 50 topics in five categories. Platinum certification is offered for more than 80 points; gold for 60 to 79 points; and silver for 50 to 59 points. "Certification" status requires only 40 points. The categories and examples of project elements that would earn points include:

  • Smart Location and Linkage—brownfield redevelopment, wetland conservation;
  • Neighborhood Pattern and Design—community outreach, affordable housing, public transit;
  • Green Infrastructure and Buildings—stormwater management, heat island reduction, use of historic buildings;
  • Innovation and Design Process—individual projects; and
  • Regional Priority—corresponds to distinct regions.

Each category has a list of required and optional elements; different point values are associated with each. Within the pattern and design category, for example, compact development is required, while mixed uses can earn four points and walkable streets can earn eight points.

The categories are designed to encourage projects that reduce urban sprawl and environmental damage while creating economically sound and healthy communities. From reducing energy consumption to making a community accessible to people of all abilities and ages, the metrics used for LEED-ND will benefit many stakeholders as well as the entire community.

Since it is still under development, the final rating system may change.

Opportunities

LEED-ND is flexible; for example, small-town squares and big city high-rises both count as "neighborhoods" for certification. Projects can earn points for emphasizing regional variation by incorporating aspects of a community's unique character and existing assets into new developments. LEED-ND offers credits for reusing buildings and finding adaptive uses. Many Main Street revitalization initiatives would naturally earn points.

Projects may encourage improved and more flexible relationships with local regulatory and planning agencies as they have in Sarasota County and Gainesville, Florida, which offer fast-track permitting for projects participating in LEED and other green building certification programs. By collaborating with various agencies, LEED-ND projects could lead to new funding and incentives for economic development, such as zoning changes or discounted permit fees, which would help further Main Street goals.

State and national agencies also offer support for LEED-ND projects. In 2007, Illinois passed the Green Neighborhoods Grant Act, which provided state grants for LEED-ND projects. The District of Columbia, New Mexico, New York, Maryland, and Oregon provide tax incentives for incorporating LEED green building themes into new and existing buildings and communities. Other federal incentives, funded through the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (the "Stimulus Bill") will provide funding for transportation, energy efficiency, and other projects that incorporate LEED-ND objectives.

Preliminary results suggest that LEED-ND projects and their surrounding areas experience increased sales and tax revenues. In fact, a USGBC analysis indicates that an average family can cut annual expenses by $3,148 through decreased utility bills and transportation costs. Commercial tenants and owners of LEED-ND spaces also experience lower operational costs. Moreover, buildings that participate in LEED programs have experienced above-average values in real estate and rental markets, and this trend is expected to continue with LEED-ND buildings.

The LEED brand, and the amenities it ensures through certification, draws tenants, investors, and customers into the community. And, as with any other significant accomplishment, achieving LEED-ND status can bring your community positive public and media attention.

Challenges

While the LEED-ND program brings together the most current and sustainable theories in community development, urban planning, and green building, there are other factors to be considered when deciding whether LEED-ND is right for your Main Street district.

Cooperation among the project team, businesses, and the municipality is essential. A single LEED-ND project, if not developed in a community with committed stakeholders, high-quality infrastructure, and a common vision, won't get very far in achieving smart growth or sustainability goals. Some critics believe that the LEED-ND program detracts from community-based planning efforts and doesn't do enough to engage local stakeholders. To counter these concerns, all stakeholders must work together to ensure that revitalization efforts meet the needs and protect the character of the commercial district. A comprehensive, long-term revitalization strategy can include LEED projects but should not rely on them solely.

There can also be practical barriers to initiating LEED-ND projects. For example, the city may need to rezone a potential LEED-ND site to allow for mixed uses or high-density housing. In addition, some aspects of the LEED program may actually contradict established local planning or economic development policies. Traffic-calming efforts that would slow traffic and improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, for instance, may not conform to a city's existing policy of moving traffic more quickly or reducing congestion.

As with all LEED programs, the rating system itself can be a potential roadblock. Some applicants will find the rating system restrictive or inflexible − or inapplicable to local context. A common complaint about the LEED system is that the allocation of points to different themes or categories weights the program toward some actions and away from others. For example, LEED-ND offers three credits for using renewable energy technology but only one credit for using natural sunlight for heat.

Another requirement mandates at least one LEED-certified green building as part of the project, which can add management complexity and cost, as the registration fee is a few hundred dollars. For example, LEED for New Construction projects pursuing certification have LEED-related costs that average between 1 and 3 percent of total construction costs.

These practical concerns aside, it is important to remember that while LEED certification can encourage the initial production of healthier, more sustainable Main Streets, LEED status alone does not guarantee long-term environmental, economic, or social benefits. To maximize benefits, including cost savings and positive public relations for years to come, LEED projects should be part of a long-range community strategy that involves measuring and communicating success and engages a diverse group of stakeholders.

The Bottom Line

Communities and projects earning LEED-ND certification will receive public recognition for their environmental sustainability and community planning successes. The potential costs, however, must be carefully weighed against the expected benefits and the needs of local businesses and residents.

Whether or not LEED certification is pursued, business owners, municipalities, and Main Street programs can use the LEED-ND system for ideas and strategies to make their own goals and policies more sustainable. The principles of this rating system can help reshape Main Street communities into environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and financially profitable business districts.