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The need for walkable, efficient communities (an example)

A neighborhood built to clean its own water and humble the car: a Seattle development is proving that more people can live in less space and reduce the neighborhood’s overall energy and water use.

faircompanies talked to High Point developer Tom Phillips about the natural drainage system protecting the salmon habitat, homes for asthma sufferers and New Urbanist principles and why cars aren’t a focus.

The old High Point neighborhood used to be considered one of the city’s most unattractive and poorly constructed developments.

In 2001 when the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) began planning to redevelop it, its water was a source of pollution for nearby Longfellow Creek- the city’s most productive salmon-spawning stream.

SHA project manager for High Point Tom Phillips decided to make this delicate watershed issue a focus, and turn it into a benefit for the community.

Today, the site mimics the way water is cleaned by nature. Tom showed us how the porous pavement, swales, native plants and man-made pond serve as the largest natural drainage system in the United States.

Porous pavement and slanting streets function like a mountain meadow

“I’ll show you how the natural drainage system works. It functions like a meadow: if this were a random mountain meadow the run-off from that meadow would be the same as the run-off we have here where we have about 15 liters per acre. In the design we were able to incorporate the drainage system into new urban principles.”

“Our model here is a porous pavement sidewalk and a grass swale because we have a lot of kids here, but then some of them are native plants which are doing pretty well after two years. The street slants so when it rains the water comes into the swale from the street, goes down into the soil where it is cleaned and there’s a pipe with holes in it 15 feet down.”

“So the water is cleaned by the earth and all that clean water eventually goes into Longfellow Creek, a salmon bearing creek, which is the priority for Seattle.”

“This porous pavement feels a lot like a regular sidewalk and looks a little like Rice Krispy treats, but the water goes right through it. In that way the water gets into the soil and in a lot of ways just goes into the aquifer. Porous pavement has been around for about 30 years: it’s actually cement without the fine.”

“There are climates in the country where it doesn’t work. I’m told it doesn’t work in Colorado because of the quick freezes that occur there. There will be more and more of this in communities around the country and around the world.”

A pond for natural drainage and as a recreational amenity

After the water flows through the porous pavement- and the state’s first porous pavement street- and the swales (composed of 3 feet of compost to resemble forest floors), the gently sloping streets carry the run-off to a community pond. Tom walked us to the pond at one side of the development where it is gradually released into Longfellow Creek.

There were people seated on the benches and strolling along the walking path that circles the pond, another example of the dual functionality of so many of the sustainable features here.

“When we started planning High Point six years ago the City of Seattle came to us and said that 10% of this water shed is High Point, is this 130 acres of High Point, so they wanted to have a natural drainage system and to clean the water before it went into the creek so we worked with them on how to do that.”

“They said they wanted to have a natural drainage system and the system would have a pond that collects the water that’s been cleaned, that’s gone through the filter of the earth, and then slowly released to Longfellow Creek.”

“And then when we were going to have a pond we said let’s make it an asset. Let’s make it beautiful. And lets do a trail around it. As a result we got this great amenity that makes this a much better place for people to live.”

New Urbanist principles at play

High Point’s developers and architects (Seattle’s Mithun) embraced the New Urbanist concepts of compact, dense and walkable communities in order to improve both quality of life for the residents, as well as lighten the community’s footprint on the environment.

The New High point is definitely denser. On the same 130 acres, the developers have more than doubled the number of units from the original 716 to the current 1600.

“We have about 15 units per acre where the surrounding neighborhood is only 7 units per acre. This is a much more efficient way to build and it uses fewer resources because we have attached units. They have shared walls so they won’t use as much heat for their houses.”

Building efficiency was important, but the developers were cautious not to make density look ugly. “We involved the neighbors and residents in helping to figure out what to do here.

They said, “’Make sure it doesn’t look like barracks. Make it look like big houses.’ We built multi-family housing that looked like big houses, but they don’t function like big houses. They are almost all townhouses and they aren’t that big. They’re more energy efficient because they share common walls and it’s much more efficient in how you build a townhouse or an attached unit than a single family home.”

While the average home size in the US is about 2400 square feet- a number that has been rising since the 1950s- at High Point the units are, on average, less than half that, but they don’t feel small. While most are town homes, they are softened by their design with elements like private porches that face shared open space, or pocket parks.

“In order to incorporate the density we have here we’ve created a lot of these pocket parks which makes it feel greener and more palatable to live in a denser community.”

A place where cars aren’t given priority

faircompanies: This neighborhood feels so calm. There’s something different about it. It’s almost as if it were from another era…

“I’ll tell you exactly what that is. Before WWII neighborhoods were built based on what they’d known for hundreds of years, but after WWII what happened when we were building neighborhoods is the car became dominant so what happened was we started putting garages out in front of houses, the streets got wider, intersections got really big and they started building neighborhoods for cars.”

“What this neighborhood is- a new version of urbanism- to go away from designing a neighborhood for cars, but go to one that really is about walking and walkability as opposed to getting cars through as fast as possible.”

The streets here are narrower and shorter to keep things denser and more walkable. The units aren’t built around garages, but rather there are smaller-than-average carports tucked away in the alleys behind the homes.

Cars are less of a focus, and instead walking has gained priority. There is already a brand new Seattle Public Library right next to the site and Tom pointed out a space under construction that should make it easier for residents to walk for daily errands.

“This is a mixed use site. This will be condominiums and a retail center. We’ll definitely have a coffee shop and probably another 12 to 15 thousand square feet of retail so the cleaner, we’re trying to get maybe a deli, a restaurant, some other things so people can walk to those services, they don’t have to get in their car.”

Why there won’t be a grocery store at High Point

To make the community nearly self-sufficent, Tom had hoped to lure a large grocery store to the development, but it proved harder than he’d anticipated.

