Monday, July 28, 2008 | As board director, advocacy committee chair and immediate past president of the United States Green Building Council’s (USGBC) San Diego Chapter, I recently had the opportunity to review the design elements for Westfield’s renovation of the UTC shopping center in University City.

Westfield has developed a comprehensive approach to sustainable development in the context of an urban infill revitalization that serves as a model for San Diego and the rest of the country. The general public should be aware of the enhanced environmental and economic benefits associated with this particular project that is up for vote at the City Council’s meeting July 29.

We all read reports about projects that claim to be “environmentally friendly.” While it is heartening that the “green” movement has gained traction in the development industry, there is still a tendency of some marketers to “brand” projects as green rather than actually adhering to a set of industry recognized best practice environmental principles to guide responsible development.

Therefore, I was quite pleased to see that Westfield’s commitment to green building goes beyond catchy slogans and fancy brochures printed on recycled paper.

After careful consideration, the USGBC awarded the project a stage 1 Gold level LEED-ND (Neighborhood Development) approval, an exceptional achievement. This rating system integrates the principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and green building into the first national program for neighborhood design. LEED-ND rates the location and design of complex projects like UTC on a number of factors including sustainable site characteristics, energy efficiency, water savings, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that the development’s location, program and design meet accepted high levels of environmentally responsible and sustainable development. The New UTC is the first shopping center and only the fourth project of any kind in the country to be approved under this pilot program for Neighborhood Development.

By participating in the LEED-ND pilot program, Westfield has raised the bar for other developments to start thinking green from the earliest point in the evaluation and design process. The USGBC supports their effort to move towards a more sustainable way of thinking and building.

So, what makes UTC different?

First of all, the project includes a groundbreaking water conservation system that takes on increased significance since Governor Schwarzenegger’s recent declaration of drought. The new center will place no increased demands on the city’s fresh water supply. Thus, even though the project will increase the current retail square-footage by 75 percent and add 250 new residential units, there will be no net increase in fresh water usage in the city.

This will be accomplished by converting all irrigation from fresh water to reclaimed water and making maximum use of water-saving plumbing fixtures. While the overall project expansion will require some additional water (approximately 66 acre-feet per year over current usage) when completed, that overage will be offset by Westfield’s agreement to connect public facilities off-site that currently use fresh water for irrigation to the city’s reclaimed water system. This creative solution between Westfield and the city results in a project that will add no additional demands on the region’s potable water supply, while taking advantage of the city’s underutilized reclaimed water supply.

Westfield has also committed to pursuing solar energy at the New UTC. The company is currently working on a 100 kilowatt system on top of the ice rink that would be in service by the end of the year. And on a larger scale, Westfield recently announced a potential partnership with SDG&E that could result in up to 10 acres of photovoltaic panels atop future parking garages, generating up to two megawatts of power, or enough to serve more than 1,000 homes.

However, to gain a full appreciation of the new project’s green impact, it’s important to understand the physical constraints and historical impact of the previous approaches to urban planning when it was first built. UTC was designed 30 years ago using typical land-use principles of the 1970s. Its architecture is a low-intensity design isolated by a massive parking lot, and the surrounding suburban neighborhood employs extra-large “super blocks” that cater exclusively to automobile travel. This auto-centric combination virtually necessitates that everyone who wants to visit the center must drive there.

To help correct this, Westfield has been working with the community and San Diego city leaders to craft a vision for a cutting-edge, smart-growth center that provides shopping, dining, entertainment, housing and transit opportunities all on one site. This represents a foundational shift in how we view land-use and growth, yet reflects best practices for connections, convenience and community while simultaneously addressing resource efficiency and minimized environmental footprints.

At the New UTC, homes will be placed near employment, shopping and entertainment options, and everything is linked by a transit center that will accommodate more buses, a local shuttle and a future trolley or bus-rapid transit link. Further, the project’s connection to the surrounding community will be enhanced by wide sidewalks and bike lanes. The center itself will reach out to these corridors so pedestrians don’t have to walk through a busy parking lot to get to the stores and other facilities.

People will be able to easily and safely access the center by foot or bicycle, giving them less reason to drive there, thus helping to relieve congestion on the roadways. In addition, proposed landscaping, benches, picnic tables and lighting along the Torrey Trail area will offer an inviting experience for visitors, workers and residents alike.

There are indeed numerous green elements of this project that are important to the region. Of great value here is the fact that it melds the key mix of smart growth, affordable housing and green building together in one community-desired facility modernization. Such projects have been shown to enjoy a vitality and sense of community that has been central to their success.

Further, the proposed project supports the city’s newly adopted General Plan and in particular it’s Conservation Element. The Westfield UTC project will be an excellent beginning to fulfill the city’s goals for this type of smart growth

Beyond these notable improvements, Westfield has committed to dozens of other sustainability measures for its project, such as cool roofing, exceeding energy efficiency requirements for the buildings, and the use of recycled, recyclable and sustainably-harvested building materials in construction.

Sustainability encompasses virtually every aspect of the design, development and construction process, as well as ongoing building operations. Westfield has taken a comprehensive approach to being green with its plans for UTC and the USGBC San Diego Chapter welcomes it’s efforts. Above all, this is a signature green revitalization project for the region.

The San Diego Planning Commission overwhelmingly approved Westfield’s plan on June 12. The local chapter of the USGBC urges the City Council to follow suit. A “yes” vote will have a profoundly positive effect on the future of University City and provide an important model for green, sustainable, transformational developments across the country.

Stephen L. Kapp is a board director and immediate past president of the San Diego Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. You can contact him at info@usgbc-sd.org. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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