This blog is designed to highlight the diversity of views and news stories on urban energy topics that appear daily in the media. They are intended to provoke discussions on how cultural, geographic, political, and institutional influences shape the way energy markets operate and energy policies are made in cities around the world.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
PUC's green dreams fade as budget sees red
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The murky fate of San Francisco's would-be greenest building shows that when it comes to issues like climate change, political leaders are willing to go only so far.
They happily announce new initiatives or tell people what to do. But when faced with large investments that might stimulate large-scale change, the rule of thumb is: Take a pass unless someone else picks up the tab.
At least that's the case with the headquarters the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission was all set to build in Civic Center - one short block from City Hall - a 12-story billboard of sustainable design with such innovative features as wind turbines on the roof and photovoltaic panels embedded in portions of the facade.
Despite a string of approvals last winter from the PUC and the Board of Supervisors, the proposal for 525 Golden Gate Ave. is in limbo. And if something does get built, don't look for the adventurous design features that attracted notice in the first place.
"Where we are right now is, we're reviewing whether this is an appropriate project to do with rate-payers' money," said Edward Harrington, who became general manager of the PUC in March after 17 years heading the city's chief accounting office.
So much for the big talk from the likes of Mayor Gavin Newsom, who touted 525 Golden Gate Ave. in May at a Congressional hearing on sustainable design, saying it would "lead the way" as an example of the city's quest "to demonstrate state-of-the-art green building technology."
The attention-getting elements were wind turbines not only on the roof, but in a vertical fin running up the northern face of the tower. The southern facade facing City Hall would be tattooed with photovoltaic cells.
Equally important, the building would consume as few resources as possible - exactly the message a utility should send. Extensive recycling and state-of-the-art equipment would hold water use to 5 gallons per person per day, a fifth the commercial norm. The target for energy consumption was 60 percent below state conservation mandates.
The budget was high - $188 million - but structured so that funding would come from the sale of surplus properties and rental savings after the agency's scattered employees were gathered in one building.
In other words, a big investment with a big payoff. This was to be a mark of what government can do, right now, to forge prominent public buildings that are sensitive to society's long-term need to conserve energy, water and other resources.
So what changed?
Newsom directed the PUC to hire Harrington after ousting his predecessor, Susan Leal. Instead of a high-profile statement, Harrington saw a pricey palace that would be a symbolic poke in the eye if and when the agency started hiking water rates to pay for work tied to upgrades of the water-delivery system. City bureaucrats and 525 Golden Gate architect Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz came back with a streamlined design that replaced the wind turbines on the roof with conventional solar panels while stripping the facade of its photovoltaic cells.
Out went the idea of a building serving as a laboratory for products that might eventually enter the mainstream. The focus was the bottom line.
Friday, Harrington said the end result might be a more modest green-tinted PUC building rising at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Polk Street. Or, the agency could purchase an existing structure and give it a green do-over.
But if these moves make sense from a budgetary perspective, they sacrifice the chance to create a genuinely innovative model of how cities can become more environmentally sustainable.
Compare this saga with another addition to the local landscape - one that actually exists.
The California Academy of Sciences will open Sept. 27 as perhaps the greenest large building in the nation, designed with expectations of a Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Head-turning details include a 2.5 acre "living roof" that will blossom year-round, thanks to a mix of nine native plant species.
At the Congressional hearing where Newsom talked about the PUC headquarters, he lauded the Academy as a city project that "will set a new standard of sustainable architectural design."
He's right: Even before it opens, the Academy has attracted international attention. Once you've stood on the roof amid this undulating meadow, you'll never look at a bare roof the same way again. You'll wonder why it's not being put to use as habitat, as water treatment, as an extra dimension to urban life.
But that roof is expensive, as are many of the other green flourishes. Private donors provided all but $152 million of the $488 million budget.
Rich people pay the bills; politicians take the bows.
The buildings that we erect speak volumes about our priorities. That's why the original idea of 525 Golden Gate was so exciting.
Yes, individuals need to recycle and turn off lights and leave the car at home as much as possible. But government must set an example as well. Sometimes it needs to lead by doing - and building. In a big way.