“We worked actually for 4 years to get a 40,000 square foot grocery store to High Point and in that time the grocery industry was in turmoil. We had trouble finding a national chain and then local chains were very skittish about starting new stores and then Whole Foods announced they were going to be a mile away and then another chain announced they were going to be a mile away so then all the industry said they’re over-grocered in West Seattle because it’s really a peninsula.”

“Then we tried to figure out a way to subsidize a grocery store and we got something called New Market Tax Credits and we still couldn’t get a grocery store. So we said, okay, we’re going to do a great neighborhood commercial center here.”

“Have a coffee shop for people to come and gather and other neighborhood convenience stores, so it will be a draw, it will be a place for people to meet, it will be a place you don’t have to get in your car to go to, but we won’t be able to buy all the groceries you want at this one site.”

Appraising trees to save them

While the community is denser than the surrounding neighborhoods, it also has plenty of green space. There are 21 acres of parks and lots of trees- about 2,500 were added to the site, but not all of them are new. While nearly everything in the area was leveled for reconstruction, the developers saved over 100 large trees by putting a monetary value on them- for a total of $1.5 million- and fining those who did them damage. Tom took us to Phase II of the site that was currently under construction and showed us how trees are being protected.

“One of the things that I think is dramatic are the trees and our effort to save the trees in the construction zone. And what we do is we actually have each tree appraised because if the contractor damages the root zone or damages the tree they’re subject to a fine. In this case, this is a 70,000 dollar Red Oak. So we very carefully monitor what happens to these trees. It creates a challenge for us because the electrical conduits in the development actually have to go under this critical root zone. It causes a problem the contractors aren’t used to doing that.”

faircompanies: What do they normally do?

“They chop down the trees and then you don’t have to go around them.”

“Saving the trees just gives it. All the trees are from 1942 and 1943. Saving the trees is the historic fabric for this place. It’s remarkable what it does to it. It gives the feeling that it’s been here for a long time. And it’s well worth it to save as many as we did.”

Chemical and sprinkler free landscaping

The rest of the landscaping is mostly native plants, which has eliminated the need for pesticides and should soon render the sprinklers obsolete.

“For the first two years we need to irrigate, but after that we shouldn’t have to irrigate at all. There will be a monitoring device here that will test the water and make sure the system works.”

“We don’t use herbicides and pesticides in maintaining this, but one of the ways to keep weeds out is to plant it very thickly. We heavily planted the native vegetation and basically beat weeds at their game.”

“We have the lawn because we have so many kids here, but there are green ways to maintain the law. We aerate it and mulch mow it. We don’t catch the grass when we mow it; we just leave the cut grass and it’s used to fertilize it.”

Breathe Easy homes

There are some more basic green building features here, such as homes that meet Built Green Standards, Energy Star appliances for all the rental units and high-efficiency hydronic heating systems for all homes.

Indoor air quality is also a focus here- all the rental units were painted with low-VOC paints- but there are 35 Breathe Easy homes that were created to even higher standards and have been rented to low-income families with children suffering from asthma.

“We’ve built 35 houses, of these rental homes, that we call Breathe Easy homes. And those are for families where children have asthma. And we’ve done extra features in those houses to make them even more sustainable and more healthy.”

“We have the University of Washington and the Department of Health monitoring those families so we’ll see what effect it’s had in terms of the number of emergency room visits for people with asthma. Anecdotally, it’s looking really good, people are really excited about it. It’s making people’s lives tolerable. Mothers had to stay home to take care of their kids and all of a sudden their kids move in and their life is normal.”

“We’re going to build another 25 in the next phase so we’ll have 60 Breathe Easy homes and it will give us a big enough sample to see what difference that makes, whether it pays off. It was only about 5600 dollars per house over and above what we normally have done and the most important part of those Breathe Easy homes is a filter system in the attic to clean the air and circulate new air frequently through the house.”

Why there is just one solar hot water heater here

Tom showed us the one home with a solar hot water heater. It’s on the model unit. Not one system was sold to a resident.

“Solar hot water heaters are an option for the people who move into this community, but it didn’t make sense for people after checking out the price of gas vs. the hot water heater. It boiled down that this isn’t a million dollar home community and the people who buy here are very conscious of the cost of this hot water heater which was about 6-$8,000 and it wasn’t worth it for them to by one.”

“Each micro climate is different in terms of what you do to make it Green. Here, in Seattle, it makes sense to really insulate a house and to have high quality windows because the sun doesn’t shine that much.”

“In the summer photovoltaics would make a lot of sense, but economics don’t work here in the Northwest for photovoltaics as much as an R-38 in the ceiling and R-24 in the walls and an insulated slab and then you aren’t going to use as much gas or electricity to heat your unit. And do things like individual controls in each unit and that type of thing.”

“An interesting thing that our builders have realized about putting green features in their houses is if in a couple of years they decide to sell they assume that that will be what’s expected of the market. So it’s worth it to pay more money now to get those features because it will really help you in the appreciation of the house. It’s like buy an accord vs. buying an SUV. You know in a few years it will hold its value.”

One Planet Living (OPL) Communities:

One Planet Living is a response to the reality that “if everyone in the world lived like the average North American we would need 5 planets to live on” (like the average European, we would need 3). Developed by BioRegional and the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), OPL is a global initiative based on 10 principles of sustainability: zero carbon, zero waste, sustainable transport, local and sustainable materials, local and sustainable food, sustainable water, natural habitats and wildlife, culture and heritage, equity and fairtrade, health and happiness.

Villages Going Carbon Neutral:

Other green communities: (LEED for Neighborhood Development –LEED-ND– Pilot Projects).

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